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Air Force faces shortage as pilots head for friendlier skies. Higher pay, more stable careers lure aviators to commercial airlines

Air Force officers here say that after years of plenty they are facing a critical shortage. The resource involved isn't money: it's pilots. Growing numbers of expensively trained pilots are leaving the military for commercial aviation's golden pastures. To stem the tide, the Air Force is considering everything from cash bonuses to ``d'etente'' with the airlines.

``We want to work closely with the airlines to share what is in essence a national resource,'' says Col. Jerry Nelson, retention chief at the Air Force Military Personnel Center.

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Recruiting isn't a problem. Youths still stand in line to apply for the flight suits and mirrored shades of the pilot fraternity.

But both the Air Force and the Navy are having a hard time persuading those youths, once they become pilots, to make the military a career. Right now, the Air Force pilot retention rate is 45 percent. That means that 55 percent of Air Force aviators retire early on, between the end of their initial duty tour and the 11-year service mark.

Only five years ago the retention rate was 78 percent. The historic low was 26 percent in 1979.

The retention rate is highest for fighter and bomber pilots. It is lowest for tanker and transport pilots, whose skills naturally transfer to airline work.

Officers say that they need an overall retention rate of about 60 percent to sustain the size pilot pool they need. It costs taxpayers about $6.7 million to train one military pilot.

``We don't know how low retention will go, or if we can turn it around,'' says Lt. Col. Greg Seidenberger, another retention specialist.

In a recent survey, Air Force pilots listed declining flying hours as their No. 1 gripe. Cutbacks in training money and increases in paper work are making pilots spend more and more time working on the ground.

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Lack of control over future assignments, bureaucratic nit-picking, pay, and family separation were also high on the pilot list of irritations.

But the primary force propelling pilots out of the Air Force isn't dissatisfaction with the military. It's the attraction of the commercial flying life.

Pilot salaries are higher in the private sector - and perhaps more important, pilots face a predictable career progression over which they have some control. Many also join National Guard or Reserve units and continue flying military aircraft on weekends.

Airline hiring of pilots has increased sixfold since 1980, and will continue at a rate of about 6,200 a year into the 21st century, according to industry figures.

``There is a direct correlation between airline hiring and our retention,'' says Colonel Seidenberger.

The desire of some pilots to move into the private sector is intense indeed. An extreme example was the indictment in Miami Aug. 4 of a Federal Aviation Administration inspector and five others, including several Air Force officers, on charges they helped military pilots cheat on exams to gain commercial licenses.

The Air Force has already increased from six to seven to eight years the mandatory initial tour of pilot duty. Beyond that, money is perhaps the No. 1 tool the service has to fight its retention problem. Though the military can't slug it out dollar for dollar with Eastern and TWA, it may be able to hold onto wavering pilots with well-timed bonuses.

Currently extra flight pay for Air Force pilots is only about $400 a year. A program nearing final approval would instead reward certain pilots in the crucial seven-to-12-year range with up to $12,000 in bonuses annually.

The Air Force is trying to cut pilot paper work and juggle assignments to take working spouses into account. It is also trying to encourage airlines to hire 20-year military retirees, not mid-careerists. Officers point out that these veterans will be only about 45 years old and will have perhaps 20 good flying years left.

Military Personnel Center officers have contacted airline CEOs about the plan and ``we find them interested,'' says Colonel Nelson. An agreement is in final draft, though he declines to give its details.

One effect of such a pact might be that younger Air Force pilots won't feel the pressure to grab an airline job at the first opportunity. But with commercial opportunities booming many will probably still choose to leave.

``We're looking at being 2,500 pilots short by 1993,'' Nelson worries.

An Aug. 9 article on the US Air Force's pilot shortage incorrectly stated the flight pay bonus for pilots. They receive a bonus of $400 a month.

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