Col. Gregory Miller, Deputy Group Commander for the 80th Flying Training Wing, talks about the efforts to increase the number of pilots training at Sheppard Air Force Base to help address a pilot shortage Air Force-wide.
Air Force combat pilots are accustomed to taking to the skies and fending off foes who threaten not only them, but the United States.
But there are new foes, so to speak, that challenge the most talented of combat jet fighter pilots.The Air Force isn’t necessarily powerless against them, but find it a challenge to keep the ranks of their wartime aviators strapped into fourth- and fifth-generation jets. It’s a confrontation the Air Force is taking on head first to make sure the dedicated aerial fighting force continues to place soar to regions at a moment’s notice to protect the United States, its allies and its interests.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said time and again in August the service is facing a fighter pilot crisis.
Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James said in a joint opinion piece: “The Air Force has faced fighter pilot shortages before – often related to cyclical hiring peaks in the private sector – but this one has the potential to be more damaging. After 25 years of continuous combat, the Air Force is as busy as we have ever been, but we are also smaller than we have ever been. Consequently, we have less margin for error when it comes to filling our cockpits and addressing personnel shortages. Unlike many private-sector companies, which can fill vacancies by simply tapping an experienced and flexible labor pool, the military has to grow its own set of skilled specialists, and that can take years.”
Growing that talent begins at places like Sheppard Air Force Base, which in and of itself has its own set of unique circumstances. As with the technical training side of the base’s house, the 80th Flying Training Wing, too, has seen a reduction in the number of airmen coming through for pilot training. But the participation of NATO partners in the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program – the only internationally manned and operated training unit of its kind – presents challenges that other pilot training programs at Vance, Laughlin and Columbus Air Force bases don’t face.
“As opposed to other based that train for the full spectrum of our air support that we give to the Air Force and all the other forces, we are focused on trying to provide fighter pilots,” said 80th Operations Group Deputy Commander Col. Gregory “Doc” Miller. “That is where our focus lies and that’s what our training is focused on – trying to create fighter pilots.”
Miller said the Air Force is about 700 fighter pilots short of what it needs to adequately perform its missions, and that figure could rise to 1,000. The two primary reasons for the shortage are opportunities in the civilian sector for the highly-trained aviators, and morale issues that stem from the service being at war since the early 1990s and the First Gulf War.
The Air Force has had a presence in the region since that time as fighters patrolled no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.
Miller said there is nothing the Air Force can do about an airline industry that also faces a pilot shortage as many senior pilots near the mandatory age of retirement, but the service has increased the numbers of pilots it will train as well as its annual flying bonus from $25,000 to $35,000.
That has affected the number of pilots going through Sheppard’s training program. According to figures provided by Sheppard, 218 students graduated from the program in FY 2016. More than 300 will graduate by the end of the current fiscal year. Part of that is because of the number of students beginning and ending their training at Sheppard, but the other part is students from Vance, Laughlin and Columbus transferring to Sheppard before their advanced training in the T-38C Talon to complete their training here.
Pilots attending the 80th’s Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course has increased 45 percent this year.
“We are running hard,” Miller said. “That’s why I say we have approached and probably met our maximum that we can train right now.”
An ever-moving variable in the equation, the colonel said, is the number of students NATO partners send over. He said the committee that oversees the training program works throughout the year to ensure ENJJPT and each partner country is getting the most out of the program, but the numbers can fluctuate.
Miller said although the training tempo might have increased within the past year, safety will always remain the priority over timelines and graduation dates.
“I don’t want them worrying about timelines,” he said. “I want them worrying about creating the pilots that we need for the Air Force in the safest manner that we can.”