It was just a few months ago that Gen. Dewey Everhart appealed to officers across Air Mobility Command (AMC) for their suggestions on how to stem the unfolding pilot retention crisis gripping the command. As reported by Air Force Times, his appeal generated hundreds of suggestions, which he then handed off to a task force to distill actionable retention initiatives.
As that task force begins to comment on what it has learned so far, I’d like to make a few comments of my own to reflect on the key themes they’ve revealed.
For example, when it comes to quality of life, airmen want the Air Force to protect their time before and after a deployment. While getting ready to deploy, airmen need time to make sure everything is in order. After they return from deployment, they want to focus on their families, [Brig. Gen. Samuel] Mahaney said. “Protecting that time frame from other requirements [or additional duties] is one of the suggestions we’ve gotten.”
This is a really good idea. So good, in fact, that it’s been raised by mobility airmen for as long as anyone can remember. This is not a new idea, and it should not have taken a task force to surface it. In fact, it’s not an idea at all, but a duty of care commanders owe to their airmen.
When I took my own squadron on a deployment in 2011, we were delayed nearly a week returning from the AOR. Not because our replacement was late — in fact, they arrived right on time. Not because we’d failed to coordinate or plan — in fact, the rotation home had been carefully communicated and worked for months. We were late because a low-level functionary in the office that scheduled contract rotators screwed up and missed a coordination deadline, and to fix her error would have cost a few thousand dollars. I personally raised this issue multiple levels up the chain of command, finding nothing but gutless bureaucrats where generals and leaders were alleged to roam. We dwelled an entire flying squadron for a week, crushing post-deployment plans and promises and curtailing downtime … because AMC did not care one iota about getting people home on time, much less protecting their time once home.
In the six years since, AMC has done nothing to address this issue, which is endemic to squadron rotations. It didn’t need to be told the issue exists, but hopefully this will be the moment it finally gets serious.
Acknowledgement of employed spouses is another concern, and airmen want that taken into account during the assignment process. “They want to ensure [their spouses] have the opportunity to excel in their careers as well,” Mahaney said, adding that considering the needs of school-age children is also a priority.
This has also been an issue since the days when there were still ashtrays installed in AMC aircraft. No one has cared before. Remember Year of the Family? Neither do the spouses.
Everhart said one suggestion he thinks can be taken up to the Air Force level is the length of deployments. “Why do we have to go and deploy a mobility type of pilot into a generalist area that they really don’t need to go into,” he said. “We can look across the entire population and go, ‘Maybe it doesn’t have to be a pilot.’ It can be someone else to fit that.”
Pilots have been saying this for years. We’ve been channelling this message almost word-for-word at this blog since 2013. I personally raised this issue to AMC senior leaders during my own command tour as far back as 2010, as did dozens of my colleagues. For the entire four years of Mark Welsh’s tenure as Chief of Staff, officers across the service begged and pleaded for a review of deployment requirements, insisting they were being sent downrange on unnecessary rotations imposing undue hardship upon them and their families. No one listened. Is Everhart finally the guy who will not just listen but act?
One of the driving factors of the task force and soliciting input from airmen is to build trust, Everhart said. “We’ve heard you,” he said. “We’re listening to you. I think it’s there, but I just want to make sure that we have a good, solid foundation of trust.”
This is the key, and here Dewey gets it a little bit wrong. AMC airmen do not trust their command anymore. For trust to once again predominate, the general and his team must do more than engage in a dialogue. They must take meaningful action on the feedback they have received, and must generate results.
No more talk. No more workshopping or focus-grouping. No more slick YouTube commercials or A1 roadshows. Just action. And it better be quick enough to throw some kindling on that waning, flickering flame of confidence that has all but burned out.
If, after this latest round of particularly positive-sounding bluster, airmen are left with nothing but the status quo pig with a fresh coat of lipstick, that flame of confidence will be extinguished.
And you know what they say … it’s always darkest just before everything goes black.