In aviation parlance, the back side of the power curve is known as the “region of reverse command.” In normal flight, a pilot controls altitude by changing pitch and controls airspeed with throttle setting. In the region of reverse command, the aircraft is in slow flight configuration, and these inputs must be reversed.
Gen. Dave Goldfein finds himself in this region of the power curve when it comes to pilot retention. Pilots are leaving in droves. The service is nearly 1,000 short of the number it needs to execute and getting shorter by the day. Over the past few years, initiatives designed to keep more of them in uniform have been unimaginative and ineffective, almost universally misapprehending the reasons they are leaving. The service has lost the confidence of its aviation community. Goldfein is therefore in a delicate situation where an uncoordinated move could be catastrophic. But instead of making careful, deliberate pitch changes to regain airspeed, he’s jockeying the throttles. It’s a risky approach, perhaps even a dangerous one.
Goldfein recently told Stars and Stripes he wants the FAA to double the hours military pilots must accrue before they can be hired by civilian airlines. The current requirement is 750, which is half the number required by civilian pilots. The disparity is a result of federal legislation passed in 2010 in response to high-profile accidents and incidents exposing the risks of inexperienced pilots occupying unhealthy fractions of passenger airline rosters. Under that recent law, military pilots require fewer hours in recognition of the quality of training they receive and the richness of their flying experiences.
From Goldfein’s perspective, the proposal he makes is a reasonable step in helping the Air Force retain enough pilots to fulfill its national defense role. He’s done the math and recognizes commercial demand will easily outstrip his ability to field an effective fighting force, all else being equal. He should be credited with owning up to this reality, something the previous two Chiefs of Staff — Mark Welsh and Norton Schwartz — refused to acknowledge. Their policies made no genuine attempt to retain pilots and were in fact hostile to service’s aviation culture. This played a huge part in creating the crisis Goldfein is now confronting.
And he is confronting it. Goldfein understands the Air Force is too often alienating its own aviators with silly rules, administrative overload, and managerial misdirection. He understands he needs to fix squadrons, and that squadron commanders play the most important leadership role in the Air Force. He recently admonished his wing commanders that they must take the lead in ending non-value-added irritants that are driving down morale. He also told them the service needs to re-think what it values and how it recognizes that value. To underscore the point, he provided a great example of just how far off course our promotion system has veered.
“The #2 brain surgeon in the country is in our Air Force. He was recently passed over for Lt Col because he was not SOS complete. When you’re about to go under for brain surgery and you look up at your Dr., what do you value? It’s probably not SOS.”
Clearly, Goldfein gets it. His intentions are sound.
But his tactics may backfire, and could end up doing more harm than good. While it’s reasonable for CSAF to take the position that he has to stop the bleeding on pilot retention in order to retain enough pilots to correct the service’s culture and perform its mission, this is not the message being received by pilots in the field. Many, if not most, see his recent overture as malevolent and coercive … an attempt to sidestep his duty to improve working conditions by sealing off options and locking them in. If this perception becomes entrenched, Goldfein will lose his pilots, and the retention crisis will get worse. In other words, if he tries to correct airspeed with a throttle change, he will not recover. He’ll stall and spin.
To get out of this mess, Goldfein needs to change attitude. Instead of talking to the FAA and the media, talk directly to pilots. Tell them your rationale instead of hoping they’ll see through news reports to your true character. Trust in CSAF is a dead letter right now, and it turns out to be pretty damn important. So tell them what you’re doing and why. Let them hear it from you.
Tell them why you’re trying to raise a barrier to their competitive advantage with the airlines. Explain your limitations. Make your rationale assailable and offer to defend it, which shows confidence that you believe you’re doing what’s best for the Air Force. This inspires allegiance. Appeal to their sense of duty without insulting their intelligence. Listen to them. Let them ask questions and fire back ideas. They’ll tell you how to fix things.
They’ll tell you why increasing the bonus to $35,000 is a waste of effort and will simply give another $10k to people who were already going to stay and didn’t need to be enticed. They’ll tell you how unnecessary deployments, finance and personnel frustrations, AFPC shenanigans, and a fun-stifling, out-of-control PC movement are much more important to their decisions than money. They’ll remind you that our service used to care about families, and show you a graph with lines depicting the decline of a family culture and the decline of pilot retention running in perfect parallel. They’ll ask you why you haven’t liquidated frivolous manpower billets and used the resulting surplus to grow squadron support rosters. They will point out how the service’s official messaging system seems to exclude and even abhor airpower while championing one inane and marginal social theme after another. They may even explain how categorizing them by gender and skin color and caricaturing them as would-be rapists and victims-in-waiting has done more to alienate them from service than three bad wars in succession ever could.
Most of all, they’ll tell you how much they desperately yearn to be in a properly functioning Air Force rather than operate for an airline. They’d rather be flying formation, conducting low-levels, refueling behind tankers, executing assault landings, rolling into strafes, and prosecuting targets than engaging an autopilot on a winged bus from 200 AGL to 200 AGL. It takes a lot to make people give up the coolest job in the world. Unfortunately for CSAF, trying to force them to stay is one of the fastest ways to do this.
Goldfein may see himself having no choice but to pursue this strategy. If that’s the case, his actions are understandable. But for his people to understand what he’s doing, he need to explain to them why … and do so transparently. In the context of several years of broken promises, breached trust, and a loss of confidence in general officers, his latest move feels more like a cynical dodge of the problem than a high-aspect fight with it.