WASHINGTON - The Air Force is flying into gale force winds as commercial airlines start a hiring spree while military aviators struggle with low morale due to cutbacks and idle jets.
And the Air Force may see a shortage as pilots vote with their feet.
Over the next year, the commercial airline industry is going to begin hiring tens of thousands of new pilots as aging flyers retire and the industry regains its economic footing.
That could put dark clouds in the way of the Air Force's wild blue yonder as it tries to persuade pilots to stay in a service even as top officials worry that pilots don't have enough yoke time.
"If pilots aren't flying in the Air Force because of our readiness issue, we worry that a number of them are going to say, 'I'm flying somewhere else,' " acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning told Foreign Policy in an interview this month. "If I'm looking at my jet parked on the ramp instead of flying it and I can get a job somewhere else flying, then I'm going to do that. So we are concerned that there is a sort of perfect storm approaching us in terms of flying retention."
Fanning said current retention rates are better than historical averages.
But he fears there are a number of lagging indicators that don't tell the real story of how furloughs, the government shutdown, and lower readiness rates will affect the force over the next few years.
The Air Force has publicly raised the alarm about its lower readiness rates because of sequestration and budget cutbacks.
It may be using the threat of a pilot shortage to convince its budget overseers in Congress to ensure the service is properly funded. But no one disputes the factors at play are real.
Those factors start with the commercial aviation sector. There are three issues the industry is facing that could affect the Air Force in a significant way.
The biggest one is the change to mandatory retirements for commercial airline pilots. In 2007, the FAA changed the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65, keeping more seasoned pilots in the cockpits.
But now thousands of those pilots are reaching retirement age and the airline industry, which is experiencing a comeback, will confront a shortage of experienced pilots across many airlines.
"That wave is just hitting," said one Air Force official.
The FAA also increased the minimum number of flying hours pilots must have after the crash in Buffalo, NY, in 2009 of a Colgan Air commuter flight that pointed out problems with more inexperienced pilots. There are additional crew rest regulations as well that require airlines to maintain more pilots on staff.
The numbers suggest the Air Force's fears are grounded in reality: Some worst case scenarios suggest the airline industry - including international carriers - could hire as many as 50,000 pilots over the next 10 years, and some estimates are even higher.
If the industry aggressively targets pilots serving in the U.S. Air Force, the service could be in for some turbulence.
The Airline Pilots Association, the primary trade group representing the interests of pilots and which is tracking the issue, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Gordon Lubold is a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine.
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