Shapland

This past Monday, Brig. Gen. John Shapland addressed a gathering of Air Force Materiel Command leaders at the command’s flight operations summit at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. According to several independent sources who were present for his remarks, Shapland said the following in reference to the Air Force’s unfolding pilot retention crisis, prefaced by a promise that he would deny having said it if later asked:

“… I know people, and will torpedo the career of anyone who gets out …”

It’s not clear whether Shapland was referring to all pilots or a specific subcategory, but some in the crowd and many more gathered around water coolers over the course of the week have taken it as a broad threat against all pilots who choose to leave service after completing their service commitments.

This is, of course, exactly the wrong way to address the pilot shortage, which is rooted in issues of job dissatisfaction and cultural rot. A statement like this just confirms the worst of what everyone believes about the Service’s trajectory.

Pilots generally want to be in the Air Force. They just expect that it should be a good place to work.  But a workplace inhabited by bosses who threaten the future livelihoods of those who have done their bit and wish to move on is likely not a good place to work.

This reeks of the sort of loyalty culture that got the Air Force into its current mess in the first place. Pilots don’t owe the Service anything after their commitment is up, and expecting a reasonable baseline of tempo, lifestyle, and organizational tranquility does not make them entitled. When generals see their primary workhorses as suspect or disloyal unless they are committed to lifetime service, this means they’ve stopped working to keep their people contented. They’ve stopped listening to their inputs about how to improve the business. They’ve arrogantly adopted the attitude that they don’t need their strong earners to stay because someone else will step in … because the organization must be perfect if it deserves lifelong loyalty by default. 

This attitude will kill the Air Force. It needs warriors to win wars, and true warriors do not respond to forced march tactics. Generals need to remember who makes them successful, and work to keep those people onside, fulfilled, and hungry for more. Threats, intimidation, coercion … these are not the tools of leaders and they will not get the Air Force within a country mile of its objectives.

We contacted the Air Force to confirm Shapland’s remarks and ask what he meant by them. Here’s the response we received.

“The comments you attribute to Brig. Gen. Shapland are taken out of context and not wholly accurate.  The general spoke March 21 at Eglin AFB to a gathering of leaders from the Air Force Materiel Command test community.  One of the topics discussed was the challenge of Air Force pilot retention and the pilot shortage.  General Shapland noted his strong disagreement with military aviators who seek loopholes to get out of their Active Duty Service Commitments.  While the general made some ‘off the-cuff comments’ during a question and answer session, he praised the strong relationship between active duty, civilian and contractor pilots and aircrews within the AFMC test community.  General Shapland has frequently said we must rely on this relationship in the future as our military goes through this aircrew crisis.  He believes this relationship is a great asset to the Air Force test mission. Brig. Gen. Shapland regrets any misunderstanding his comments may have caused.”

So here’s the good news. A few years ago when Maj. Gen. James Post threatened and intimidated pilots with similarly coercive language, the Air Force refused to own it until its hand was forced by Congress and the media. Here, the Service gets it right by admitting the comments were made, providing an interpretation that walks the comments back, and committing itself to the right principles. We even have a senior leader accepting that his remarks may have been misunderstood and expressing regret about it.

For my part, I’ll take this as an optimistic signal that even if we’ve got some generals out there who are infected with bad ideas, they won’t thrive too much in a newly principled operating environment. My guess is Shapland will get a proper beasting from CSAF or one of his direct minions over this. Gen. Goldfein and his team seem to understand they’re behind the 8-ball when it comes to pilot retention, and are eager to set the record straight when it comes to potentially corrosive jawboning of this sort. Now they just need the Shaplands of the world to get aligned … not just in word and deed, but in principle. If these remarks are being made, you can bet not enough is being done to assure pilot retention.

If you want pilots to stay, Shapland, persuade them by making the Air Force an environment where they want to be. Not by threatening to blackball them if they leave.