RCAF reports personnel ‘plateau’

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has reduced its pilot shortage by almost 75 in the past year. As of December 2019, the Air Force had a shortfall of 203 pilots across fixed-wing, fast jet and rotary-wing aircraft, a notable decrease from a gap of 275 in the fall of 2018.

RCAF rotary-wing graduates
The RCAF has no problem attracting prospective aircrew — between 1,000-1,200 candidates continue to go through aircrew selection — but the Air Force has reduced the number recruited to the basic training list of 780 by about 40, helping to decrease the wait times in some fleets. RCAF Photo
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While the RCAF saw small decreases among air mobility and fighter pilots, and is managing a dip among maritime helicopter pilots as aircraft captains re-qualify on the CH-148 Cyclone, the overall attrition seems to have “plateaued a bit,” said Col Mark Larsen, director of Air Personnel Strategy.

The decrease is being attributed to a number of factors, but it’s a welcome sign that some retention measures are having an impact. Faced with a steady demand for pilots from the commercial sector, the Air Force had anticipated it might take a year or two before its retention efforts showed results.

“We figured it would be a year to three years to start seeing some positive indicators, with a full seven-plus years to see those trends start to shift back up,” said Larsen.

The pilot shortage might be the most visible and frequently touted number in the media, but Larsen and a small Air Force cell are monitoring a range of indicators — from aircrew candidates on the basic training list, to the number of newly winged graduates, and the status of the operational training units (OTU) — to gauge the impact of several new initiatives launched last July to retain experienced pilots and keep them on frontline squadrons.

The work is part of two multi-year programs, Operation Experience and Operation Talent. The former is a directive from the Chief of the Defence Staff “to stabilize and rapidly increase levels of pilot experience,” while the latter is an Air Force-led effort to improve the quality of life and quality of service of all personnel and their families.

“Together, these initiatives are vital in the face of an unprecedented level of global competition for the skills of pilots, technicians, highly trained aviation specialists and support personnel,” RCAF commander LGen Al Meinzinger told Air Force personnel last June. “We are at risk of losing the depth of experience that our more senior personnel possess and, thus, the ability to mentor, train and transfer knowledge to our newer aviators and bring them to an operationally effective level.

“Without action to stabilize our levels of experienced personnel, the RCAF’s operational output will be further impacted. Increasing our intake and our training capacity is not enough. We must nurture an environment where the RCAF’s quality of life and quality of service make it more attractive for our members to stay than to leave.”

Though the initiatives of both operations affect personnel across the Air Force, the primary focus has been on preserving flying experience on the frontline squadrons. “Our aim is to keep more aircrew and pilots, in particular, on the squadron than in staff positions,” said Larsen. “The squadron [is] where the dividends will be realized.”

Though it might seem contradictory for a service seeking to grow, the Air Force has reduced the number of pilots entering the training system in an attempt to minimize delays as pilot candidates transition through the various phases of flight training, and to reduce the backlog at the OTUs where they acquire aircraft type training before transition to operation squadrons.

“This may seem to be a bit counterintuitive,” admitted Larsen. “You are short of experienced pilots, so why are you not taking in as many junior pilots? But it is all about the first officer-to-aircraft captain ratios.”

The RCAF has no problem attracting prospective aircrew – between 1,000-1,200 candidates continue to go through aircrew selection – but the Air Force has reduced the number recruited to the basic training list of 780 by about 40, helping to decrease the wait times in some fleets.

The intake plan for the current fiscal year includes 74 pilot candidates recruited externally and 22 transfers from other military occupations. As of January, the Air Force had reached 90 per cent of its total intake target and, with several offers still pending, expected to achieve its goal by March 31. That number includes six former RCAF pilots and three pilots from other nations under an Op Talent initiative to streamline and prioritize re-enrolment of skilled aviators from the RCAF and allied militaries.

The intake number will likely be reduced next year to align with forecasted training capacity. “We manage the intake to ensure we are not overfilling the training system,” explained Larsen.

Graduates stand with one of the CT-156 Harvard III aircraft at 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Moose Jaw.
More contracted instructor pilots are being employed by the RCAF for basic flight instruction. Nine positions were created in the past year, seven at 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Moose Jaw, Sask., and two at 419 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron in Cold Lake, Alta. DND Photo

Several initiatives underway

To keep more experienced pilots in the cockpit and not at a desk, the Air Force last fall stood up a new trade called the Air Operations Officer, a battlespace manager in operations centres whose position would previously have been filled by personnel on ground tours. About 200 positions have been created and this year the Air Force will start to populate them with qualified pilots, air combat systems officers and aerospace control officers who wish to transfer into the new occupation. “We are in the process of building the training program, at which time we will open it up to other entry plans,” said Larsen.

Another measure has been the limited use of more contracted instructor pilots for basic flight instruction. Nine positions were created in the past year, seven at 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Moose Jaw, Sask., and two at 419 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron in Cold Lake, Alta. Most are former military, making it a way to return experienced pilots to the frontline squadrons and retain the services of recently retired members. “In a way, that is the retention of experience,” noted Larsen.

Other initiatives include the implementation of a four-year minimum first flying tour for aircrew, a step now possible with the RCAF redistributing their pilot workforce, and changes to the restricted release period (RPP) policy for pilots that guarantees the RCAF more bang for its training buck and gives pilots more flexibility in their career choices.

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Effective November 2019, exchange pilots only have to serve the three years of a typical exchange with an allied air force. Previously, they had to “give back” an equal number of years they were out of country, making a three-year exchange the equivalent of a six-year commitment. Exchange positions help the RCAF deepen expertise through the experience of allies.

The policy was also tweaked for pilots requiring recertification on an airframe, reducing their restricted release period from two years to one, and for new occupational pilots, increasing their initial release period from seven to 10 years following the award of their Wings.

“We changed the restricted release policy to guarantee a larger return on investment at the front end from an obligatory service perspective, but also to remove some of the dissatisfiers at mid-point in careers for things like postings out of country and fleet changes,” said Larsen. “Now there is a little bit more freedom of decision-making, which has a retention effect because people are more in control of what they can do.”

One of the aims of Op Experience was to encourage pilots contemplating release to transfer to the Reserves and continue to serve while working in the commercial sector. Larsen said the effort has had modest success to date, in part because the Air Force has adjusted policies to allow Reserve pilots to live where they like and commute to operational Wings in Cold Lake, Bagotville and Trenton for three to five days at a time.

“The program is tracking at about a dozen-plus pilots,” said Larsen. “We are monitoring this to ensure the flexibility is … generating the return we expect from a flying perspective. We might need to tweak it, but at the outset it is relatively promising … We have tried to make that employment more flexible so it can be scheduled with more ease for the individual Reservist.”

As part of the effort to improve quality of service and quality of life, there also has been an increased focus on improving communications at Wings and units through the RCAF Family Sponsor Program as a way to ease the stress of relocation and connect families to each other, local leadership, and services.

With commercial aviation confronting a widespread skills shortage, Ops Talent and Experience have a much broader focus than just pilots – the Air Force has trialed projects to improve the training of maintenance technicians and keep more on the frontlines of operational squadrons. Larsen acknowledged some of the initial changes may seem “structural,” but suggested “the fact that we are making progress on a number of fronts” is a positive indicator that the RCAF will see “dividends in the coming years.”

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