Fighter pilots were once considered such glamorous gigs that Tom Cruise played one in the hit Hollywood movie, "Top Gun." But now, three decades later, the U.S. Air Force is experiencing such a dire shortage that it's guaranteeing a $225,000 signing bonus -- $25,000 a year for nine years.
The Air Force says it is down 200 fighter pilots this year. On top of that, just 65 percent of the pilots are staying on the job past 11 years, which is a 15 percent drop off from 1993, according to the Air Force Times. As a result, the Air Force projects that it could be short some 700 pilots by 2021. Such a shortfall represents roughly one quarter of the total 3,000 flyer pilots in the Air Force.
Low wages to blame
Analysts point to the wage disparity between the military pilots and those working in the private sector. As the Los Angeles Times reports, it takes 11 years of service for a fighter pilot to achieve an annual salary of $90,000. The median wage for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers, however, stands at $114,200, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The new signing bonus is aimed to level the playing field.
A decade of wars exacts a toll
In total, 6,737 Americans have died in combat during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the online tracker, iCasualties.org. And nearly 12 years after the attacks of September 11, squadrons are still deploying, returning and then redeploying to the Middle Easte theatre. "People have no idea how hard it is when you have to move your family all the time," John Wigle, a former F-15 fighter pilot and current program analyst in the Air Force's operations department, told the L.A. Times. "Military life is not for everyone."
As the wars wind down, the Air Force predicts the number of combat missions will decline in the coming years. "In years past, we couldn't execute all of our peacetime training flying hours that was a requirement because we were deployed too much," Gen. Hawk Carlisle told the Air Force Times. "As things draw down... we'll increase home-station flying hours and concentrate on that."
Indeed, the drive to boost the number of fighter pilots comes at a time when the Army, for one, is drawing down its total number of active duty soldiers, as the Associated Press reported. At the height of the Iraq War, the Army had 570,000 active duty soldiers, but plans to lower the number to 490,000 by 2017. In its bid to cut the size of the force, it has even stopped accepting recruits with criminal or substance abuse records.
The Air Force has successfully used money to bring in more fighter pilots in the past. In 1989, the Air Force introduced a similar program, called the Aviator Retention Program. "Were it not for the program, there would be a greater problem than the one we currently have," Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke, who oversees the program, also told the Los Angeles daily.
READ "7 Struggles of Military Spouses You've Never Thought About."
7 Struggles Of Military Spouses You've Never Thought About
Air Force Offers Fighter Pilots $225,000 Signing Bonus
It took Crystal Cavalier 10 years after her college graduation to finally get her own career going. Finding a full-time job was nearly impossible at first, when she moved with her Army sergeant husband to a rural part of Kansas. And when the kids came along, she couldn't manage both work and child care, with her family and support network far away and her husband gone half the time.
Any job "would just pay for daycare," says Cavalier. "It's really not worth it. That's one of the hardest pitfalls."
And the search can get even harder, since the longer you've been out of the workforce, the more likely an employer is to raise an eyebrow. "Employers don't like seeing gaps in your resume," says Cavalier. And someone who might move in two years, a year, or tomorrow, isn't an ideal hire.
An employer isn't legally allowed to ask an applicant his or her marital status, but a quick scan through your geographic history (Fort Chaffee, Fort Irwin, Camp Bowie) tends to give away your conjugal ties to the military. "Any employer's not an idiot," says Jacey Eckhart. "They're going to know."
Deployments can be agonizing for the at-home spouse. But when the military member returns, one can picture the movie embrace, the rainbows and roses, and the string quartet.
But then the rainbows dissolve. The roses wilt. The quartet packs up.
"All my friends think that homecoming is the magic pill that cures deployment," says Lori Volkman. "There's a whole other phase about homecoming. There's the honeymoon stage -- and then the shininess starts to fade."
The couple then has to settle back into its routine, while "realizing that you and your spouse have each grown significantly, and you've done so separately," Volkman explains. There are just so many moments, milestones and jokes you haven't shared, which stack up with each passing month. "It's hard to realize how high that stack has become," she adds.
The readjustment phase can take as long as the deployment itself, Volkman says. Her husband was gone for 15 months, and now that he's been back a year, "we're still being really awkward together."
Cavalier managed to complete her master's degree in public administration while married to her military man. But that was no easy feat with all the moving around, applying to new programs, and losing credits that wouldn't transfer.
Over a third of working military spouses also require a license or certification for their professions, according to a report by the departments of Defense and Treasury. And with all the state-hopping, it can be overwhelmingly frustrating to get newly licensed every few years.
As a full-time prosecuting attorney, Volkman knows this firsthand. Every time her family moved, she had to retake that state's specific bar exam. A lot of law-trained military spouses, she says, find this so impossible that they end up giving up on any hope of practicing. "A lot of them are freelance writers," she says.
Moving all the time means having to make new friends all the time. And while military spouses are often welcomed by military spouse communities, the idea that a military spouse will become best friends with another military spouse just because of this shared experience is "like assuming your college roommate is going to be your best friend because you're both 18 and blonde," says Jacey Eckhart.
And while civilians may be friendly to their new neighbor, Eckhart says that it can take as much as a year for a real friendship to develop, particularly with other mothers who "like to watch to see if you're the kind of person who feeds their kids mac n' cheese nine times a day." Especially if you're moving every two years, that means a lot of lonely time.
Eckhart wishes civilians would open themselves up faster to friendship with a new military spouse arrival. The military moniker, she says, is like a stamp from the government that you're a somewhat trustworthy character. "We're drug free and employed!" she says. "We've got health insurance!"
Moving all the time means your kids are moving all the time too. And so the children who need support and structure the most -- the ones with a parent deployed far away -- don't have the playdates and sleepovers that their classmates do.
"Instead of crying over 'these poor military children, invite that military kid to the birthday party," Eckhart says. "What's one more piece of cake? What's one more goody bag?"
A spouse's deployment is clearly hard on the one at home too. There's all the longing and worrying and wishing, of course, as well as the housework and child care that is suddenly his or her's alone.
Anxiety, loneliness and financial stress are common. But if the spouse manages it all, that can be hard on the returning military member too. Realizing that his or her family "got along fine without them" can be a blow to a person's sense of self, says Volkman. And if the returning military member tries to immediately return to his or her old role, the spouse may feel like his or her independence is suddenly stripped away, and a carefully ordered world suddenly disrupted.
Children with deployed parents are at risk of a whole host of issues, from anger to apathy to academic decline. But as a military spouse, it can be particularly hard to watch your young offspring forget, as time goes on, what your husband or wife looks and sounds like.
"I remember that point in my father's own deployment, when I couldn't really remember his face anymore," says Volkman, who grew up a Navy brat. "I had a photograph of him, but I couldn't really remember what it looked like when he smiled. I remember the fear associated with that."