Fly, Fly Away
The U.S. military’s best pilots - trained at a cost of millions to taxpayers - are leaving in droves for high-paying airline jobs. An alarmed Pentagon can’t seem to stem the exodus, even with $110,000 bonuses.
Two years ago, when the Air Force was offering nine-year flying veterans $60,000 to sign up for five more years, six out of 10 took the bonus and stayed. Today, with the bonus nearly doubled, fewer than three pilots in 10 are accepting.
Nearly all who decline the bonus leave the military within two years.
“If pilot retention gets any worse, it may directly impact the readiness of our combat units,” said Lt. Gen. Michael McGinty, the Air Force personnel chief.
The Air Force says that 775 pilots left in the first five months of the 1998 fiscal year that began Oct. 1 - already more than the 632 who left in all of 1997.
This year, the Air Force anticipates it will be 835 pilots short of its requirement for 14,000. By 2002, it predicts the “pilot gap” will more than double.
Pilot departures also are sweeping the Navy. This year, according to the Pentagon, only 10 percent of eligible carrier pilots - 27 out of 261 - have decided to take bonuses and stay.
“Should present trends continue, there would be a significant shortage of pilots in the Navy within two years,” said Francis Rush Jr., head of Pentagon force management policy.
Among the reasons pilots cite for leaving are frustration over repeated foreign assignments, missions that don’t require pilots to exercise combat skills and a difficult promotion track.
F-16 pilot Jim Keefe experienced that disenchantment when, just home from three months in the Saudi desert in 1996, he got his next assignment: another year in a desert, training Egyptian combat pilots.
“That was basically the last straw,” Keefe said. “I’d just got back from the desert. They told me, ‘We’ve got a one-year remote to Egypt.”’
Today, Keefe flies for United Air Lines and keeps his hand in the military flying for the District of Columbia Air National Guard.
Military pilots who leave after nine years get no pension and take a sharp temporary pay cut when they go to an airline. Then their salaries rise sharply, quickly exceeding $100,000 and even $150,000.
With bonuses and hazardous-duty pay, a military pilot could, for a few years, earn a salary approaching $90,000. Over a 20-year career, however, an Air Force pilot averages $66,000 a year, compared with $111,000 for an airline pilot, according to the Air Force.
Again and again, pilots speak with a mixture of disgust and foreboding of deployments to Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert, where thousands of pilots and maintenance crews live in a tent city with summer temperatures that can reach 120 degrees.
Rather than allow cockpits to go empty, the Air Force is talking about moving more senior officers out of desk jobs and back into the air.
The Air Force estimates the 14 major airlines will hire 3,500 new pilots this year and that annual hiring will remain above 2,000 into the next century. The airlines could hire every single military retiree and still have plenty of jobs left to fill.
The military has always been a major source of new pilots for the airlines, accounting for as many as three quarters in the late 1980s.
When Air Force and Navy pilots leave, they take with them an average of $5.9 million in training expenses; elite fighter pilots can require more than $20 million in training over nine years, according to the U.S. Air Combat Command.
Bigger bonuses won’t solve the problem, according to Steve Bojack, a former Air Force captain. “No matter how much money they offer you, money isn’t the bottom line of why people are leaving,” he said.
An F-16 pilot, Bojack was deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base five weeks after his wife gave birth to their first child in 1994. When he returned from the desert, Bojack was told his next assignment was a year in Korea away from his family.
Bojack is now a copilot for the Delta Shuttle that flies between Washington and New York. Keefe and Bojack both fly for the D.C. Air National Guard.
“I don’t know how to say this politically correct, but at the airlines, there’s not a lot of kissing up you have to do to get promoted,” Keefe said. “They treat you well.”
Graphic: Pilot shortage