"It doesn't get better than this," says Navy fighter jock Sammy Bonnano as he climbs into an Israeli Kfir fighter.
In minutes, he and his stubby-winged plane are a streak of gray and flame as they zoom off the runway at the naval air station here and punch through the ugly clouds of Hurricane Gloria into that special zone of sunshine and blue sky known only to aviators.
Bonnano, a 31-year-old Navy lieutenant commander, plays the bad guy in this golden world eight miles above the Atlantic Ocean, using his Kfir to simulate a Soviet MiG21 in kill-or-be-killed mock duels with other fighter pilots.
It is a wonderful life -- exhilarating, meaningful, well-paying -- but Sammy Bonnano is quitting, one of thousands of Navy and Air Force pilots bailing out of the military.
The combination of expanding airlines and widespread retirement of World War II veteran pilots has led to a hiring spree by commercial carriers. They took on 6,500 pilots in fiscal 1985 and are expected to hire another 7,000 this fiscal year, mostly from the Navy and Air Force.
The Pentagon projects that there will be a national pilot shortage in the early 1990s, further aggravating the military shortage.
Money, interviews with pilots and their families revealed, is not the main reason many of the military's best and brightest are resigning. Bonnano, for example, makes $48,000 a year, counting his flight bonus, and can expect to earn starting pay that is less than half that if he goes with the airlines.
What the nation confronts is a polite rebellion by the military men, and their wives, against the burdens that accompany today's gunboat diplomacy.
Whenever trouble brews or erupts in a distant part of the world, U.S. presidents often dispatch Navy aircraft carriers or Air Force planes, such as the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System), to show the flag or rattle the saber. For the servicemen, it means month after month on some remote ocean or airfield.
Despite hefty reenlistment bonuses of $6,000 a year for Navy pilots, the Navy is short 1,100 pilots in the key group who would wage war from carriers. These are the experienced but still young lieutenants and lieutenant commanders like Bonnano who fly fighters, bombers, antisubmarine, electronic warfare and command and control airplanes on carriers all over the globe.
That shortfall in amounts to 15 percent of the Navy's 7,100 seagoing aviator billets in those two ranks, the first severe downturn since President Reagan was elected in 1980.
In the Air Force, despite the forecast of a dwindling pilot pool nationwide, officials said they hope to lure the service's fair share through good pay and quality-of-life benefits.
In the third quarter of fiscal 1985, 60 percent of the Air Force pilots finishing their first obligated tour agreed to remain in the service, down from 78 percent in fiscal 1983.
The resignations were especially high in the Military Airlift Command whose pilots are routinely sent to distant trouble spots and kept there for weeks at a time.
Bonnano typifies the pilots the Navy hoped to keep for a full career of 20 to 30 years. His commanders in the VF43 adversary squadron here described him as an outstanding flier and able administrator on the ground, a man on the fast track to the top.
Last year, the Navy named Bonnano the best landing signal officer in the Atlantic Fleet, the man who stands at the perilous edge of the pitching carrier deck to coax other pilots home, day and night. So why would he suddenly quit the flying Navy he loves?
"This is the best flying in the Navy," Bonnano said, "because all we do is fly ACM air combat maneuvers twice a day, every day . . . . I'll never have a bad word to say about the United States Navy."
But he said the boring collateral duties when he is earthbound, including the endless paper work, started him thinking about what lies ahead if he stays in the Navy for 20 years, the time needed to qualify for half-pay retirement checks.
"I've already had three sets of workups preparations for long sea duty , three carrier cruises. Between now and the time I retire at 20 years I'm realistically looking at five more cruises."
He said he has spent three years "on the water" in his 10 years in the Navy and will have to be away from home "for at least four more," if he stays in for 20 years.
Picturing himself at that 20-year mark, Bonnano sketched this family portrait: "I've got one boy that's getting ready to go to college; a little girl that will follow him shortly thereafter, and I'll be going to the mailbox to pick up a retirement check of $1,800 a month.
"I can't retire on that, so I've got two options at that point . I can either stay in the Navy, which means more time at sea and more time away from home, or I can get out. If I get out, I'm 41. Am I more marketable at 41 than I am at 31? I don't think so. That's what went into the decision to get out.
"Priorities have changed to where I almost feel it's selfish on my part to think of nothing but what's good for Sammy, what's good for my career. I'm thinking, what about Vicki; what about Mikey; what about Sabrina his wife and children ? Maybe I can throttle back on my needs and start looking more at my family's. I missed Mikey's third year -- his Christmas -- because I was on cruise. I just don't want to do that anymore. I don't want to go to sea anymore.
"I don't think money is the issue," he concluded. "The bonus doesn't keep in aviators because it's not an incentive to stay in the Navy. I've been at Oceana since 1976 and know almost everyone there. When I say, 'Have you signed up for the bonus?' the answer is usually, 'I don't know if I'm staying in or not.' If they do decide to stay in the Navy, they'll take the money, and deserve it because of what they do, but they don't stay in because of it."
Other aviators, squadron skippers, senior Navy officers and the secretary of the Navy all agreed that the big reason for the resignations is what the Navy calls "family separation," the byproduct of being in the armed services of a global power.
The Navy pilot shortage vexes Secretary John F. Lehman Jr., a flight officer himself who is more knowledgeable about the stresses and strains of extended sea duty than any previous civilian Navy leader.
Lehman for years has been promising his men that shorter carrier cruises, longer and more frequent port calls and more amenities for shipboard life. He has pleaded with his officers and sailors to be patient but admits he has not been able to deliver.
"It has been the most intractable problem I've had to deal with," Lehman said of shortening carrier deployments.
"It is the one area that falls outside the control of the chief of naval operations and the secretary of the navy."
The theater commanders in such regions as the Mediterranean and Pacific keep calling for more carriers and other warships to dampen hot spots around the world, he said.
"We've added 60 ships" to the fleet, Lehman continued, "and until this year we have not gotten a single day of relief."
Instead of the same workload being more widely distributed over the fleet, thereby shortening deployments, the theater commanders "have scarfed up every new ship" and given them additional duties, the secretary said.
Lehman said that after considerable wrestling with the problems "we've made a breakthrough" that should lead to shorter tours at sea, less paper work and more fun in the Navy.
Nevertheless, Lehman acknowledged that "we have a credibility problem," because he and other Navy officials have been promising carrier deployments of no more than six months for the past four years. But he said the promise will be in effect from now on, barring an international emergency. "We're absolutely adamant about this," he added.
Lehamn said the shortage of Navy pilots concerns but does not alarm him because "you've got to put it in perspective."
Four years ago the Navy was retaining only 28 percent of the aviators it wanted to keep, he said. That improved to 58 percent in 1983 but has now slid to 53 percent. The goal is to retain 55 percent.
"Fifty-three percent is a lot better than 28 percent," he said. "We're competing with the airlines, but more importantly we're competing with the difficulty of the job. Family separation is the No. 1 issue, and always will be. And there's been a certain amount of disillusionment setting in because we've been expanding the fleet and telling them we're going to shorten the tours at sea and it hasn't happened."
Lehman and Vice Adm. Edward H. Martin, deputy chief of naval operations for air warfare, said Congress could help keep the pilot shortage from getting worse by appropriating money to continue the bonus for aviators who agree to stay in the Navy.
Because of the impasse in Congress on the fiscal 1986 military authorization, the Navy cannot offer aviators the $6,000-a-year bonus for signing up for another four to six years. The Navy also wants to increase the bonus to $8,000 a year.
Martin said aviator bonuses total $15 million a year. Since it costs $1 million to train each aviator, he said, the bonus money will be recovered if the service persuades only 15 aviators to remain in the Navy.
Money, a decent life style and public appreciation for the pilots' hardships are all part of the package needed to keep them flying for the Navy, Martin said, adding, "The key to this whole thing is adequate compensation."GRAPHCS/One: Lt. Cmdr. Sammy Bonnano describes his mock duels with other fighter pilots.