Military Pilots

Observations on Current Issues Gao ID: T-NSIAD-99-102 March 4, 1999

Pilot shortages pose significant challenges for the military because each pilot replacement costs the Defense Department (DOD) up to $6 million in training and requires years of investment in training and experience. This testimony discusses (1) the validity of pilot requirements, (2) the extent of the reported shortages and where they exist, (3) the key factors contributing to pilot shortages, (4) the services' plans for correcting such shortfalls, and (5) other steps that could be taken to address the problem. GAO focuses on pilots in the Air Force and the Navy, which are reporting the most critical shortages.

GAO noted that: (1) the extent of pilot shortages is unclear due to questions over the validity of pilot requirements and the availability of the data on which the shortages are based; (2) the services are reporting that they are able to fill all of their operational flying positions but are unable to fill all of their nonflying staff positions that are designated for qualified pilots; (3) the seriousness of these shortages is unclear because the services have not made comprehensive assessments of their nonflying positions to determine how many of these staff positions might have to be filled by pilots; (4) the services report that 20 to 40 percent of their pilot positions are designated as nonflying positions; (5) notwithstanding difficulties with the requirements, the Air Force projects that its greatest shortfall, particularly within its fighter community, will occur in fiscal year (FY) 2007 and then taper off; (6) Navy data indicate that the Navy may have already experienced its greatest pilot shortfall, particularly within its helicopter community, in FY 1998, and that its pilot shortage will gradually dissipate although not disappear; (7) two key factors have contributed to the reported pilot shortfalls; (8) during the draw down in the 1990's, the services reduced their pilot accessions; (9) this action has unintentionally resulted in insufficient numbers of pilots to support the current force and is driving the need to retain more pilots; (10) pilots are unhappy with a number of quality-of-life factors that are causing them to consider leaving; (11) the services are taking steps to address the shortfalls; (12) all of the services are filling their flying positions first and then their nonflying positions on a priority basis; (13) the Air Force is trying to encourage pilots to stay until retirement through a new initiative to ease the transition from military service to civilian employment; (14) the services will need to continue to explore a variety of innovative approaches to alleviate any projected shortfalls; (15) among the possible solutions, the services may wish to review the aviator bonus systems and pilot assignments; and (16) however, before the services take additional steps, they need to: (a) reassess whether pilots are truly needed to fill all of the nonflying positions currently designated for pilots; and (b) refine their data to ensure that they have a full understanding of the scope and nature of any identified pilot shortages.

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