U.S. Army aviation is catching the air force disease as it finds itself with a persistent shortage of lower-ranking pilots. The shortage is not great; about 700 pilots short out of a total of 14,000 active duty and reserve pilots. The problem is that the army has two types of pilots. The minority are commissioned officers whose junior officers (lieutenants, captains and some majors) fly a lot because they command the actual flying units (platoons and companies). As these officers get promoted to lieutenant colonel and colonel they fly a lot less because they spend most of their time commanding larger units or in staff jobs. Most of the actual flying is done by warrant officers, a type of officer used mainly by the army because these officers do not command. They make a career of a technical specialty, in this case flying. The warrants have four ranks that correspond in pay to the first four officer ranks (second lieutenant, first lieutenant, captain and major). The more senior warrants are expert fliers because normally that is all they do. This is a major advantage for the army because they have always attracted the many pilots who just want to fly and have no interest in commanding units, staff jobs or rising to a higher rank.
That’s a feature, not a problem because in the air force a lot of experienced young pilots leave the air force because they know once they get promoted beyond captain they will fly a lot less and the only way to avoid that is to leave the air force and get a commercial flying job. Many of these young officers, who really like flying fighters, join the air force reserves where they still get an opportunity to fly jets without the hassle of spending so much time being a non-flying officer. This is why so many reserve units have the latest aircraft, including F-35s, because that’s where the most experienced pilots are and the air force knows that when these reserve fighter squadrons are activated for overseas service in a combat zone, those reserve units will have more experienced pilots than active duty squadrons with the same type of aircraft.
The army got around all those air force problems by having career warrant officer pilots in active-duty units. In effect, army aviation pilots were as experienced as air force pilots in reserve units. The army made the most of this and established a high standard of flying skill for its pilots, especially those flying AH-64 helicopter gunships and UH-60 transport helicopters that regularly served in combat and not only survived but demonstrated a notably high degree of skill.
That began to change a decade ago as there was less combat flying for army pilots, and the army decided to have helicopter pilots spend more time developing non-flying skills. This included more infantry training, including long hikes with heavy packs and training at employing camouflage for helicopters that had to land in enemy territory. The older warrants knew this was nonsense because it happened so rarely. Older infantry officers, which the older warrants often knew socially (warrants and commissioned officers mingled at officers clubs and other social functions) agreed with the flying warrants that this new ground combat training was nonsense. But the most senior army officers, who came up with these new programs, could isolate themselves from reality while the flying warrants could not, especially the junior warrant officer pilots who were still acquiring those life-saving flying skills. The problem was they were not getting the flying ours and flight training the more senior warrants had received and all warrants noted with alarm the growing accident rate. This was mostly among the younger warrants and those warrants often responded by getting out of the army as soon as they could. To make the situation worse the units with shortages of younger warrants and fewer flying hours were found to be misreporting their flying hours and readiness rates. This seemed to be an effort to hide the problems from senior commanders.
Officers, like enlisted troops, serve for fixed periods and periodically have to decide if they will sign up for another four or more year term of service. The data consistently showed there were more commissioned officers than needed and the shortages were all among the younger warrants. Thus the shortage of 700 army pilots was almost entirely among first term warrants who believed things were not going to change and it was not prudent to sign up for another five years of increasingly dangerous flying because so much time was being spent on the ground doing non-flying stuff, often administrative tasks, just to keep them busy. The senior generals convinced themselves, as they often do, that signing bonuses would solve the problem. It didn’t and finally, reality began to reach the higher ranks that it wasn’t about money, it was about enough flying time to achieve the high skill levels that army aviation had long been used to. It was pointed out, often via widely distributed message board postings by warrant officers, that the army had no problem finding young soldiers who wanted to become warrant officer pilots, but within five or six years those young warrants were eager to get out of the army because the situation had changed for the worse and there seemed to be little interest among the senior army aviation generals to change it. That’s why higher pay and bonuses for junior pilots was not working and that message has gained wider circulation in the army, in part because the officers in the combat units that the helicopters support are also speaking up. Less skilled helicopter pilots have an adverse impact on all troops in a combat unit and the pressure is on for the senior aviation generals to get back to basics.