The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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State, national news

July 25, 2013

Air Force aims to land more top guns amid pilot shortage

LOS ANGELES — Help wanted: At least 130 veteran military aviators for nine-year commitment to fly fighter jets.

Salary: Pay range $34,500 to $97,400. Plus good benefits and a $225,000 signing bonus — guaranteed.

Contact: U.S. Air Force by Sept. 30.

That’s the offer from the Pentagon, which is so short of Air Force fighter pilots that it’s boosting its salary package to make the job more enticing.

It may be hard to imagine that life as a high-flying fighter jock has lost its swagger, but the Air Force revealed it has a shortage of 200 fighter pilots this year. And if something isn’t done, the Air Force, which has about 3,000 fighter pilots, fears it may face a shortfall of 700 by 2021.

Empty cockpits are bad news for the military, which is already shoveling money into the development of the world’s most expensive program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet — expected to cost nearly $400 billion. The cost is a double whammy for taxpayers, because the Air Force said it costs taxpayers about $6 million to train a fighter pilot.

Several factors are behind the exodus of pilots, officials said, including a surge in demand for better-paying commercial pilots, the stresses of deployments and reassignments to fly combat drones, the remote-controlled technology that has reshaped modern warfare.

As a result, the Air Force is offering a souped-up incentive package under something called the Aviator Retention Program, which was first rolled out in 1989. The program now offers a $25,000 signing bonus per year for nine years — nearly twice as long as the usual contract.

“Were it not for the program, there would be a greater problem than the one we currently have,” said Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke, who oversees the program. “Senior leadership is aware of the problem and is very concerned.”

The Air Force wants to get as many of the 200 to 250 eligible fighter pilots to take the deal. Some already have signed on.

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