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Air Force tries to ease pilot shortage by asking more retirees to come back

F-15K Slam Eagles from the South Korean air force's 11th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Daegu Air Base, fly with an F-16 Fighting Falcon March 11 over Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. The three aircraft were participating in the Buddy Wing program, an operation designed to increase U.S. Air Force and South Korean air force interoperability. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jason Colbert)

Commercial airlines may be hiring retired pilots, but so is the Air Force.

The service announced on Wednesday that it may return as many as 1,000 retired pilots, combat systems officers and air battle managers to active duty for up to 48 months under a major expansion of a voluntary recall program.

Depending on a pilot’s experience and the needs of the Air Force, some older pilots could return to the cockpit and even see combat duty.

The Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty program is being expanded to all pilots and maximum tour lengths are being more than doubled to help ease a serious shortage of qualified aviators, Air Force officials said.

“This represents a very significant expansion” of the program, said Michael Dickerson, a spokesman for the Air Force Personnel Center.

The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have all experienced pilot shortages in recent years, with fighter pilots a particular need, according to a Government Accountability Office study released earlier this month.

Fighter pilots who spoke with the GAO “consistently stated that the typical workload has significantly increased in recent years due to, among other things, changes in fighter aircraft tactics and technology and reductions to administrative support in squadrons.”

Meanwhile, commercial airlines offering greater living stability have recruited to replace their own cadre of retiring pilots. That has placed further stress on those who stay in uniform.

“We’re burning out our people because we’re too small for what the nation is asking,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters in November after saying she had spoken with a pilot back from his 17th deployment.

In September, the Air Force announced it was accepting up to 25 retired pilots to return to active duty for up to 12 months to primarily fill critical-rated staff positions. It was only for fighter pilots and it was capped at 25 by the previous law.

But in October, President Donald Trump amended an executive order that expanded the Air Force’s authority, allowing it the option to return up to 1,000 retired pilots to active duty.

Air Force officials said at the time the service was still working out the details on how it planned to use the executive order to address a shortfall of nearly 2,000 pilots.

Wilson approved the extension for implementation on May 11, the Air Force said. The Air Force will consider applications from all retired pilots, combat systems officers and air battle managers, those in the 11X, 12X and 13B career fields.

Qualified aviators nearing retirement may also apply to extend their service under the program.

Those selected to return to active duty “will primarily fill rated staff and active flying staff, test, training and operational vacant positions,” Dickerson said. “There is no limit on any particular area and a retired officer’s experience will benefit any unit they return to as we grow the force” and focus on squadron revitalization.

Participants can be matched to stateside or overseas requirements, filling critical billets that would otherwise remain vacant.

A deployment would be voluntary only, unless a pilot is assigned to a combat-coded unit, officials said. They won’t be eligible for an aviation bonus or promotion consideration.

To be eligible to return to service, officers must have retired from active duty within the past five years, or be within 12 months of retiring when submitting their application.

They must be captains, majors or lieutenant colonels under the age of 50. Those older than 50 will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Applicants must also be medically qualified for active duty and have served in a rated staff position within 15 years, or have been qualified in an Air Force aircraft within 10 years of applying for flying positions.

Officers who retired for physical disability are not eligible to apply.

Applicants must submit a resume and their last five officer performance reports, among other requirements. Candidates wanting to fly must list their previous flying experience in the aircraft requested.

Applicants can also request a rated staff position, including the staff for which they’d like to work and the location.

Applications will be accepted until Dec. 31, or until all openings are filled.

Applicants should allow several months to complete the entire process, Dickerson said.

Additional information is available on the VRRAD page of the personnel center’s website.

Retired pay stops the day before resuming active duty. Upon return to retirement, retired pay is calculated according to how long the service member served on active duty.



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