JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas – As COVID-19 travel restrictions ease around the world, commercial airlines are looking to hire more pilots. Air Force officials want to remind active-duty pilots leaving the Air Force for the civilian aviation industry that such a move doesn’t have to end their service to their country.
Air Force Recruiting Service’s top recruiter said keeping trained pilots in uniform is one of the Air Force’s top priorities. AFRS is a Total Force recruiting enterprise charged with finding Airmen and civilians to serve full or part time, in or out of uniform.
“COVID tipped the balances for many Airmen deciding whether to stay in the Air Force,” said Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, AFRS commander. “Now that the country is opening up, Airmen who wanted to hit the pause button on active duty will consider moving out with their separation plans. For those who do, we want to keep them on the team and benefit from their training and talent in the Guard or Reserve. With our nation’s pilot shortage, keeping our world-class aviators flying for our Total Force is critical.”
The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard allow former active-duty pilots to continue their military service while giving them supplemental income and benefits, should the airline industry experience slow-downs or set-backs in the future.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many airline pilots were furloughed as the industry came to a screeching halt. Commercial pilots serving in an Air Reserve Component were able to stay employed, work toward a retirement and continue receiving benefits.
“The nature of the airline industry is cyclical,” said Brig Gen. Derin Durham, Air Force Reserve Command’s director of Air, Space and Information Operations. “I have seen it swing many times, with wars, terrorist attacks, economic downturns and now, pandemics. Many factors can affect the industry. The one constant for many of these airline pilots is the Guard or Reserve. We are able to keep them whole, pay bills and weather the storm until things turn around.”
The Reserve Components are eager to bring in these fully-qualified Airmen.
“Retaining trained Airmen is the primary reason for the ARC’s existence,” Durham said. “The nation has invested millions of dollars in training these great Americans to protect and defend our way of life. As a Reserve Component member, that training continues to be honed and exercised, ready in order to guarantee that war fighting capability and strategic depth when called upon.”
The general said about 75% of Airmen who switch to the Reserve after their active-duty tour continue serving until they earn a Reserve retirement. Many stay until they reach their mandatory retirement age of 60.
“We strive to make Reserve service something our members love to do,” he said. “They do it for the mission, the people and the satisfaction of knowing they are still making a contribution to their country.”
For the Reserve and Guard, gaining pilots from active duty not only brings in a wealth of knowledge and experience, it also saves total Air Force dollars on training costs and pilot training seats.
“Due to pilot training capacity limitations, we are unable to train the number of pilots we need to meet readiness requirements,” said Col. Eugene Smith, 367th Recruiting Group commander. “Capturing rated pilots from active duty is critical to fill Air Force Reserve flying unit vacancies. An additional benefit is that the majority of Reserve pilots are also pilots in the civilian world. The networking opportunities are vast for future growth as they transition into civilian life.”
Retaining pilots is also critical to military readiness and preparedness.
“The Air National Guard is focused on ensuring pilots remain in the Total Force,” said Col. Nashid Salahuddin, ANG Recruiting and Retention Division chief. “If pilots decide to leave active duty to pursue airline positions, the ANG or Air Force Reserve are the perfect way for them to continue serving part time. It’s critically important to the ANG and the Air Force that we retain pilots in the Total Force. From a readiness perspective, if we maintain this talent, regardless of which component they’re in, they’re accessible for our wartime mission.”
The colonel said that over the past 12 months, ANG pilot manning has gone from 80% to 82%.
“Although we’ve made progress, we need to aggressively bring in new talent and retain existing talent,” he said. “If there’s an increase in the number of active-duty pilots separating to accept full-time positions with the airlines, it presents an opportunity for them to join the Air National Guard as part-time members.”
The Guard has designated recruiters to work with rated officers coming off active duty.
“ANG In-Service Recruiting has created a team of four ISRs who specifically field inquiries for rated officers,” Salahuddin said. “They will send special messaging to rated members separating six to 12 months out, and then pass them to this specific team of ISRs to highlight the benefits of maintaining affiliation and walk them through the process from beginning to accession into the ANG.”
For the Reserve, pilot manning is currently around 95%, said Douglas Miller, AFRC Operations Resource Division chief.
“We work with the Air Force Personnel Center and get a monthly list of aircrew, officer and enlisted who are separating active duty,” Miller said. “I have a pilot IMA (individual mobilization augmentee) who personally makes contact with each individual to discuss Reserve opportunities.”
He said recent policy changes have made it more difficult to attract pilots leaving active duty.
“The increase in the Undergraduate Pilot Training service commitment from six-to-eight years to eight-to-10 years has reduced the time active-duty separations spend in AFRC, and created a two-year period when very few pilots were able to separate and affiliate,” Miller said. “In addition, the 2011 Budget Control Act significantly reduced active-duty pilot production from 2013 through 2017.”
Miller said starting in 2023, pilots will have a 10-year active-duty service commitment, which will result in reduced affiliations with AFRC.
“This is requiring us to increase UPT graduates and give them experience, which comes with a significant cost to AFRC,” Miller said.
The pandemic has created some unique challenges for the Air Force in the area of recruiting and retention. A large number of Airmen who planned to retire or leave the military decided to stay in during these uncertain times.
“While we have not been able to recruit many from the active component, those members we have are choosing to stay for the benefits the Reserve component can offer,” Durham said. “We depend on Airmen separating from the active component to fill our ranks. Every retention action the active duty implements to keep pilots longer, requires the Guard and Reserve to hire new, untrained people and that comes with a very expensive training bill. We are not designed to support that training construct.”
Smith pointed out several advantages for those considering continuing their service in the Reserve.
“Joining the Reserve is a great way to network, continue with the camaraderie you love, get numerous great benefits and continue serving your country,” he said. “Why do people serve in the Reserve? To continue to fulfill their oath to support and defend the Constitution, a sense of purpose, and to share commitment, mutual loyalty and group trust.”
Salahuddin believes giving Airmen flexibility will strengthen the Total Force moving forward.
“The pilot shortage is not just an active duty or ANG issue, it’s a Total Force issue,” he said. “Going forward, we need to continue to focus on presenting pilots, and Airmen in all career fields, with multiple ways to serve, whether full time on active duty or part time in the Guard or Reserve.”