Fewer planes are ready to fly: Air Force mission-capable rates decline amid pilot crisis

The F-22 saw an 11.17 percentage point reduction in mission-capable rates in 2017. It was one of several airframes that saw similar dips, contributing to an overall decline in mission-capable rates across the Air Force. (Tech Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth/Air Force)

 

The readiness of the Air Force’s aircraft fleet is continuing its slow, steady deterioration — and this could spell trouble for the service’s effort to hold on to its pilots and its ability to respond to contingencies around the world.

According to data provided by the Air Force, about 71.3 percent of the Air Force’s aircraft were flyable, or mission-capable, at any given time in fiscal 2017. That represents a drop from the 72.1 percent mission-capable rate in fiscal 2016, and a continuation of the decline in recent years.

Former Air Force pilots and leaders say that this continued trend is a gigantic red flag, and warn it could lead to serious problems down the road.

“It scares the heck out of me,” said retired Gen. Hawk Carlisle, former head of Air Combat Command. “It really does.”

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Highway to the danger zone? Non-pilot given command of Air Force in Pacific

The White House has picked the first female general to head the Air Force in the Pacific, which will make her the first non-pilot to command air power in such a large theater of operation.

The Pentagon announced this week that Air Force Lt. Gen. Lori J. Robinson has been nominated for promotion to four-star general and as commander of Pacific Air Forces, the Air Force component of U.S. Pacific Command. It is a major combatant command whose air, ground and naval forces have broad responsibility for security in the Asia-Pacific region. Her nomination was sent to the Senate for confirmation.

Gen. Robinson is not a career pilot. Her military profession is air battle manager. She has served aboard the Air Force’s surveillance aircraft, the E-3 AWACs and E-8 JSTARS, and she was nominated for a promotion amid a drive for more diversity in the Pentagon.

A retired pilot said there is a reason the Air Force historically has put a pilot in charge of large combatant command Air Forces.

It is because you make operational decisions that require the understanding of what you are going to ask pilots to execute in combat where the wrong decisions mean the difference between life and death,” the retired pilot said. “Now her vice commander and director of operations will be rated fighter pilots, but still she makes the decisions.” Continue reading