October 16, 2009: South Korea is annoying the U.S. Air Force by forcing its combat pilots to fly fewer and fewer hours a year. This has been going on for some years now. Some South Korean news outlets have also been pointing out that North Korean pilots fly nearly as many hours a year (120) as most South Korean pilots. That's partially true. But fewer than a hundred North Korean pilots, those flying MiG-29s and some of the more modern MiG-21s, get that kind of flying time. Many of the rest are lucky to get a few hours a month. But the Americans are upset because, if there is a war, the better trained U.S. pilots will end up doing more of the work. The South Koreans believe that the situation is so bad up north, that the North Korean air force won't even be able to get many of their 500 combat off the ground. And those that do fly, will be operated by very inexperienced pilots.
The flight hours situation is all about the rapid increase in oil prices over the last six years, which forced air forces everywhere to cut back on flight training for their pilots. That could have some interesting consequences. Over the last half century, it's been found that combat pilots need about 200 hours in the air each year, to build and maintain their combat skills. So it's with great reluctance that some nations cut back on those flying hours. Several years ago, South Korea cut its pilots back from 139 to 134 hours, and then to 131. In the 1990s, South Korean pilots were getting 150-200 hours. That's what German and Japanese pilots still get. But some European nations have their pilots in the air less than South Korea. Then again, the South Koreans are being practical about this, because their most likely foe, North Korea, has its pilots flying much less, on average.
The nations with the reputations for the most skilled pilots (Israel, United States, Britain, Canada) have their combat pilots in the air 200 or more hours a year. Taiwan gives it pilots 180 hours a year, and may increase that. This is because China is increasing flight hours, with pilots in some elite squadrons already flying 180 hours a year (most get closer to a hundred.) The high price of oil was caused by much increased demand from China and India, and their booming economies.
The importance of flight hours should be a no-brainer. During World War II, when some nations simply didn't have the fuel available for pilot training, they saw combat (and non-combat) losses increase as training-hours-in-the-air went down. Nazi Germany's warplanes began losing, big time, when they could no longer produce enough fuel to allow their trainee pilots sufficient time in the air. This was a trend that had been ongoing since 1942. Up until that time, new pilots got 240 hours of flying time before entering combat. By comparison, British pilots only received 200 hours and Soviet pilots even less. Germany ruled the skies. But in late 1942, Germany reduced training time to 205 hours. The British now had the fuel, and increased theirs to 340 hours, while the US was providing 270 hours. In the Summer of 1943, the British increased flying time to 335 hours and the US went to 320 hours. At the same time, the Germans reduced it to 170 hours. A year later, the Germans were down to 110 hours, while the British were at 340 hours and the Americans at 360.
The situation was the same in the Pacific, where increasingly effective U.S. submarine attacks sank so many Japanese tankers that there was not enough fuel available to train pilots. In 1941, a Japanese pilot trainee 700 hours of flight time to qualify as a full fledged pilot in the Imperial Navy, while his American counterpart needed only 305 hours. About half of the active duty pilots in the U.S. Navy in late 1941 had between 300 and 600 hours flying experience, a quarter between 600 and 1000 hours, and the balance more than 1000 hours. Most of these flight hours had been acquired in the last few years. But at the beginning of the war nearly 75 percent of the U.S. Navy's pilots had fewer flying hours than did the least qualified of the Japanese Navy's pilots.
On the down side, the Japanese pilot training program was so rigorous that only about 100 men a year were being graduated, in a program that required 4-5 years. In 1940, it was proposed that the pilot training program be made shorter, less rigorous, and more productive, in order to build up the pool of available pilots to about 15,000. This was rejected. Japan believed it could not win a long war, and needed the best pilots possible in order to win a short one.
Naturally, once the war began, the Imperial Navy started losing pilots faster than they could be replaced. For example, the 29 pilots lost at Pearl Harbor represented more than a quarter of the annual crop. The battles of the next year led to the loss of hundreds of superb pilots. This finally forced the Japanese to reform their pilot training programs. Time to train a pilot, and hours in the air spiraled downward. By 1945 men were being certified fit for combat duty with less than four months training. In contrast, the U.S. Navy was actually increasing its flight time, while keeping pilot training programs to about 18 months. In 1943, the U.S. Navy increased flight hours for trainees to 500, while Japan cut its hours to 500. In 1944, the U.S. hours went up to 525, while Japan cut it to 275 hour. In 1945, a shortage of fuel had Japanese trainee pilots flying on 90 hours before entering combat. In the air, this produced lopsided American victories, with ten or more Japanese aircraft being lost for each U.S. one.
This experience was remembered after World War II, and reinforced when, in campaign after campaign, the side with the fewer training hours per pilot, suffered the greatest losses. Now, unable to afford fuel for training, flight simulators are being used more frequently. These devices are becoming cheaper and more realistic, but research (mostly from training exercises, not actual combat) shows that each hour of simulator time is worth only about half or two-thirds of an hour in the air.