DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Each time Air Force Capt. Barry Rutledge lifted off the runway in his lumbering C-5 cargo jet and headed overseas, a persistent question from his young sons weighed on him: "Gee, do you have to go away again?"
So when Rutledge's commander told him last summer that he was on the short list for a three-month tour in Saudi Arabia without his family, Rutledge painfully concluded that it was time to jettison his nine-year career as a military aviator. "That was kind of a wake-up call," he said.
Rutledge is one of hundreds of young pilots who are leaving the Air Force early at a rate that has skyrocketed in the past year. With the United States shrinking its military force while boosting its international commitments, the 33-year-old pilot and his fellow aviators feel they are shouldering too much of the defense burden.
They spend weeks, if not months, far from home. Some fly C-130s to Europe and Southwest Asia on repeated cargo runs. Others live in a makeshift desert base, then roar off in an F-16 on endless missions in "The Sandbox," the skies above southern Iraq.
Combine the heavier workload with a strained family life plus low pay, and a rapidly growing number of pilots are agreeing with Rutledge: It's not worth waiting 20 years for Air Force retirement benefits.
With the commercial airlines now hiring in record numbers, the promise of a fatter paycheck and stable schedule is becoming more attractive than the honor and the glory of what used to be considered the most glamorous of military professions.
The Pentagon is scrambling with a counteroffer: Pilots who have completed their nine-year obligation are now eligible for a $22,000-a-year bonus -- nearly double the $12,000 annual bonus offered between 1989 and last October -- if they sign up for another five years.
The military is also trying to reduce overseas duty and provide staff to assist families.
But so far, only 26 percent of the eligible pilots with nine years' experience have taken the bonuses this year, officials say, compared with 81 percent of pilots who opted four years ago for the less generous bonus package. The Air Force expects this year to be 800 pilots short of the 14,000 needed to keep the force at full strength. Last year, they were only 41 short. In 1996, the Air Force had a surplus of 409 pilots.
"We're very concerned," said Maj. Joseph Roeder, an Air Force personnel official who keeps track of pilot issues.
Serious shortage feared
To deal with the shortage, pilots who routinely rotate through deskbound staff jobs are instead being put back in the cockpits. The Air Force is also increasing the number of new pilots it trains to 1,100 by the year 2000, compared with 900 this year. Still, officials are worried that if the current trend continues there could be a more serious shortage by 2002.
"It's not their fault they're leaving," Gen. Michael Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters recently. "It may be our fault. It's hard work, and it's hard on their families."
Pilots who are leaving say the top two reasons they are not taking the bonus are an increased workload -- so-called "high optempo" -- and poor quality of life. A close third is the enticing commercial airline industry, with its promise of high pay and shorter hours.
Rutledge said several pilots have recently left the active-duty 9th Airlift Squadron and joined him at the 326th Airlift Squadron, a reserve outfit where he hopes to land a job as a flight scheduler. He attributed his colleagues' departures to "pretty much the same reason: high optempo."
More flights overseas
When Rutledge arrived at this sprawling base in 1994, he would ferry supplies to Europe or the Persian Gulf twice in six months -- taking several days each time. Before he left active duty in December, the time away from home grew to about 15 days a month.
Although the Air Force has shrunk by 40 percent since the end of the Cold War, it has nearly five times as many people deployed overseas as in 1987, according to Air Force officials. But the number of overseas bases -- where pilots once lived with their families -- has been cut by two-thirds. Today's Air Force is becoming more an expeditionary force, much like the Navy's pilots, who live on aircraft carriers for months at a time.
"The future I see is more deployments, more time away from home," said a 37-year-old pilot who decided not to take the bonus and asked not to be identified. "I want to spend more time with my family."
Both that pilot and Rutledge are married with young children, part of a trend away from the bachelor flyboy past that is proving burdensome for the Air Force. When Ryan was flying missions over North Vietnam in the 1960s, about 70 percent of pilots were single. Now about 70 percent have a spouse waiting at home and are looking for the normality of civilian life.