Air Force Facing Severe Fighter-Pilot Shortage

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 22 2013 12:04 PM

Where Have All the Fighter Pilots Gone?

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A US pilot and engineers carry out checks on the Lokheed Martin F-16IN Block 60-Super Viper fighter aircraft prior to a test flight

Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

Here's some surprising news coming out of the Pentagon today: The Air Force says it's facing a severe shortage of fighter pilots this year. The Los Angeles Times has the details of how the military is hoping to fill its ranks:

The Air Force is offering a souped-up incentive package under something called the Aviator Retention Program, which was first rolled out in 1989. The program now offers a $25,000 signing bonus per year for nine years — nearly twice as long as the usual contract. ... The Air Force wants to get as many of the 200 to 250 eligible fighter pilots to take the deal. Some already have signed on.
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It's pretty hard to imagine that the life of a flyboy has lost it's appeal in such a drastic way — but the shortage is serious. Only 65 percent of pilots today decide to extend their service past the 11th year, compared to 80 percent in 1993, and if nothing changes, the situation could lead to a shortfall of 700 pilots by 2021

The reason for the empty cockpits? The Times notes that many pilots have left the military for opportunities with commercial airlines who often pay more for a much less dangerous job. Other factors include "the stresses of deployments and reassignments to fly combat drones" as well as the rise of remote-controlled technology.

Jennifer Lai is an associate editor at Slate. Slate Plus members, email her here.