For most of my active flying career, Navy hemorrhaged pilots to the airlines as soon as their obligated service was complete. Accession of new aviation officers was structured with relatively low retention rates in mind, even after the payback period from winging was increased from five years to eight. Guys couldn’t wait to get out and start earning that huge paycheck, and all the ready room chat among the instructors at the training squadron was about FedEx or United interviews, and getting to 1500 hours for that Airline Transport Rating. People looked at you funny if you said you were in for the long haul.
These days, not so much:
Retention among aviation officers has been dramatically higher than for other Navy communities during the past decade. The Navy has about 650 more aviation officers than manpower experts say are needed. On the other hand, the Navy has authorized slots for hundreds of officers in the submarine and surface communities but not enough officers in uniform to fill those jobs, personnel data show.
“Clearly we are managing a larger inventory than the other communities,” said Capt. Mike White, director of aviation officer distribution at Navy Personnel Command.
The result is that up to 80 percent of undesignated billets, including Pentagon staff jobs or other slots that do not require specific skills, are held by aviation officers, White said.
One key reason for the high retention: Job opportunities and pay levels in the airline industry have fallen significantly.
I started noting a strange phenomenon a couple of years back, as pilots who had resigned their active commissions but remained in the reserves starting shuffling back from the airlines to active duty on service waivers. This allowed them to take military leaves of absence from their companies even as they built seniority within the airline, earn a pretty decent pay check and spend most nights at home with momma and the kids.
Plus, with all respect to those holding line jobs, it’s hard to believe that pushing big metal through the national air space structure only to land at Chicago O’Hare in dog squeeze weather has quite the same fun factor as flying a Super Hornet at Fallon.
I used to wonder whether such policies were a good idea, since the reserves allowed a man to have his cake and eat it too, inevitably harming retention among the active force. My concerns were apparently misplaced, although Navy has a past history of over-corrections when it comes to both hiring and firing.
A few years back, I overheard some senior officers moaning about the parlous state of aviation retention rates, and one of them said, “I guess the best thing we can do is pray for a recession.”