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Filling the cockpits: Grissom beefs up recruitment efforts to combat national pilot shortage

A KC-135 Stratotanker flies during routine training Dec. 11, 2018, out of Kadena Air Base, Japan. The 909th Air Refueling Squadron helps ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific by providing air refueling to U.S., allies and partners within the area of responsibility. (Airman 1st Class Matthew Seefeldt/U.S. Air Force)

Grissom Air Reserve Base is intensifying its efforts to recruit more pilots to combat a national shortage that has both the military and commercial airlines scrambling to fill positions.

Col. Brian Hollis, 434th Operations Group commander, said Grissom is working to bring on up to 15 percent more pilots to fly the KC-135R Stratotanker, which is used on refueling missions. Grissom has the largest unit of those planes in the Air Force Reserve Command.

Hollis did not release specific numbers on how many pilots the base hopes to recruit to fill open positions.

Major gaps in staffing levels in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard have existed since 2013, according to a study released in June by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Special operations, bomber and fighter pilots were short by around 20 percent. Units focused on mobility and surveillance missions also experienced gaps, but to a lesser extent, according to the study.

Hollis said Grissom is also dealing with the shortage, but the base is doing better than most military units.

“We’re doing pretty well, which is kind of an oddity,” he said. “You have different locations like California where you’d think more people would be flocking to, but we seem to be doing pretty good here.”

Even so, a lack of pilots has been felt at the base. Hollis said the biggest fallout is the pilots just have to work more and head out on deployments more often.

“It’s like any business,” he said. “You have to do more with less. It’s a little bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

But the base is up against a national pilot shortage that is creating fierce competition to attract the country’s shrinking pool of applicants.

Hollis said the biggest factor contributing to the shortage is a huge wave of Vietnam veterans retiring who have flown commercial planes for decades. He said that’s led airlines to the longest and heaviest hiring push in 20 years to fill the upsurge in empty positions.

More open commercial positions make recruitment even harder for the military, which has problems retaining its pilots because of issues like high operational tempo and low unemployment, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

That’s led Grissom to launch a full-on recruitment campaign to keep the cockpits filled at the base.

“We’ve got to double down on our efforts,” Hollis said. “We have to be more aggressive with recruiting.”

To that end, Grissom officials are highlighting what makes the base unique and the advantages it offers to potential pilots. First Lt. Steven Bretscher, a KC-135 pilot in 74th Air Refueling Squadron, said applying to be a pilot at Grissom comes with perks pilots don’t get at other military installations.

“One benefit of being sponsored through Grissom is that members know they will be flying tankers at Grissom, unlike pilots on active duty who can be sent to any base flying whatever air frame they are selected to fly,” he said. “It’s a huge stress relief that lets you focus on your training.”

The base is also underlining the fact that reservists can have a civilian career while flying missions.

Bretscher said Grissom is focusing more than ever on recruiting non-pilot airmen who are already serving at the base. He said the enlisted force has a lot of experience and has already demonstrated their desire to serve, and that makes them good candidates.

Hollis, who has served as Grissom for nearly 25 years, said by beefing up recruitment efforts, they hope to keep plenty of pilots in the pipeline to keep the base flying as it pushes through one of the most severe pilot shortages in recent memory.

“These shortages have always been cyclical,” he said. “When you’re in the middle of it, you think, ‘When is it going to get better?’ But it always evens out as the economy changes. You do your best to get through it.”


© 2019 the Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Ind.)

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