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Getting out? Go reserve?

Pilots leaving active duty have safe landing place in Reserve, Guard

A pair of F-22 Raptors from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, fly above snow-capped mountains. Courtesy photo

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JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas - As COVID-19 travel restrictions ease around the world, commercial airlines are looking to hire more pilots. Air Force officials want to remind active-duty pilots leaving the Air Force for the civilian aviation industry that such a move doesn't have to end their service to their country.

Air Force Recruiting Service's top recruiter said keeping trained pilots in uniform is one of the Air Force's top priorities. AFRS is a Total Force recruiting enterprise charged with finding airmen and civilians to serve full or part time, in or out of uniform.

"COVID tipped the balances for many airmen deciding whether to stay in the Air Force," said Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, AFRS commander. "Now that the country is opening up, airmen who wanted to hit the pause button on active duty will consider moving on with their separation plans. For those who do, we want to keep them on the team and benefit from their training and talent in the Guard or Reserve. With our nation's pilot shortage, keeping our world-class aviators flying for our Total Force is critical."

The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard allow former active-duty pilots to continue their military service while giving them supplemental income and benefits, should the airline industry experience slow-downs or set-backs in the future.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many airline pilots were furloughed as the industry came to a screeching halt. Commercial pilots serving in an Air Reserve Component were able to stay employed, work toward a retirement and continue receiving benefits.

"The nature of the airline industry is cyclical," said Brig Gen. Derin Durham, Air Force Reserve Command's director of Air, Space and Information Operations. "I have seen it swing many times, with wars, terrorist attacks, economic downturns and now, pandemics. Many factors can affect the industry. The one constant for many of these airline pilots is the Guard or Reserve. We are able to keep them whole, pay bills and weather the storm until things turn around."

The Reserve components are eager to bring in these fully-qualified airmen.

"Retaining trained airmen is the primary reason for the ARC's existence," Durham said. "The nation has invested millions of dollars in training these great Americans to protect and defend our way of life. As a Reserve component member, that training continues to be honed and exercised, ready in order to guarantee that war fighting capability and strategic depth when called upon."

The general said about 75% of airmen who switch to the Reserve after their active-duty tour continue serving until they earn a Reserve retirement. Many stay until they reach their mandatory retirement age of 60.

"We strive to make Reserve service something our members love to do," he said. "They do it for the mission, the people and the satisfaction of knowing they are still making a contribution to their country."

For the Reserve and Guard, gaining  pilots from active duty not only brings in a wealth of knowledge and experience, it also saves total Air Force dollars on training costs and pilot training seats.

"Due to pilot training capacity limitations, we are unable to train the number of pilots we need to meet readiness requirements," said Col. Eugene Smith, 367th Recruiting Group commander. "Capturing rated pilots from active duty is critical to fill Air Force Reserve flying unit vacancies. An additional benefit is that the majority of Reserve pilots are also pilots in the civilian world. The networking opportunities are vast for future growth as they transition into civilian life."

Retaining pilots is also critical to military readiness and preparedness.

"The Air National Guard is focused on ensuring pilots remain in the Total Force," said Col. Nashid Salahuddin, ANG Recruiting and Retention Division chief. "If pilots decide to leave active duty to pursue airline positions, the ANG or Air Force Reserve are the perfect way for them to continue serving part time. It's critically important to the ANG and the Air Force that we retain pilots in the Total Force. From a readiness perspective, if we maintain this talent, regardless of which component they're in, they're accessible for our wartime mission."

The colonel said that over the past 12 months, ANG pilot manning has gone from 80% to 82%.

"Although we've made progress, we need to aggressively bring in new talent and retain existing talent," he said. "If there's an increase in the number of active-duty pilots separating to accept full-time positions with the airlines, it presents an opportunity for them to join the Air National Guard as part-time members."

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