By Scott Taylor
On June 10, Lieutenant General Al Meinzinger, the Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, sent out a message to all personnel outlining several new initiatives which are intended to address the military’s chronic shortage of experienced pilots and ground crew.
As of last fall the RCAF were admittedly short of at least 275 pilots, and the Auditor General report claimed that due to the shortage of qualified personnel, Canada was unable to fully operate the current fleet of CF-18 Hornet fighter jets.
The Liberal government solution to this was to announce the acquisition of 18 used CF-18 fighters from Australia to add to the number of parked planes that we cannot fly or maintain now. But I digress.
The gist of Meinzinger’s latest message is that the RCAF will implement signing bonuses to attract trained fighter pilots back into the service and offer cash retention bonuses to keep those experienced pilots and ground crew in uniform.
The root cause of the present shortage is the worldwide boom in demand for commercial pilots. Some Canadian defence observers have pointed the finger of blame at the singular inability of successive Federal governments to acquire a modern replacement for the thirty-five year old fleet of CF-18’s. The gaping hole in this theory is the fact that when they leave the RCAF they are heading to jobs wherein they will be flying passenger planes. Instead of engaging in high speed maneuvers, vertical climbs and dives they will be making gradual ascents and descents and looking to avoid turbulence. This is the career change equivalent of a formula one race car driver getting a retirement job driving a school bus.
There was also never a drought of volunteers to learn how to pilot a Sea King helicopter, and those things were in service for over 50 years. What the airlines offer former RCAF pilots is far more than just a lucrative paycheque, they also offer for far more flexibility in terms of where these individuals can reside. At present, if you are going to be part of a fighter Squadron you are stationed at either Cold Lake, Alberta or Bagotville, Quebec.
Neither of these remote centers could be considered an urban hub. This means that employment opportunities for pilots’ spouses is severely limited as are schooling options or special needs facilities for the kids.
During the Cold War, Canada had three fighter squadrons stationed in West Germany; posting to which afforded personnel and their families easy travel access to all of Western Europe. The current options from Bagotville and Cold Lake are, well, a lot less exiting.
I understand the operational necessity of having our fighter aircraft based in these northern bases. However, the question begs, do our pilots and their families need to be permanently based there?
What if our fighter squadrons were officially based in major urban centres for all of their administrative duties, with simulator training capabilities, like firefighters who rotate shifts living at the fire hall? Why not simply transport the pilots and ground crew into Bagotville and Cold Lake when they are to conduct their actual flying operations? Obviously, in a time of crisis it would be a case of all-hands-on-deck, and in such circumstances you would really not want all the families there anyway.
Even flying for the airlines, flight crews spend days away from their families if they are on the long haul routes. Under such a system of commuting in and out of forward operating fighter bases, the spouses could enjoy the career opportunities of a major city, which they are denied under the current arrangement.
Cash bonuses for signing and retention of personnel might work in the short term, but it is necessary to sort out a longer-term solution. There is no indication that the global demand for skilled aviators is going to diminish in the foreseeable future, and RCAF pilots are among the best in the world. It costs a fortune to train such pilots, so perhaps it is time we get more creative about keeping them in uniform. Dangling a cash carrot won’t fool them for long.