In 1985, when unemployment was in double digits and cold-war patriotism was running high, Air Force recruiter Adrien Augustine used to sign up young men with ease and efficiency.
Now, says Chief Augustine, most kids considering the Air Force are lured away by lucrative offers from colleges and private companies.
"Recruiting is much harder today," he says. "We're offering a way of life, but [the competition] is offering an expensive new car."
But if recruiting trends are bad news for the Air Force, their retention of quality personnel is even worse. Of the 1,047 pilots in the Air Force class of 1979, only 381 stayed the minimum 20 years required for retirement pay.
All in all, the Air Force will finish 1999 more than 10,000 enlistees short of the "end strength" required by Congress. Although other armed forces are also having trouble recruiting, they have met their goals by improving retention.
"[The Air Force's] problems are bad," says Kit Darby, who in 1989 formed Air Inc., a company that helps military pilots get better-paying jobs in the private sector. "They can't compete with the airlines for pilots."
Because personnel shortages are new to the Air Force, analysts are unsure how the problem will affect national security, if at all. Most likely, other military branches will pick up the slack and more reserves will be sent into the skies, says David Segal, a military sociology professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.
In the meantime, analysts say, the Air Force is keeping its cockpits full by pushing its pilots harder - a policy that could worsen morale and speed up the exodus into the private sector.
It also could have safety implications. According to Mr. Darby, a former Army pilot, the working conditions of today's military pilots would easily fail the government safety standards set for the private sector. The pilots "are not necessarily physically tired, but they're mentally tired," says Col. William Hudson, who gives cockpit assignments at Randolph Air Force base in San Antonio.
On top of everything, a new group of pilots could be leaving the Air Force soon. An unpopular "stop-loss" order - put into effect to prevent essential personnel from leaving during the air strikes on Yugoslavia - is expected to be lifted later this month.
Officials from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon are increasingly taking action. Last week, while top Air Force brass held closed-door meetings to come up with new recruiting strategies, Congress was approving enough money for a 4.8 percent military pay raise.
In today's booming economy, however, it is impossible for the Air Force to compete with the private sector - for both recruiting and retention. After seven years, for example, major airline pilots earn double the salary of Air Force pilots who have served for the same length of time.
Yet, the problem - worsened by the recent air strikes against Yugoslavia and ongoing missions to enforce a no-fly zone over Iraq - is more deeply rooted than just money. At the end of the cold war, the Air Force cut its personnel numbers, and the effects are still being felt.
"We have this problem because we undertrained for about three years in the early '90s," says Capt. Tracy O'Grady-Walsh, a personnel spokeswoman in San Antonio.
Overseas bases were reduced around the same time, meaning that when today's pilots fly a mission to the Middle East, for example, they likely do so from a starting point in the US, not from a closer location in Europe. The result is low morale among pilots, many of whom spend too much time away from their families.
"The life of [an Air Force pilot] is often very frustrating," explains Col. Russell Frasz. "Often on Monday you don't know if you'll be in the country on Friday."
In response, the Air Force will establish expeditionary air units this month, with the hope of giving air crews more regular schedules. But again, they can't compete with the private airlines, which let pilots choose their routes and give them half their days off.
Another problem analysts cite is the lack of a clear-cut enemy, like the USSR was, to inspire troops and potential recruits.
"Since the cold war, [the military] has done a poor job of conveying its mission," says Mr. Segal, the professor.
Analysts say that the solution for the Air Force may be to accept that they will lose pilots - but plan for it each year with bigger recruiting drives and bigger classes. Only this year did the Air Force begin paying for television advertising.
"This is a permanent problem," says Michael O'Hanlon, a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They have to assume this will happen and build it into the system."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society