“We need more fighter pilots!” This is a phrase often repeated in leadership circles of the United States Air Force these days. You might think it would be easy to recruit and retain fighter pilots—after all doesn’t every little kid dream of flying pointy-nosed jets at some point in their life? Take me, for example. I dreamed of flying fighters since before I could talk (true story: my first word as documented by my parents was jet.) It wasn’t easy, but I worked my way into the cockpit of the world’s premier Air Dominance Fighter, the F-22 Raptor. So, why would someone who has dreamed their whole life of being a fighter pilot—someone who has struggled and slaved to make the cut to fly a high-performance fighter—ever even think of walking away from such an ideal job? This article is meant Active Duty pilots and other curious types who are considering the question we all face at some point: should I stay or should I go?
I smile as I look back to August 5, 2005—the day I received a shiny set of Air Force pilot wings at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, OK. I was proud to wear a military uniform and beamed at having earned the distinction of being an aviator. Leaving the service wasn’t even on my radar that day, nor should it have been. My dreams of flying a major weapon system (I originally wanted to fly the F-16) were temporarily suspended as I was to be a First Assignment Instructor Pilot (FAIP), but I wasn’t too torn up about it. I was going to attend Pilot Instructor Training at Randolph Air Force Base and then return to Vance to teach fellow aviation lovers to fly the T-38C. For the next several years, my focus was on getting into a fighter.
I would finally get my chance to fly a fighter in 2008 when I learned that I had been accepted into the F-22 program—something I thought was a long shot at the time. Life seemed like a daydream as I worked my way through Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF), a quick spin-up in the F-16 to prepare me for the single-seat Raptor, and eventually the F-22 Basic Course (affectionately known as the B-Course.)
For the next seven years, I would enjoy employing the most advanced airborne killing machine ever created by man. As time wore on and I worked my way through various upgrades in the aircraft, my perspective underwent some subtle changes. I started to see that as I advanced in military rank, expectations other than being a proficient airborne assassin were being heaped upon me. As I worked my way up from the Training Shop to Scheduling to being a Flight Commander to an Assistant Director of Operations, I was using more and more of my time to ensure squadron compliance with a mountain of regulations and less and less time planning for and flying missions in the F-22.
This new reality hit me hard on my last Active Duty deployment (deployment details withheld for obvious reasons) as I began to feel my proficiency slipping and my desire to stay in the Air Force waning.
“What is happening with me?” I would ask myself on a daily basis. I spent many hours assessing my situation and contemplating my future in the Air Force. I found that my declining motivation to stay on Active Duty was due partly to leadership at the time and an up or out mentality that prevailed in the Air Force. I also realized that after several deployments, TDYs (Temporary Duty), and being away from my family for months at a time on a fairly regular basis, I was getting burned out.
My pilot training commitment of 10 years was closing in rapidly, and I needed to figure out what I was going to do. I knew that I couldn’t stay on my current trajectory—being a queep (pilot speak for worthless administrative work) workhorse as I prepared for future leadership positions—was obviously bringing me down. I wanted to keep flying, but on my terms. More importantly, I wanted to give my family an ideal lifestyle that didn’t require long absences. For the first time in my career, I was thinking about leaving Active Duty.
Leaving the service isn’t right for everyone. The decision to stay or go is extremely personal, and the individual’s impetus to leave varies widely. This is something I don’t believe Air Force leadership truly understands. It seems they believe there is one main reason everyone’s leaving, but when it comes to down to brass tacks, those who decide to leave do so for a variety of reasons. I needed to figure out my reasons, if any, to leave.
I needed a plan. I needed to figure out what was most important to me in life and pursue a path that allowed me to achieve an optimal lifestyle based on that assessment. As I assessed every aspect of my current career and its trajectory, I asked myself two simple questions: “Does this make me happy? Would I be happier without this in my life?”
Here is a basic list of career areas I assessed:
– Flying the jet
– Time/effort spent mission planning
– Time/effort spent studying and staying proficient
– Administrative tasks (Computer Based Trainings, mobility/readiness tasks, etc.)
– Ground duties (writing performance reports, awards, and decorations)
– Supervisory duties (Supervisor of Flying, Top-3, etc.)
– “Extracurricular” duties and tasks required to advance in the USAF
– TDYs (Temporary Duty—time away from home doing training/deployment activities)
– Future career path
– Future geographic moves
– Future opportunities for flying
Once I made my assessment of each of these areas, I determined my top five reasons for staying and my top five reasons for leaving Active Duty. I compared my reasons to stay or go with my career assessment to help me determine what would be best for my family and me. Here are both my reasons for staying and my reasons for going (Note: these may be very different from yours!)
Reasons to Stay on Active Duty:
1) I desire to serve my country.
2) I love flying fighters.
3) I enjoy the comradery of the fighter squadron.
4) I will have education and leadership opportunities I might not otherwise have.
5) I’m relatively happy with the compensation, and the retention bonus is good.
Reasons to Leave Active Duty:
1) I will have more control over my life and my time.
2) My home/family life will improve as a result of #1.
3) I will be able to pursue personal interests that I don’t have to pursue on Active Duty.
4) I will not have to deploy anymore.
5) I will have a higher earning potential in a non-government job.
Leaving Active Duty doesn’t have to be the end of a fighter pilot’s career. The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard provide numerous opportunities to continue flying fighters on a part-time basis. For me, this was the best choice: take control of my lifestyle, where I want to live, my earning potential, and my free time while maintaining many of my reasons to stay. I still get to fly fast, I still get to enjoy the fraternity of fighter pilots, and I still have leadership opportunities if—and only if—I want them.
In the end, every pilot must do what is best for his or her personal situation. For me the correct decision quickly became clear, and I couldn’t be happier with the path I’ve chosen.