"Do you really want to know what this country needs?" an Air Force fighter pilot in San Diego asked his kid brother."It's not the likes of you registering for the draft. It's the kind of benefits and pay which would make me reconsider my own decision to leave the service and work for an airline!"
All over the United States, both active and reserve professionals in the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps are voicing similar sentiments, while Congress and the administration wrangle over the money needed to halt the loss to private industry.
The Air Force says it will have 2,400 fewer pilots than it needs this year, and a shortage of 4,000 by 1984 unless pay and allowances are substantially raised.
According to Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy is performing feats of prestidigitation to keep essential flight and surface operations running in the face of its personnel drain.
"The adverse trends in retention of our key supervisory talent -- our most experienced middle-grade leaders -- are fast becoming the critical constraint on the size, capability, and readiness of the Navy," Admiral Hayward told a congressional committee recently.
At the US Merchant MArine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., a federal academy that commissions ensigns in the US Naval Reserves as well as third mates for the merchant marine, Midshipman Patricia Farrell of New City, N.Y., one of about 75 women in the academy's current enrollment of 1,100, summed up why she sought the highly competitive entry to the institution: "I couldn't afford to attend a big civilian university. But I wanted a career of travel, and the starting pay right now for a third mate in the merchant marine is about $25,000 a year.I couldn't beat that in one of the armed services, and I have a chance for active Navy service later, anyway, if I want it.'
Ex-Air Force pilot John Cross of Fort Smith, Ark., now flying part-time for the Air National Guard and full-time for an airline, wrote in a letter to the editor of Air Force magazine an answer to contentions that airline opportunities for pilots are not as ideal as sometimes depicted:
"No matter how rosy or bleak the airline picture is, the reason many highly qualified personnel are leaving the Air Force today is dissatisfaction. The airlines are merely a means to an end; were it not for them, the people would go elsewhere. . . .
"I feel retainability would be substantially increased by giving the individual some control over his destiny. . . . Allow Air Force men or women to choose their base, time there, and job -- tempered by the needs of the service."
An Air Force pilot with captain's bars and eight years of service now earns $ 1,569.60 a month base pay, plus flight pay of $245 a month and quarters and subsistence allowances if he has a family -- totaling about another $400 monthly. This is several hundred dollars less than an airline would pay.
"One problem," explained an Air Force pay analyst, "in keeping older men in the service is that flight pay rises from a low of $100 a month [for a pilot with no more than two years' experience, who is earning base pay of only $827.40 a month] to a ceiling of $245 per month after six years. After 18 years, if the pilot stays in the service, his flight pay declines until it is zero at 25 years. "Navy flight pay scales are similar.
On Feb. 22, a House manpower subcommittee is to have hearings on the so-called Warner-Nunn amendment, the most comprehensive effort yet to raise service pay and benefits. The package, sponsored by Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and John Warner (R) of Virginia, passed the Senate by a 46-to-41 vote Feb. 4 instead of a 3.4 percent across-the-board pay rise proposed by Sens. William Armstrong (R) of Colorado and Spark Matsunaga (D) of Hawaii.
The Warner-Nunn provisions, which would cost $486 million from Jan. 1-Oct. 1, 1980, include:
* Variable housing allowances for personnel living off-base, to take care of high-cost rentals in areas like Washington, D.C., and the West Coast.
* Reimbursement for moving costs would be raised from the present 10 cents a mile to 18.5 cents a mile (civil service employees already receive substantially more than service personnel).
* A 25 percent pay hike for Navy personnel stationed aboard ship, increasing a sea-pay rise already enacted into law but not yet in force.
* An increase in special pay for aircraft crew members, totaling $38 million in fiscal year 1980.
* Stretching from 10 to 15 years the time during which personnel could receive existing reenlistment bonuses, costing $11 million in fiscal 1980.
* A 10 percent rise in subsistence allowances for personnel not fed on base, costing $87 million in fiscal 1980.