OTTAWA—The oft-delayed purchase of new fighter jets is contributing to a flight of pilots out of the Air Force to the civilian sector, causing a critical shortage of skilled aviators to fly Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s, insiders say.
Flying a 30-year-old jet holds less appeal for pilots who are no longer prepared to sacrifice quality of life and are instead quitting for airline careers, where demand for experienced personnel is sky-high.
The rush out the door has left the Royal Canadian Air Force coping with less experienced pilots flying increasingly outdated jets, former fighter pilots tell the Star.
“It’s not a winning proposition,” one veteran former pilot told the Star.
In a recent report, the auditor general turned a spotlight on the crisis, noting that the Air Force only had 64 per cent of the CF-18 pilots it needs. Between April 2016 and March 2018, 40 fighter pilots left and the Air Force was only able to train 30 new ones. Since then, 17 more pilots have indicated they are out the door.
If that pace continues, there won’t be enough experienced pilots to train new ones and the Air Force won’t be able to meet its obligations to NATO and NORAD, the report said.
The Star spoke to several former fighter pilots about the situation. They spoke on background because of sensitivities around their current jobs.
They say several factors are at play in the exodus of pilots. These include exasperation over the delayed purchase of replacement jets that are now not expected for a decade or more, as well as a desire for better quality of life away from the two main fighter bases in Cold Lake, Alta., and Bagotville, Que.
But the biggest factor is the huge demand for pilots across Canada and the world, offering military pilots an easy path to the cockpits of commercial airliners.
“There’s not enough pilots globally … so companies are very aggressive in recruiting wherever they can find them. Military pilots are prime candidates, so they get offered good deals and off they go,” one former pilot said.
The broader pilot shortage problem could soon be the topic of parliamentary study. Liberal MP Steve Fuhr, a former Air Force pilot who flew the CF-18, has proposed a motion to have the Commons transport committee examine the challenges facing flight schools in training new pilots.
Speaking to the motion earlier this month, Fuhr (Kelowna-Lake Country) said the industry-wide shortage is already having an effect on the civilian sector and the military, and noted that Canada could be short 3,000 pilots by 2025.
“As the pilot shortage percolates up, both scheduled and nonscheduled commercial air service will be negatively affected,” Fuhr told a meeting of the committee on Nov. 21.
The CF-18s were last deployed in a combat role in Iraq against Daesh, and remain potent fighters. Able to fly at almost twice the speed of sound, they continue to hold appeal for young military pilots.
But delays in purchasing new fighters, first by the Conservative government and now the Liberals, means replacement aircraft are 10 years or more away. With no prospect of flying the next generation of fighter, some pilots see little incentive to stick around and are opting to quit the Armed Forces when their flying tours are complete.
“They make the calculation that I’m never going to fly anything other than an old 40-year-old F-18 in my entire career,” the former pilot said.
However, another veteran pilot downplayed the delayed procurement as a reason for the departures. “Realistically, I don’t think that’s driving people out the door,” he said.
After two tours of flying — typically about six years — pilots usually move to a desk job. That’s the point where military pilots who are keen to keep flying decide to jump to the private sector, which offers the promise of a good career and the chance to live closer to big cities.
“That’s why guys get out. What’s ultimately driving them out is opportunity,” he said.
Whatever the reason, the departures are hitting the RCAF hard. The Air Force has 76 CF-18s and just over 100 pilots qualified to fly them, insiders say. As a result, having almost 60 quit the forces in just over two years marks a huge loss in experience, they say.
The former Air Force veterans stressed that training is good and that the young pilots arriving at the front-line squadrons are well-qualified. Yet they are considered “minimum combat-ready,” able to initially fly only as wingmen and require another one or two years of experience to be considered qualified to fly all missions and serve as flight leaders.
“That’s the danger of this cycle. They’re not regenerating the same numbers as they’re losing,” the pilot said. “The experience level is dropping … With that goes an increase in risk.”
By the time they are replaced, the CF-18s will have been in the Air Force fleet for almost half a century, 30 years longer than planned. The auditor general noted that it’s been 10 years since there was any significant upgrade to their combat capabilities. The Air Force had been relying on the experience of its pilots to overcome shortfalls caused by the age of the aircraft.
“You can still fight OK with an old jet if you have very, very skilled individuals flying it. We invest a lot in our training and therefore our people are very capable, adaptive, innovative,” the pilot said.
“The problem is that those guys are leaving,” he said.
In response to the auditor general findings, Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger, commander of the RCAF, said the Air Force is taking steps to help retain aircrews, including measures to improve the quality of life along with changes to how the Air Force trains its pilots to give it “greater flexibility to better meet future personnel demands.”
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Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier