For the eighth consecutive year, the U.S. Air Force will miss its fiscal year 2023 pilot training goal by about 120 airmen, the service confirmed on Sept. 11.

A series of maintenance problems, personnel problems and other unexpected setbacks have led the Air Force to peg the wings at about 1,350 airmen instead of its planned goal of 1,470. The shortfall makes it harder for the service to fill a pilot shortage of about 2,000 that has persisted for several years.

“We’re going to try to make sure that we continue to fly because that’s what we do as an Air Force,” Maj. Gen. Clark Quinn, the two-star general in charge of pilot training, told reporters in a recent conference call.

The Air Force set a new goal of about 1,500 new airmen a year in fiscal year 2020, but so far, it has not met its own bar. Air Force spokesman Benjamin Faske stated that the same goal will be set for fiscal year 2024.

About half of the unfilled pilot positions are in the active-duty Air Force, and the majority are in the fighter community. To not harm the operational squadrons that fly missions around the world every day, the Air Force leaves staff positions that would normally be filled by pilots empty.

“It seems like it’s not that important to reduce staff,” Quinn said. “That actually affects the long-term mentorship and growth of the officers who we hope will be able to lead our Air Force in the future.”

It also increases pressure on the service to retain experienced pilots. More than 650 airmen, or 67% of those eligible, have accepted the extra pay under a legacy program aimed at keeping airmen in uniform, the Air Force said Aug. 30.

At least 210 more airmen have signed contracts worth up to $50,000 a year as part of a new congressionally mandated pilot retention program that opened this summer.

Slower-than-expected engine repairs on T-38 Talon aircraft have limited the number of aircraft that can be used for daily training missions for more than a year. The T-38s are the Air Force’s only intermediate platform for teaching airmen to fly fighters and bombers.

The US Air Force will be almost 150 pilots short of its annual goal.
T-38 Talon.

“It hasn’t gotten worse, but it hasn’t gotten better either,” Quinn said. “The Government is studying the possibility of internally manufacturing… parts to try to facilitate their recovery.”

In July, a thunderstorm further delayed training for university pilots by damaging nearly 20 T-6 ​​Texan II turboprop aircraft at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

“Those replacement parts aren’t on a shelf where they can be pulled out and fixed the next day,” Quinn said.

The service also continues to struggle to fill its civilian instructor positions, of which between 30 and 40% are vacant. Quinn said the Air Force is testing the possibility of hiring remote teachers to control a simulator or lead a class from afar. Slow Internet connections could limit the use of this option, she added.

The US Air Force will be almost 150 pilots short of its annual goal.
A T-38 Talon on the flight line at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona

These issues have made it difficult for the Air Force to fully reap the benefits of years of changes to its initial pilot training, reducing it to a seven-month process that allows airmen to advance at their own pace using virtual reality and other educational technologies.

The service hoped the review would allow it to graduate more pilots better equipped to juggle the conflicting demands of modern combat.

As the UPT’s years of refinement come to an end, other upgrades continue to take off. According to Quinn, a simplified version of fighter pilot training, combining introductory and graduation practice in the T-38 Talon aircraft, is taking place at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.

“They’re running it right now,” Quinn said. «It’s… maybe 15% to 20% of the curriculum, so it’s too early to draw any big conclusions. However, after having spoken with some of the pilots, they are already seeing where there will be opportunities to make the entire pipeline more efficient.

The Air Force is leaning into its plan to train new mobility pilots using simulators instead of the T-1 Jayhawk jet, which will be phased out through fiscal year 2026.

The US Air Force will be almost 150 pilots short of its annual goal.The Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk is a twin-engine jet aircraft used by the United States Air Force for advanced pilot training.

“Again, it’s too early to do any big evaluations, but right now, the people who have graduated from that … program are doing very well in the formal training units,” Quinn said. “We have not observed significant trends or a decline in their performance.”

Lawmakers have requested more information about that process as part of the fiscal policy 2024 defense bill and propose blocking service from withdrawing any T-1 until more questions about the plan’s impact on pilot production are answered.

A revamped version of helicopter training has ended the practice of first teaching pilots to fly the T-6 Texan II turboprop aircraft and instead begins rotary wing training from the beginning. After an introductory course, airmen move on to basic helicopter training at Fort Novosel in the Army.

Defense company CAE announced in June that it would provide the introductory helicopter flying course for the next 10 years under a contract worth $111 million. The course will move to the company’s facilities near Fort Novosel in Dothan, Alabama. Quinn indicated the transition will be completed in the fall.

The US Air Force will be almost 150 pilots short of its annual goal.Airmen assigned to the 23rd Flight Training Squadron at Fort Rucker, Alabama, prepare to land their UH-1N Huey at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.

The various slowdowns have also created a bottleneck in the training process itself, as hundreds of aviators wait for places to open up in those flight schools.

According to Faske, at the end of August, more than 900 people were waiting to begin pilot training. The number of aspiring pilots typically increases in late spring and early summer, as candidates finish college and then declines as they enter schools throughout the year.

But declining aircraft availability causes those students to filter through the system more slowly, keeping them out of the cockpit for months.

Faske said half of that group must wait three to nine months to begin undergraduate pilot training. Another quarter waits less than three months, and the remaining quarter is in limbo for over nine months.

Meanwhile, aviators push through initial flight training classes and survival courses, begin postdoctoral studies, or are assigned office jobs where they can use their college degrees.

«You have completed your training. “We’ve committed to you; we’re going to make you a lieutenant and put you to work,” Quinn said.

Rachel S. Cohen