Air Force spends millions to train fliers then gives them desk jobs

November 27, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Even as the Air Force has been slashing budgets and personnel, it spent $511 million since 1990 to train more than 1,200 beginner pilots and then gave them desk jobs because there weren't enough cockpit assignments to go around, a General Accounting Office audit shows.

Up to $195 million more may be spent training 500 additional would-be fliers and keeping them desk-bound for two to three years, the GAO said.

The total cost includes bonuses that pilots accrue regardless of whether they fly planes, push paper or work in maintenance depots.

"The Air Force is training more pilots than it needs and is incurring costs unnecessarily," Mark E. Gebicke, director of the GAO's military operations section, wrote to Defense Secretary Les Aspin earlier this month.

The GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, sent Mr. Aspin an unsolicited cost analysis of an expensive, difficult-to-manage pilot glut in the Air Force, which has sharply cut planes since 1990. Other branches of the military have also reduced their aircraft fleets since the Cold War ended, but none has as severe a pilot surplus as the Air Force.

The GAO credited the Air Force for cutting its production of new pilots in half but asserted that the volume was still excessive and that assigning hundreds of them to nonflying jobs was wasteful. The Air Force not only loses the benefit of its investment in pilot training and pilot bonuses; it must also pay the cost of refresher training -- $64,500 to $74,400 a person -- before these pilots can advance to a specific aircraft system, the agency said.

In a videotaped message to pilots that was distributed before President Clinton took office, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff, said that adjustments in pilot production could not keep pace with the cuts in aircraft units. But he predicted that the pilot surplus would be eliminated by 1998, assuming that the Air Force did not shrink below the level proposed by the Bush administration.

"If force structure is cut further, the situation will get worse, maybe a lot worse," he said, according to a copy of the videotape provided by the Air Force.

More recently, Air Force officials have predicted that a high rate of attrition and their attempts to manage the pilot glut will actually lead to a pilot shortage beginning in 1995. So they stopped delaying admissions to flight school last month, with the intention of producing 500 to 525 pilots each year.

The GAO faulted the Air Force for this action, saying the impact of looming Clinton administration cuts on pilot needs has not been fully evaluated. As for a possible shortage, fewer experienced pilots are being lured away by the economically strained commercial airline industry, and the current supply of desk-bound pilots "could be tapped to meet a military threat, should the need arise," the GAO said.

In its audit, the GAO urged the Air Force to save money by fTC cutting back more sharply than ever on admissions to entry-level pilot training. In this way, the agency reasoned, the Air Force could avoid the costly practice of depositing young aviators into a "pilot bank" where they must cool their heels for nearly three years as desk jockeys or maintenance officers.

Deeper cuts considered

Mr. Aspin's "bottom-up review" of U.S. military requirements, released in September, calls for deeper-than-expected Air Force reductions by 1999. If Congress goes along with those cuts, it could nullify several recent initiatives by the Air Force to create more flying assignments, the GAO warned.

One of these initiatives, dubbed the Third Pilot Program, will put a third pilot in the cockpits of KC-135 refueling tankers but require those aviators to serve as navigators, not co-pilots. The first group of flight-school graduates began KC-135 navigation training this month, avoiding transfers to nonflying jobs, such as engineering or maintenance.

The Air Force has also approved plans to increase the number of fighter and bomber instructors and pilots assigned to fly with Air National Guard units and Army helicopters.

Maj. Don Cohick, who manages training, flying assignments and the "banked pilot program" for the Air Force Military Personnel Center, expressed confidence that all the new pilots who have been diverted to support jobs would be back in airplanes by October 1996.

The size of the bank -- containing only those who were unable to get a cockpit after leaving flight school -- peaked last June and now has 830 pilots, Major Cohick said from his office at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

"Right now, our [pilot] production has dropped, and flight assignments are opening up," Major Cohick said. "In September, there were enough flight assignments for [flight school] graduates that we've stopped increasing the size of the bank."

New reality

Despite stunning raids on Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Air Force officials realized soon afterward that they could not escape a sobering post-Cold War reality: They had to pick up the pace of planned cuts in spending, aircraft inventories and personnel to satisfy Congress and taxpayers.

Since 1990, the number of active-duty tactical fighter wings has dropped from 24 to 17, and personnel strength has declined from 535,000 to 444,300 -- a net loss of one out of every six airmen.

Under Mr. Aspin's long-range plan, the Air Force must get down to 13 active fighter wings and roughly 396,000 personnel by 1999.

From May 1991 until last month, the Air Force tried to manage its surplus by delaying young officers from entering flight school and weapons system training, eliminating guarantees to Air Force Academy graduates of a cockpit assignment and postponing ROTC graduates' active duty.

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