The Air Force Wants to Outsource Some of Its Pilot Training to Private Companies

T-6 Texan II at Columbus Air Force Base
Second Lt. Rafael Galvoa, 37th Flying Training Squadron student pilot, and 1st Lt. Thomas Buckley, 37th FTS instructor pilot, conduct pre-flight checks on a T-6 Texan II at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., Jan. 24, 2020. (Davis Donaldson/U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force is looking to outsource solutions to boost its yearly pilot output and improve its training curriculum.

During a two-day industry event last week hosted by Air Education and Training Command's 19th Air Force, the service outlined its priorities under five request for information, or RFI, solicitations. If all five are enacted, they could collectively produce 200 additional pilots per year over a five-year period.

"The idea is to reach out to industry and see how you all might be able to support, provide ideas, and provide information that will help us as we formulate our plans moving forward," Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, 19th Air Force commander, said in a news release.

The RFIs the Air Force proposed include:

  • -Contract Undergraduate Pilot Training (CUPT), which would partially outsource the service's UPT program to a company capable of providing multi-engine commercial aircraft
  • -Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) UPT using the Air Force's T-6A Texan aircraft, which would act as a supplemental option to CUPT using commercial instructors and personnel to operate the service's T-6 trainers
  • -Contractor Instructor Pilot (CIP)/Contractor Simulator Instructor (CSI), which adds instructors to training pipeline programs to augment the service's instructor pilot force
  • -Initial Flight Training (IFT) 2.5, which would increase training hours for pilot candidates prior to more advanced training such as UPT or Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT)
  • -Introductory Flight Training-Rotary Wing (IFT-R), which would partially outsource fundamental skills training for rotary aircraft through the use of additional simulators. The training would also require companies to use a Bell 206 helicopter or an equivalent platform.

In 2018, leaders at Air Education and Training Command, or AETC, and Air Combat Command told the service as a whole wasn't interested in outsourcing UPT or other training curriculums. In the March 1 release, Wills said the Air Force is now looking at fresh options on how it can fix its chronic pilot shortage, which has become "a worldwide phenomenon."

"We have a different mentality that says, 'Why don't we teach folks as much as possible so, at the end of their training program, they are as proficient as possible?'" he said.

The problem is "not strictly limited to the U.S. Air Force," he added. "All of our joint partners face many of the same challenges and so our hope with these RFIs is that we can get information from you that will help inform the plans that we have."

For a sixth consecutive year, the service has not been able to close its pilot manning gap.

In fiscal 2020, the Air Force came up 1,925 pilots short of the roughly 21,000 it needs to conduct worldwide operations, spokeswoman Lt. Col. Malinda Singleton told on Thursday. The service could not provide a breakdown of types of pilot communities -- such as mobility and fighter -- still experiencing manning gaps.

The service first sounded the alarm in 2016, stating that its pilot shortfall had grown by more than 700 from the previous year; it ended up 1,555 pilots short at the end of fiscal 2016, the service said at the time.

The gap then grew to a whopping 2,000 pilots in fiscal 2017. The Air Force ended fiscal 2018 with a total force pilot shortage of 1,937, and it was 2,100 pilots short in fiscal 2019, officials said.

In February 2020, the service predicted it would also fall short of its goal to produce 1,480 new pilots across the force by the end of that fiscal year. Singleton confirmed Thursday that the service did not meet that goal.

"Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Air Force was able to produce 1,263 pilots in fiscal 2020," she said.

An Air Force official said there were some retention gains, which can be partially attributed to pilots wanting to stay in service longer due to the economic downturn related to the pandemic.

Officials observed a higher take rate in retention bonuses, but the service could not provide a specific audit of how many or what types of pilots opted into the bonus program.

In 2017, the service introduced a tiered bonus system to combat its shortfall, with monetary incentives of up to $455,000 over 13 years for its fighter pilots.

The following year, the Air Force launched a first-of-its-kind study: Pilot Training Next, or PTN.

The initiative, which emphasizes training in a virtual environment, assessed not only students' learning methods and ability to retain information, but also ways the Air Force can adapt and use futuristic technologies such as virtual reality and simulator training in its day-to-day training routine.

Last year, the service introduced "Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5" at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, which advances the PTN experiment.

While UPT 2.5 is an offshoot of PTN, pilots begin their lessons faster. Instead of waiting to collect textbooks on the first day of training, students go online to access their curriculum -- months ahead of their first classroom experience. Other changes include how the Air Force gathers data on a student's progress, Wills said at the time.

AETC launched UPT 2.5 at Randolph on July 15, 2020. Wills told the program will initially apply to the mobility community and help the service phase out the T-1 Jayhawk at Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training locations between fiscal 2023 and 2025. SUPT teaches basic fundamentals of flying, airmanship, instrument knowledge, rules and regulations.

Last year, the service also introduced Helicopter Training Next, or HTN, with the same principles as PTN but geared toward helicopters.

The Air Force has not indicated whether the PTN and HTN programs, or its goal to phase out the T-1, will be altered because of the new RFIs.

More than 40 companies participated in last week's virtual event, according to the news release. AETC declined to name those taking part in the discussions.

When asked about AETC's potential outsource solutions, Gen. Mark Kelly, who as head of Air Combat Command oversees the fighter pilot community, said he is confident pilots will receive the same standard of training regardless of who conducts it.

"I know that AETC is going to proceed down a smart route," Kelly said during the annual Air Force Association Aerospace Warfare Symposium. "And they're going to maintain the quality of our aviators as they go through that."

The service previously cited ambitious goals to ramp up pilot training in order to produce 1,500 pilots a year by fiscal 2022. That number includes active-duty Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard and international students, AETC officials said in 2018.

Some experts noted the 1,500-pilot goal was out of reach, especially in such a short timeframe.

"It's a system issue," Gene Colabatistto, then the group president for defense and security at CAE, a company that provides worldwide training and integration for civil and military aviation, told in 2019. He is now the president and CEO of General Aerospace Company.

"You have to attract people, and they want to become pilots in general," he said. "Otherwise ... you'll never succeed."

Wills said that fiscal responsibility is also playing a role in the Air Force's decision.

"Your United States government is very much interested in coming up with solutions that are advantageous to the taxpayer," he said in the release. "It is our goal to bring the very best that American industry brings to the table, and we are not convinced that we are the only people that have good ideas."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct how many pilots could be produced over a five-year period.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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