An F-16CJ pilot assigned to the 79th Fighter Squadron of Shaw Air Force base, S.C., waits as the jet receives midair refueling during a military exercise over the Nevada Test and Training Range on July 27. (Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum/U.S. Air Force)

An acute shortage of Air Force fighter pilots could grow even worse, with nearly a third of all jobs becoming vacant in the coming years, senior service officials said Wednesday.

Air Force Secretary Deborah James said that the service could be short about 1,000 fighter pilots “in just a couple years,” prompting the service to ask Congress for the ability to boost financial incentives to recruit and keep pilots. Data released to The Washington Post this spring indicates there are about 723 fighter pilot vacancies among  3,495 jobs, leaving about 21 percent unfilled.

James said that the service will decide by the end of the year the location of two new bases where F-16 pilots will be trained and also look for ways to ease time constraints on existing pilots. She and Gen. David L. Goldfein, the service’s new top officer, attributed the shortfall to a wave of hiring in the commercial airline industry, high demand for air power keeping pilots deployed and away from their families, and a reduction in training while at home prompted by heavy usage and budget constraints.

“The reality is that pilots who don’t fly, maintainers who don’t maintain and controllers who don’t control are not going to stay with the company because we are not allowing them to be the very best they can be,” Goldfein said. “For me as a new chief, it’s about a balance between quality of service and quality of life. If the secretary can attack those both together, I’m confident we will be successful.”

Goldfein alluded to an opinion piece he wrote recently with James that called the pilot shortage a crisis, and said that he is hopeful that they can get more pilots to stay in the service. When he was a captain in the 1980s, he said he typically participated in three major Air Force training exercises and an additional one involving the Army each year. Now, pilots get half that.

“I’m a believer that morale and readiness are absolutely linked,” he said. “And where we have high readiness, we have reasonably high morale and the quality of service is high. And where we have low readiness, we have our largest morale issues.”



The Air Force currently can pay pilots an extra $25,000 per year after they complete their initial service contract, which concludes 10 years from the completion of pilot training, said Capt. Rebecca Heyse, a service spokeswoman. That number has not been changed since 1999. The Air Force has proposed an increase to $48,000 per year, and a proposal in the House would boost the figure to $60,000.

The Air Force also is looking for additional flexibility in which it can offer different amounts of incentive pay to pilots based on their contracts and what the service needs to retain pilots, Heyse said.

A Rand Corp. study published last year found that the Air Force has faced a “persistent and critical shortage of fighter pilots” and should take measures to not only retain existing pilots, but integrate new ones faster and reassign some nonflying staff jobs that are currently filled by fighter pilots to other officers.

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