Diversity and the Pilot Shortage
“As the Air Force faces the greatest pilot shortages since its inception, service leaders are contemplating a return to a model that includes enlisted pilots. A Rand Corp. study, set to be completed this month, is exploring the feasibility of bringing back a warrant officer corps for that purpose.” (Pawlyk, 2018)
The Air Force announced recently that it was considering bringing back “warrant” officers as a possible solution to the pilot crisis. It is interesting how solutions from the past often resurface as answers to crises of the present. One of the things that I found in researching the history of the Tuskegee Airmen was that many of its pilots were not second lieutenants but “flight officers.” This was a significant revelation to me because the Hollywood portrayals of the Tuskegee Airmen depict all of the Airmen as commissioned officers. Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Original Tuskegee Airman Lt Col Robert Ashby:
L/C Ashby You go through basic training, lower basic, upper basic, lower advance, upper advance and you graduate and become an officer or flight officer. And that was something that probably was not brought out too much. But in graduating they established who is going to be a second lieutenant and officer and who is going to be a flight officer. Which is equivalent to warrant officer within the Air Corps. So, we had a lot of... some classes had maybe three-fourths of the class graduating with flight officers and a small group as second lieutenants. In our class, I can’t remember how many lieutenants we had. I'll have to look that up and how many flight officers we had when we graduated.
Ivan: I've never had that. I've never heard that before. Because you know in the movies they always show everybody that graduated became a lieutenant, they didn’t show these other...
L/C Ashby: We had lots of flight officers graduating and most classes had more flight officers than second lieutenants.
L/C Ashby: They, flight officers, they went overseas along with everyone else flying. A lot of the guys went over there a great many of them as, in fact as flight officers.
Ivan: So if I'm understanding you correctly, when we think of the Tuskegee Airmen especially some of the earlier groups, the classes of ‘42, ’43. I'll say ’43. Are you telling me that a lot of the people that when we think of the Tuskegee Airmen and the people that are flying the escort missions and doing the things that the Tuskegee Airmen did, that many of those people were flight officers?
L/C Ashby: Yes, yes.
Ivan: Wow I've never heard that before.
L/C Ashby: In fact, I was reviewing something not too long ago and Freeman Field the incident at Freeman Field about the individuals that were arrested during that period of time. Looking at the roster of the individuals who were up there at Freeman going for B-25, I would say probably sixty maybe seventy percent of them were flight officers.
Ivan: Oh wow.
L/C Ashby: So, there were quite a few flight officers, and they did have a system set up where they can graduate, not graduate but be promoted to a second lieutenant after a period of time. But that of course was dependent upon their efficiency rating and all that sort of stuff. But I know that there are some guys that went overseas as flight officers, and they came back as flight officers.
I have shared the history of the flight officers in the Tuskegee Airmen’s ranks not only as interesting historical fact but to point out that this was one way that was successfully used to increase diversity in the flying ranks before the Air Force became a separate Service.
In 2018 flight officers/warrant officers are being considered again now as an answer to the pilot shortage. It begs the question why weren’t flight officers/warrant officers previously considered as a remedy to the long-standing shortage of minority pilots? That question almost answers itself. The Air Force’s pilot shortage wasn’t a crisis, worthy of crisis-level responses, until there weren’t enough non-minority pilots to put in cockpits.
The Air Force has had a shortage in minority pilots since the Creech era, post-Vietnam targeted drawdown that I refer to in “Black Ceiling” as “the Great Black Out.” In this drawdown minority fighter pilots were overwhelmingly and disproportionately selected in the Air Force’s fighter pilot cuts. In “Black Ceiling” I stated that it is the single greatest reason we do not have greater diversity in the Air Force fighter pilot force, at every rank, even today. The Air Force’s crisis response considerations in 2018 again reinforce the fact that the non-minority pilot shortage is viewed as a crisis and the shortage of minority pilots historically has not been.
That whole discussion leads to the most controversial question in this book. Does the Air Force really want an influx of black pilots? Is it ready for this kind of cultural shift? What outlandish questions you might say but looking back over the Air Force’s history, often the answer has been no.
It was clear in my interviews of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Ashby and other Tuskegee Airmen era pilots that the Army Air Corps tried to limit the number of black pilots and pilot units. Lt Col Ashby spoke of classmates being washed out for reasons that were frivolous and hard to explain. He even recalls pilots being washed out who he felt were good pilots, some even better than himself. The only explanation that Lt Col Ashby and his peers could come up with was that there was some kind of “quota” or cap in place. Once the cap number was reached pilots above that limit were washed out.
When we think of the Tuskegee Airmen, we think of the famous fighter pilots. However, there was also a bomber group. We don’t hear that much about them because they were never deployed into the combat theater. Several Tuskegee Airmen that I interviewed, including Oliver Goodall (my favorite) and Lt Col Ashby, believe that the Air Force never had any real plans to put the Tuskegee Airmen bomber pilots into action in the combat theater.
I gather from their collective comments (and Lt Col Ashby’s below) that the bomber group’s creation was used for window dressing and ultimately appeasement. It was a response to the clamoring call of the African American community for greater diversity and greater inclusion in the combat effort during World War II.
Somewhere along there when we got, I think it was ‘44, the latter part of ’43 or 44 we had four squadrons over in Europe. The whole 332nd fighter group was over there. The 99th was separate at the time but once they got all three squadrons over and the Composite Group of the 332nd fighter group, the 99th was ordered back from the attachment they had with the white groups back to the 332nd. And the Tuskegee Airmen were the only group with four squadrons. The normal composition of squadrons at that time was three squadrons. And the 332nd fighter group was the only outfit over there with four squadrons. Which is not the normal set up. And they decided at that time with the guys continually graduating and getting ready to go overseas; they did not want any more black overseas pilots. They did not want anymore because they weren’t going to start another group. They weren’t going to put them with attachment to white groups and all that. They had a group over there, the 332nd and that was it. And all the pilots that were graduating continued to fly and gain more experience here in the States waiting for something to happen. And then of course the Air Corps got wind that people were wondering why aren’t they sending these blacks overseas when they needed fighter pilots over there or whatever. They weren’t sending them overseas. They were here in the states flying around at Tuskegee. So, then they came up with the idea that they would start the 477th Bomb Group so that you know they'll have something for them to do. And in my opinion, the 477th Bomb Group was never envisioned to be completed and be a full-scale bomber group ready to go overseas.
The desire to limit the combat involvement of greater numbers of Tuskegee Airmen was symptomatic of the national culture in the 1940s. Fast forward to the ‘70s. In the 1970s the Air Force successfully conducted clustering experiments that reduced the attrition rate amongst black pilots. But despite the success of these experiments, the Air Force discontinued the practice of clustering. Why? In “Black Ceiling” I concluded that in the General Wilbur Creech era the Air Force did not want a large influx of black fighter pilots.
Earlier in the “low-hanging fruit” section of this book I shared a quote from the March 2018 issue of Air Force Magazine. It was from an article in which the Air Force Chief of Staff says that the Air Force is considering bringing back clustering because of its positive effects on the success rate for minorities:
“The Air Force’s pilot shortage crisis offers “an opportunity for bold moves” to build the service’s diversity while correcting the growing deficit in aviators, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Wednesday at the conclusion of a daylong summit on the problem. Those moves might include grouping minority pilot trainees together at flight school in order to have a built-in support system…” (Tirpak, 2018)
The fact that the Air Force recognizes that “a built-in support system” would help “correct the growing deficit in aviators” by reducing the washout rate of minority aviators is interesting. Again, the Air Force proved this out in clustering experiments in the 1970s. The fact that it is being considered again now brings us back to the question of if the Air Force did not have a non-minority aviator shortage would it have brought back clustering just to reduce the washout rate of black and possibly other minorities?
The specific focus of the diversity study I co-led in 2003 was to increase the diversity of the Air Force’s most senior ranks. One of the questions that I could not answer in 2003 was why would the Air Force want more black general officers, let alone black fighter pilot general officers?
In our study of diversity within the civilian sector we could see that lawsuits, consumer demands and profit motive drove most companies to be more diverse. I could see no such motive in the Air Force.
In “Black Ceiling” I posed the question, if the US Air Force was already the greatest air force in the world, what difference would it make if more of its pilots or general officer pilots were black? Why would it take on the massive changes in culture and invest in developing minority talent, especially in times of shrinking budgets?
I felt that if the Air Force could not answer that question that it would not have the motivation needed to change the cultural underpinnings and processes that resulted in the lack of black general officers in its senior-most positions.
Currently, the Air Force is showing a greater interest in minority pilots because of the pilot shortage. I have seen similar surges in interest in the airline industry as I have studied the history of its diversity growth. (Flying Beyond The Barrier Memoirs by Forty African American Airline Pilots, 2015) In the airline industry, when the pilot crisis waned, the interest in diversity, motivated by empty pilot seats, also waned.
I served in the Air Force four years as a cadet and 24 years as a commissioned officer. I have seen the Air Force battle a shortage of pilots and, I have seen the Air Force “bank” pilots when it had too many.
Perhaps the pilot shortage is the “profit motive” the Air Force needs to sustain its diversity initiative. History, however, has not shown that to be the case. Additionally, as I have detailed at length in “Black Ceiling” the Air Force has much work to do in changing its cultural and other processes that will nurture new black pilot officers once they enter its ranks.
In Col Charles McGee’s book “Tuskegee Airman” 4th Edition, mention was made of how African Americans were restricted from commanding flying units in the Continental US: “stateside commands were not available to black officers in 1954,…Chappie James broke the color barrier with a command at Otis Air Base near Boston in 1956.” (Smith, 1999)
You may say that was 62 years ago and the Air Force wasn’t ready for black pilots in leadership positions then. It’s 2018; there has not been an African American fighter wing commander in the Continental US since 1993. In 1993 General Fig Newton commanded an F-117 Wing at Holloman Air Force Base.
The first F-15 Wings in the Air Force stood up in the mid-1970s. (Military Analysis Network, 2000) The first F-16 was delivered to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1979. (Military.com, n.d.) There has never been an African American wing commander at a stateside/CONUS F-15 or F-16 base.
In “Black Ceiling” I show that not all Air Force ings are created equal. In great detail, I show which CONUS bases produce the most Air Force three and four-star generals. Command of one these premiere stateside wings is a significant stepping stone towards one of the Air Force’s senior-most leadership positions. The following quote from a USA Today article in 2015 echoes these same key points:
The Air Force has a similar problem among its wing commanders. Commanding a wing is considered by the Air Force to being a near-prerequisite to becoming a general. Of the 135 wings, there are four black officers in charge, according to Air Force data, or less than 3%. In all, the current class of wing commanders is 93% white and 91% male.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James, in a statement to USA TODAY, acknowledged the problem.
"We value diversity," James said. "However, the statistics tell a different story. As a service we need to do better at achieving greater diversity of thought and experiences in leadership positions." (Brook, 2015)
Lt Gen Brown, if confirmed will be the first-ever African American four-star to Command PACAF—the two wings he commanded were both overseas.
Statistics like this point back to an earlier time in the Air Force’s history when it was not ready for an influx of black pilots, nor black pilots in its key leadership positions. The fact that these type statistics still exist takes us back to the earlier question of whether or not the Air Force is ready for an influx of black pilots. At the very least it begs the question of what needs to be changed in the Air Force’s processes so that we are not achieving so many diversity “firsts” 71 years after the Air Force’s establishment as a separate Service.
It is somewhat of a disservice to increase the number of minority pilots that make it through pilot training and place them into a system or culture that does not help them thrive throughout their entire career. The Chief of Staff acknowledged that minority officers needed a “built-in support” system to succeed in pilot training. However, it is not clear from my vantage point that the Air Force recognizes that these minority pilot still need a support system to thrive after pilot training as commissioned officers and leaders in the United States Air Force.
Without, the mentoring and targeted development described in “Black Ceiling” what’s to say that an increase in the number of minority pilots will do anything to increase the career success of black fighter pilots or decrease the disparity in the numbers of minority pilots that are placed in cargo, bomber or other non-fighter cockpits?
Diversity is not only a crisis in the undergraduate student pilot ranks it’s a crisis in the pilot ranks, especially fighter pilot ranks, from 2nd Lieutenant to four-star. And as long as the Air Force continues to treat diversity, especially in its rated career fields, as less than a crisis, or as an answer to some greater crisis, like the pilot shortage, it will still be struggling to achieve diversity “firsts” for many years to come.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish