By Kent Johnson – February 26, 2021
Tucked down deep within the massive $1.4 trillion FY21 omnibus appropriations bill – the colossal spending law signed in the waning hours of 2020 – was an important section addressing the lingering shortage of pilots in the U.S. Air Force. The language, which appeared in the explanatory statement for the defense portion of the bill, directs the U.S. Air Force to brief the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on the pilot shortage: The briefing shall, at a minimum, include an update on the development of the Service’s strategic plan to address the shortage, the metrics used to measure the effectiveness of all lines of effort, data comparing actual pilot production and monthly targets for each phase of training for all tracks, information on the impact of trainer aircraft maintenance and associated logistics efforts impacting the pilot training shortage to include aircraft availability rates for each platform, simulator usage and availability data, pilot retention metrics, and a comprehensive summary of all appropriated funds expended to date for each line of effort aimed at addressing the pilot shortfall.
It is more than timely that Congress takes a hard look at this problem and works in a focused manner to understand and address all of the pilot shortage’s contributing factors. This is called the “total package approach,” analyzing all components necessary to ensure a fully functional aircraft and well-trained maintainers and aircrew. This approach is especially critical as we continue to rebuild, modernize and recalibrate our military to address the conventional challenges posed by peer and near-peer competitors in multiple parts of the globe – challenges that will require significant degrees of airpower and pilots for all types of aircraft.
In truth, this is an issue that the U.S. Air Force has been wrangling with for quite some time, and multiple voices – from think tanks to defense commentators in media, to policy-makers and even aircrew and pilots – have been warning us about. Of course, like any problem, the pilot shortage is not due to a single thing. Multiple elements have combined – everything from retention issues and deployment burnout to competition from a healthy private sector – culminating in the shortage and magnifying its impacts.
However, what is notable in the FY21 bill language – and which is not often highlighted as a contributing factor but vital to recognize – is the role of trainer aircraft maintenance. In short, this is an issue that Congress and the U.S. Air Force should take a very hard look at and fix – for two closely-related reasons: Number One – you don’t have pilots without training, and Number Two – you don’t have training without adequate numbers of aircraft that are operationally ready for flight.