SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — Officials with the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program remain laser-focused on maximizing training production as the Air Force faces a growing pilot shortage.
“The Air Force is currently about 500 pilots short of requirements,” said Col. Paul Moga, 80th Flying Training Wing vice commander. “And that number is projected to reach 800 by 2022.”
The challenge is heightened by changes in the commercial airline industry, Moga said, which by some estimates will be seeking to hire 3,500 new pilots annually over the next two decades. Because of their experience, military pilots are often prime hiring targets for airlines.
“The Air Force is taking steps to retain as many of its pilots as possible,” Moga said. “Our role here is to continue producing new pilots at maximum capacity.”
The 80th met all of its production targets on time in 2015, and is aiming to do the same this year.
“It was a true team effort to meet all of our training objectives last year, and it will take the same kind of determined effort to do it again,” Moga said. “We can’t afford to fail – it’s not only the U.S. Air Force depending on us, but the air forces of our partner nations as well.”
“ENJJPT, the world’s only internationally manned and managed pilot training program, is considered the premier fighter pilot training program in the world and has produced more than 7,100 pilots for the NATO alliance since its establishment in 1981,” Moga said.
A challenging time
But the wing at Sheppard has faced some unique challenges in reaching its goal of 100 percent production. The heavy rains that ended the area’s drought in May 2015 unfortunately also damaged the airfield at Frederick, Oklahoma, which is used heavily for T-6 aircraft training.
“Thanks to an enormous effort by both of Sheppard’s wings, and incredible support from the surrounding communities, we were able to coordinate the use of the airfield in Duncan (Oklahoma) while repairs are made to the Frederick airfield,” Moga said. “Had we not been able to do that, production capacity and quality of training would have been seriously impacted – so we’re very grateful for all the people on and off Sheppard who have worked to make that happen.”
Another challenge has been the increasing age of the T-38 jet fleet, which is now more than 50 years old on average.
“We’re extremely grateful for the dedicated maintainers who ensure that, day after day, we have enough mission-ready aircraft to get the job done,” Moga said. “It’s a challenge that will continue well into the next decade, when the T-X aircraft is due to replace the aging T-38 fleet.”
Other obstacles include weather — which is always a wild card in the spring months — and potential commercial development around Sheppard and the training ranges used to train pilots.
“We are working closely with local community leaders to strike a balance between supporting economic development and safeguarding our mission requirements,” Moga said. “Working together, it’s possible to find a solution that works for everyone.”
The ENJJPT advantage
Despite these challenges, Moga said the unique nature of ENJJPT provides distinct advantages.
“As the U.S. Air Force faces a shortage, the number of experienced American pilots available to train the next generation could also be affected,” Moga said. “For us, the international aspect of ENJJPT means that we not only have the benefit of experienced Americans to serve as instructors, but also incredible instructor pilots from our partner nations. That gives us a flexibility other flying training programs don’t have.”
Moga also stated that the international nature of daily operations within the wing pays huge dividends in building the worldwide partnerships and relationships critical to effective global military operations in the 21st century.
“ENJJPT is the cradle of flying training and partnership for a significant number of NATO countries,” said Italian Air Force Col. Paolo Baldasso, 80th Operations Group commander. “This cooperative program takes advantage of all participating countries’ experience in the flying business, boosting the abilities and potential of every single graduate and instructor, so that in live operations, actions are truly integrated.”
ENJJPT’s partner nations include Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Romania has recently applied to join the program. For several nations, ENJJPT is the sole training source for training its fighter pilots.
That diversity also provides a wide set of solutions to the challenges they all face.
“It’s amazing how the different cultures, perspectives and thought processes that are part of an international program like ENJJPT enhance problem-solving,” Moga said. “It’s one of the many reasons we operate in coalitions – we’re stronger when we work together.”
U.S. Air Force efforts
As Team Sheppard continues to focus on maximizing production, the Air Force as a whole is taking steps to address the situation.
The long-term action is to present law makers with a plan to bridge the fighter gap by standing up two additional fighter training units to train students out of undergraduate pilot training, and increase UPT production overall, said Gen. Mike Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, to the Senate Armed Services subcommittee in March.
In the short term, the Air Force will focus on retaining the current pilot force through bonuses, said Holmes. The Air Force bonus program is known as Aviator Retention Pay, which allows eligible pilots to enter into an agreement for five to nine years with a per year payout and the option to receive 50 percent up front.