Airline Pay Lures Military Pilots Bored by Peacekeeping
Scarborough, Rowan, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
When Capt. Jack Daniel was flying over southern Iraq in what some fliers consider a monotonous air patrol mission, he started to think about ditching his Air Force career.
Capt. Daniel, 32, had graduated from the Air Force Academy bent on making the service his life's journey. But 11 years later, with a wife and two sons to support, the siren call of a lucrative airline job and more time at home convinced him to call it quits, effective next spring. "My brother-in-law has been with United [Airlines] for four years," said Capt. Daniel, who pilots the F-16C/J, an anti-radar fighter at Shaw Air Base, S.C. "He makes more than $8,000 a month, and that's more than double what I make. . . . Every year you delay getting out of the Air Force costs you about $283,000 in lifetime earnings."
The allure of flying supersonic Navy and Air Force fighters shines less brightly today than 10 years ago. Relatively low pay is one reason, along with the military's shift from confronting the Soviet bear to playing peacekeeper to a bunch of warring hate-filled factions.
The numbers tell the story.
Six years ago, right before the airlines started a huge hiring campaign, 69 percent of Air Force pilots signed long-term re-enlistment contracts upon completing a nine-year initial commitment. This year, only 26 percent signed contract extensions.
Gen. Michael Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, warns that unless the service pulls out of the nosedive, it will be short 2,000 pilots by 2002.
As for today, "We are not letting our cockpits go empty at this time," said Maj. Byron James, an Air Force spokesman. If a slot opens up, he said, a desk-bound pilot is called to action.
Navy statistics tell the same tale.
In 1992, studies showed 23 percent of pilots accepted retention bonuses, nearly meeting the sea service's goal. This year, 19 percent of 261 eligible pilots stayed in, only 62 percent of target.
Like the Air Force, the Navy says no plane sits idle for lack of a pilot. But the trend means that soon aircraft carriers won't have enough experienced officers to serve in squadron sub-leadership jobs, forcing commanders to pick from a greener crop.
"The numbers are probably the worst I can ever recall," said retired Vice Adm. Richard C. Allen, who flew attack jets in Vietnam and later commanded Atlantic naval air forces. "Maybe they've reached the bottom of the bucket and they'll fill it up again. …