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Air Force reporting progress in fight for pilots as COVID-19 ravages airlines

OTTAWA — The commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force is reporting progress in his long-running fight to recruit and retain enough pilots to fly the military’s planes and helicopters. Yet Lt.-Gen.

OTTAWA — The commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force is reporting progress in his long-running fight to recruit and retain enough pilots to fly the military’s planes and helicopters.

Yet Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger says it's unclear how much the slowdown in hiring by commercial airlines during the pandemic has helped his cause. And he admits to having concerns that some of the air force's gains could be temporary if airlines resume poaching from the military.

“The efforts that we put into retention writ large, and also specific to pilots, they have helped,” Meinzinger said in an interview.

“I'm a realist as well. I recognize that the commercial aviation sector has suffered significantly during the pandemic. … I'm optimistic we'll see a strong bounceback in the commercial sector, but that will also reintroduce some pressures.”

The Canadian Press was the first to report in 2018 that the air force was dealing with a critical shortage of aviators, which has since been identified as a significant issue by both military officials and outside experts such as the federal auditor general.

While the air force is supposed to have about 1,500 pilots, Meinzinger said he is currently short about 90 aviators. That represents significant progress from May, when it needed 130 pilots.

While no one factor or initiative is responsible, Meinzinger suggested several new retention and recruitment measures rolled out over the past two years have helped address the problem, including new training efforts and a pay increase.

The air force has also implemented better support for military families, increased certainty for pilots in terms of career progression and made a concerted effort to keep aviators in the cockpit and away from desks and administrative work.

Yet Meinzinger also acknowledged the pain felt by commercial airlines during the pandemic has also helped him by reducing the civilian sector’s need for pilots. 

While many experienced military pilots have previously hung up their air force uniforms to fly commercial planes in the past, the airline industry has been battered by travel restrictions and other factors during the pandemic.

“We'll just have to continue to manage that,” Meinzinger said of dealing with a resurgence in demand for pilots from the commercial sector. “But I think we're in a better position today than we were two years ago.”

Meinzinger has previously said how a shortage of experienced pilots was forcing the air force to walk a delicate line between keeping enough seasoned aviators available to train new recruits and lead missions in the air.

Fixing the problems created by the shortage will become especially critical if the air force is to be ready for the arrival of replacements for the CF-18s. The list of potential replacements was recently narrowed to two potential fighter jets: the F-35 and Saab Gripen.

Meanwhile, to better ensure the military has enough pilots in the medium and long term, the air force recently changed how long new pilots stay in uniform. Aviators were previously required to stay seven years, but that number is now 10.

“Based on the investments that we make in training, it's a very significant investment,” he said. “So we believe that an obligatory service period of 10 years made much more sense, and is in fact very much consistent with our allies.”

The air force actually reported needing 275 pilots in September 2018, but was able to reduce that number extremely quickly through a reorganization that saw a number of planning and support positions — desk jobs — previously filled by pilots moved to non-pilots.

Yet officials have yet to fill all of those non-flying positions. While the air force is aiming to have more than 190 so-called “air operations officers” to plan and co-ordinate missions rather than flying them, it currently has only 29. Another 47 are in or awaiting training.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press