For years, the Air Force has struggled to come to grips with a looming pilot shortage that many predicted would be severe enough to cripple the service harm national defense. Until recently, senior leaders responded to the issue by denying its existence, rationalizing it as a function of the civilian economy to the extent they admitted it might be a problem at all.
They also marginalized those who elected to bail out. “Someone will step into your place,” they remarked on infinite loop, as if gesturing toward a bottomless well of aviation expertise.
This was, of course, all wrong. There has been a growing shortage of pilots for a long time, and it’s been worsening at an accelerating rate, notwithstanding “pretty darn good” denials to the contrary.
The shortage is not driven by money or airline opportunities, but by an ailing organizational culture, a lack of mission focus, and excessive operational tempo. These things might be mitigated by strong leadership, but commanders have employed doublespeak and senseless personnel policies worsening these underlying problems. Trust has hemorrhaged at the same time that a once vibrant and battle-thirsty aviation culture has withered, replaced with a soulless, bureaucratically approved authority structure masquerading as a combat organization.
Pilots have had their support systems removed, their training gutted, and their voices muzzled. Once heralded as the “tip of the spear,” they’re now instructed that there is no spear … just a collection of equally important and interchangeable individuals pursuing officially approved self-interests. In summary, it’s not a combat team anymore … just a collection of government workers following orders that occasionally involve airplanes. On the best days, it’s a shadow of its formerly great self. On the worst days, it’s insufferable. Most days, it’s merely joyless.
The sad thing is that Gen. Mark Welsh knew this problem was developing before he became Chief of Staff … yet under his watch, it’s gotten much worse. And while airmen understand much of the blame for the mess of the contemporary Air Force lies with elected politicians, they don’t forgive the generals entrusted with sacred responsibility who haven’t committed in word or in deed to do what’s right for airpower or go down swinging in the attempt. Welsh and his colleagues have allowed the Air Force to come up more than 700 fighter pilots short. That doesn’t reflect an airline hiring problem … it reflects a failure of leadership and policy.
Now the problem is finally outrunning the radar coverage of official denial. In an internal email from earlier this month, Colonel Farley Abdeen (Chief of Total Force Aircrew Management at the Air Staff) calls the growing shortage of fighter pilots a “CRISIS” (his all caps) … also labeling the situation “DIRE” (again, his caps) and appeals to the operations community to reevaluate the basic assumptions governing fighter pilot training in order to “save our [fighter pilot] community!” (end of excerpt)
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