LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, VA. – At age 31, Capt. Glen Gentile has a job that a lot of Americans fantasize about. An Air Force fighter pilot, he spends his days pushing his F-15 Eagle to the edge of its supersonic capability.
But while Gentile enjoys the excitement of speeding through the skies faster than sound, he and others like him have begun to tire of the demands of leadership in the post-Cold War world.
Repeated deployments in places like Bosnia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are wearing, and commercial airlines are recruiting growing numbers of military pilots with promises of easier schedules, stable work and pay that can more than double their service salaries.
The Pentagon is worried about that trend — the loss of hundreds of its best warriors, the highly trained pilots who form the cutting edge of America’s military capability.
At the heart of the problem are the challenges facing pilots in the new, slimmed-down military. Even flyers who served in the Vietnam War say the demands on pilots today may exceed any era in military aviation.
“The Air Force is more of an expeditionary air force now,” said Maj. Joe Roeder, who monitors pilot retention for the Air Force. “We are constantly deploying. We were not like that during the Cold War. We have 34 percent fewer people and 66 percent less forward basing, but we are deployed overseas four times as much as we were before the Cold War started.”
In recent years, Air Force pilots have resigned in alarming numbers. In 1996, 498 pilots left. So far in 1997, 626 pilots have joined them. Worse, there is no indication that the trend will slow.
In 1994, 81 percent of the eligible pilots signed up for the bonuses offered to those who agree after their nine-year term of service to stay in the Air Force for an extra six years. So far in 1997, only 32 percent have signed on for additional duty, and the Air Force is not confident that that number will increase by Jan. 1.
The exodus is particularly alarming because it comes at a time when the Pentagon has cut fighter wings and downsized its forces to reflect the end of the Cold War.
The overall size of the Air Force has been trimmed from 607,000 active personnel to 381,000. Since 1989, the number of air bases overseas is down from 37 to 13.
Yet the number of international operations involving the Air Force has increased in recent years, leaving many in Congress to complain that the problems encountered by pilots can be resolved only at the White House.
“I think there are a lot of reasons for this problem,” said Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, a former Air Force fighter pilot who spent seven years in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp. “But I think the No. 1 problem is the president. He has sent our troops all over the world and is over-committing our forces.” Pentagon officials say competition from the major airlines has also been a critical factor. The airlines view the military as fertile hunting ground for top- quality pilots with thousands of flight hours under their belts.
Industry experts predict that with a coming global market expansion and the increasing retirement of Vietnam-era pilots now flying for the airlines, the Pentagon and airlines could be in a dogfight for pilots.
Over the next seven years, the major airlines are expected to hire an average of about 2,400 pilots a year.
“There were more pilots hired last year than ever before, and there will be more pilots hired than that this year,” said Kit Darby, the president of Air Inc., an Atlanta company that publishes information on pilot hiring trends.
To help compete with the airlines, the Pentagon has asked Congress to raise from $12,000 to $25,000 the annual bonus given to pilots who remain in the service for an extra six years.
The bonuses could leave returning pilots earning as much as $75,000 to $80,000 annually for the duration of the six-year stay, a total of as much as $480,000. Were those same pilots to leave for an airline, they would earn, on average, about $300,000 in that same six-year span.
But airline pilots earn substantially more over the long haul. If an Air Force pilot leaves at age 30 to join an airline, he would take about a $20,000 annual pay cut from his $50,000 job. By the time he had been out 10 years, he would be earning, on average, about $150,000 a year. By the time he was out 20 years, he would bring home as much as $190,000 a year under the current pay scale used by airlines, according to data from the Air Force.
“The Air Force knows we cannot compete monetarily with the airlines, but we are addressing a lot of the things that we can control,” Roeder said.
The Air Force has begun to give all its personnel more time off after lengthy assignments abroad. For example, a 90-day stay in Bosnia will now earn a two-week vacation upon return. A 45-day deployment will result in a week off.
Roeder said the Air Force also plans to cut back on joint operations with the Army, Navy and Marines and is instituting newer methods of inspecting aircraft to ease the burden on its pilots and crews.
Copyright Austin American Statesman Aug 30, 1997