Grissom steps up pilot recruiting to combat shortage

Capt. Michael Ponziano, 74th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135R Stratotanker pilot, poses for a photo inside the cockpit of a 434th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind., Feb. 06, 2019. Ponziano uses his experience as an Air Force pilot to help educate others interested in following the same career path. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Ben Mota)

Without pilots the 434th Air Refueling Wing would be known as the static display wing.

A dip in the number of pilots Air Force-wide has units hustling to fill vacancies. Grissom is among those increasing recruiting initiates to keep the cockpits filled and in the 434th ARW’s case the fuel flowing.

“The easiest way to become a pilot at Grissom is for qualified pilots to transfer from another guard/reserve unit or transition from active duty military, but we realize that method alone is not going to fill the pilot shortage we are currently experiencing,” said 1st Lt. Steven Bretscher, 74th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 pilot. “The other way to become a pilot, without any prior experience, starts by completing the application process, being sponsored through the 434th ARW and then going through the proper training.”

Individuals who chose to go through the application process need to have a bachelor’s degree, pass the Air Force officer qualification test, and meet the maximum age requirement of 30. After completing the application process, those selected will be sponsored through Grissom and attend Officer Training School, initial flight training and undergraduate pilot training before returning to the base to complete their training.

“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 – it’s a huge stress relief that lets you focus on your training,” said Bretscher.

Another aspect of the Air Force Reserve pilot program is the ability to serve your country while simultaneously maintaining a civilian career.

“Joining the [Air Force Reserve] was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done,” said Capt. Michael Ponziano, 74th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 pilot who came to Grissom through the sponsor program. “Being a [traditional reservist] has allowed me to follow my dream of becoming a father, husband and a civilian airline pilot while serving my country at the same time.”

With efforts to increase pilot manpower by 10%, Grissom is also looking for enlisted Airmen stationed at the wing who are interested in the program.

“We are looking for people who will be active contributors to the squadron and the mission,” said Bretscher. “The enlisted force has a lot of experience and already demonstrated their desire to serve, and that makes them good candidates.”

For Ponziano, being part of something bigger enticed him to serve, but the people at the 434th ARW are why he stays.

“I was always a team sports type of guy and always felt things were better with teamwork,” said Ponziano. “That attitude combined with my burning desire to serve were my biggest influences for joining.

“I really like the team environment [at Grissom],” he said. “Even though I’m a reservist the full time staff work together to ensure that I’m taken care of.”

Bretscher echoes that same sentiment, but adds that the job also comes with many responsibilities.

“This is a great job if you like to fly and see the world; we work while we are on the road and it is fun seeing all the different cultures,” he said. “But, there is a ten-year commitment. You have to be dedicated to the mission and want to serve your country.”

If you are interested in becoming a pilot, you can contact Bretscher at 765-688-3444 for more information.

The 434th ARW is the largest KC-135R Stratotanker unit in the Air Force Reserve Command. Men and women from the Hoosier Wing routinely deploy around the world in support of the Air Force mission.

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