Pilots from 159th CAB, 101st Airborne Division, land an Apache helicopter at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, as the sun sets behind the mountains. (Photo by Chief Warrant Officer 2 George Chino)
After more than 10 years of speeding aviators through school and into war zones without adequate funding, the U.S. Army has a shortage of attack helicopter pilots even though it has the money to train them.
For at least a decade, the Army has fallen short of its training goal of 1,300 pilots per year. Funding constraints held the Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker to about 900 pilots a year, most of which were trained to fly utility aircraft like the UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook, according to Maj. Gen. William Gayler, the Army’s chief aviator.
Because AH-64 Apache pilots take longer and are more expensive to train, the Army prioritized teaching pilots how to fly the utility aircraft to fill a general requirement for pilots in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, he said Sept. 5 at an aviation-focused forum hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army at its headquarters outside Washington, D.C.
“We are short pilots,” Gayler said. “We are under our authorization for aviators, most predominantly in the AH-64 community.”
“We are improving, but we still lag behind our authorizations are right now,” he added. “Our forecast is that once you get additional manning, it’s about six years before you totally retrain everybody. It took us a decade to get in this position. You can’t get out of it … by next Thursday.”
“For ease of math,” Gayler said it costs about $1 million to train an Army rotorcraft pilot. Available funding paid for about 400 fewer pilots per year for nearly 10 years resulting in about 731 fewer pilots than the Army is authorized, he said. It takes less time and is less costly to train UH-60 and CH-47 pilots, so the Apache pilot pipeline was slowed.
“You can absorb that once or twice in a decade, but not every year in a decade,” Gayler said. “Over time, we just realized, wow, we’re 731 aviators short and it takes longer to make an Apache pilot and typically costs a little bit more to make an Apache pilot.”
Aircraft readiness also has fallen short because the Apache fleet is not correctly sized to support a surge in pilot training. The Army’s total Apache procurement objective — both remanufactured and new-build aircraft — is 690. Of those, 167 aircraft are for training (85 training, 67 float and 15 test AH-64Es).
Gayler admitted the Army miscounted the number of non-operational aircraft it needed and in May upped its original plan from 167 aircraft to 188 (100 for training, 81 for float and 7 for test). The Government Accountability Office reported the miscounting in an audit report published in June.
As a result, aircraft at the Army’s flight training school at Fort Rucker are flown about twice as many hours as operational aircraft, Gayler said. That requires more frequent maintenance, which makes aircraft unavailable for training flights at a higher rate.
On any given day, 20 percent of Fort Rucker’s training fleet is in scheduled maintenance and another 21 percent is non-mission-capable waiting for repair or spare parts, leaving about 60 percent of the fleet for student pilots to fly. Any further downturn in aircraft availability immediately kinks the training pipeline, he said.
“I don’t get alarmed by that, but it does make us fly more on those airframes than we would like,” Gayler said, “because over time, what would normally wear out in 20 years is wearing out in 10 years.”
Another potential crisis looms on the near horizon as the existing pilot population ages into retirement, Gayler said. About 25 percent of current active-component aviation warrant officers are eligible for retirement, a number that will climb to 33 percent in the next 18 months, he said. Meanwhile, commercial airlines also are experiencing a shortage of pilots and are aggressively recruiting pilots from all the military services, he said.
While the Army is focused on training more new pilots, it cannot fill the shortage with recruits alone lest it loses centuries worth of cumulative flight experience, much of it under fire. Gayler is newly authorized to offer three-year bonuses to aviators with up to 22 years of service because “if they all retire, we have no experience in our fleet.”
“You can’t fill the void just with accessions,” he said. “Because a couple years later, you have a relatively inexperienced force.”