Air Force's Pressing Mission: Keep More Pilots on Board

Robust commercial airline industry offers twice the money - and no trips to Bosnia.

Copilot David Dickinsongrips the yoke so tightly his knuckles turn white.

"Ease up a little, drop it in gently," urges Maj. Kent Fuller, the pilot of the AWACS plane nearing the landing strip at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City.

The Boeing 707 with the saucer-shaped radar unit on top hits the runway, a little shaky, and screeches to a halt just short of the end. "A little too fast," Major Fuller tells his copilot.

Fuller, with 20 years of Air Force experience under his belt, retired from the military just 11 days after this May 29 mission to begin flying for a commercial airline. He and his young co-pilot, with three years' air experience, exemplify a vexing problem facing the Air Force today: how to keep the pilots it spends millions of dollars and hours to train for combat.

The exodus of pilots is a growing problem for the Air Force - and one that top brass expects to get worse before it gets better.

As the Air Force celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, it doesn't help pilot-recruiting efforts that five military planes have crashed in the past six days in unrelated accidents. (Two, an F-117A stealth fighter and a C-141 cargo plane, were Air Force craft.) On Wednesday, Defense Secretary William Cohen called for a 24-hour stand-down of all training flights to review safety procedures.

EVEN if the crashes turn out not be the result of pilot error, they are bound to compound personnel problems.

"They [military officials] are having some real readiness problems," says Kit Darby of Air Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting firm for commercial pilots. "The [pilots] who stay get dumped on; they have to fly a lot more."

Gen. Richard Hawley, commander of Air Combat Command, is forthright about the Air Force's difficulties retaining its pilots.

He says pilots, whom the Air Force considers to be completely trained after nine years of service and a $5.9 million investment, are offered a bonus of $60,000 spread over five years if they re-enlist.

"A couple of years ago, pilots who became eligible for that bonus were accepting it at better than a 70 percent rate," General Hawley says. "They are currently accepting that bonus at barely a 30 percent rate."

Nearly 500 pilots left in 1996, and about 650 have left so far this year. The Air Force predicts it will be short 360 pilots in fiscal year 1998, which begins Oct. 1; 714 pilots by 1999; and 773 by 2000.

One reason is the robust commercial aviation industry. Last year, airlines hired 10,600 pilots. They are expected to hire 12,000 pilots this year, with at least 40 percent of them coming from the military, says Mr. Darby, a former military pilot who now flies for United Airlines. The pay is considerably better, too. After nine years of military service, pilots make about $46,000 a year (pre-bonus) compared with $120,000 for commercial airlines.

But Hawley says pilots leave for reasons other than money. He cites several of their concerns:

Operations tempo. Air Force pilots currently deploy for as long as a year on temporary duty overseas. They go to places like Saudi Arabia - where they live in tents in the 120-degree desert - and to Bosnia and Turkey.

Skills erosion. While deployed, the pilots find that their skills erode. Most of the time they "fly holes in the sky," Hawley says. When they return to the US, they must work twice as hard to buff up their skills.

Erosion of benefits. Military pay has eroded by 13 percent since 1982, Hawley says. The Air Force currently has three different retirement plans and, much like the private sector, has moved to managed health care.

Concerns about leadership. "Many of our people don't think that people like me and the other senior leaders in the Air Force ... are speaking out on issues like erosion of benefits, that we're not engaging aggressively enough to control the level of tasking they must go execute," Hawley says.

Darby agrees that the problem goes beyond money to issues of flexibility and self-determination. "The military might send you to Siberia," he says. "There is nothing you can do about it."

Moreover, pilots in the military may have weekends off, but pilots in the private sector can have as many as 15 days off per month.

Hawley says the Air Force is doing what it can to get pilots like Captain Dickinson to stay.

Beginning Oct. 1, for example, the number of days in temporary-duty deployments will be decreased. And pilots will get one week off when they return from a 45-day assignment and two weeks off for 90-day assignments.

The Air Force is also asking Congress to double the nine-year-mark bonus and to raise pay at the same rate as for the government's civilian employees.

The Air Force will also boost the number of pilot trainees for the next several years. In 1997, it is training 654 pilots. That figure will rise gradually, almost doubling by 2001.

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