As the Air Force struggles with a shortages of fliers, it’s now opening a new path to pilot training

GA-8 Airvan Civil Air Patrol
Aircrews head to Civil Air Patrol aircraft at the West Houston Airport, September 26, 2005.
  • The US Air Force is giving enlisted airmen a chance to earn their wings through a program for aspiring pilots and crew.
  • The program, in partnership with the Civil Air Patrol, is a stepping-stone to get participants the necessary flight training to become a student pilot and supplements Air Force efforts to fix its years-long pilot shortage.
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The US Air Force is giving enlisted airmen a chance to earn their wings through a program for aspiring pilots and crew.

For the first time, the service is accepting enlisted members — as well as officers and space professionals — to its Rated Preparatory Program, or RPP, according to a news release. The deadline to apply for the Spring 2021 program is December 31 via the MyPers website.

"The Rated Preparatory Program provides Department of the Air Force officers and, for the first time, enlisted applicants who are interested in cross-training to a rated career field the opportunity to gain and strengthen their basic aviation skills," said Col. Scott Linck, Aircrew Task Force deputy director, in the release. "This program will allow them to enhance their knowledge through developmental modules and acquire valuable flight time in order to increase their competitiveness as candidates for future undergraduate flying training boards."

The program, in partnership with the Civil Air Patrol, does not produce aviators, but rather, works as a stepping-stone to get participants the necessary flight training to become a student pilot someday. The initiative was launched in 2019 to inspire those eager to become pilots, navigators and other crew the ability to get ahead by learning basic aviation skills before formal pilot training, according to a separate Air Force release published in October.

"Just having the ground school and the instruction that you receive from the instructors here ... has helped me learn my place in the air and not having to drink so much from a fire hose," said Capt. Alex Johnson, a combat systems officer who also works in tactical air control while stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in the October release.

The program also supplements the Air Force's efforts to fix its years long pilot shortage — a problem facing all aviation units. In February, the service said it would fall short in its goal of producing 1,480 new pilots across the force by the end of fiscal 2020.

To date, nearly 100 officers have participated in the first two years of the program's existence — 52 in 2019, and 41 in 2020, the service said. The Air Force admitted fewer applicants this year to better balance its training operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

GA-8 Airvan Civil Air Patrol
A Gippsland Aeronautics GA-8 "Airvan" of the Civil Air Patrol on the runway at West Houston Airport, September 26, 2005.

Prospective participants for the 2021 class must complete an online ground course at their own pace, followed by a one-week, in-residence aviation fundamentals course. Program participants will garner "approximately seven to nine flight hours, ground instruction and additional training time in a flight simulator," according to the Air Force.

Officers who complete the course must then apply to the next available Undergraduate Flying Training (UFT) selection board, the release states. They also must complete an Initial Flying Class I, 1A, Ground Based Controller or III flight physical prior to starting the RPP.

Enlisted members are required to apply to either the US Air Force Academy, Reserve Officer Training Corps or Officer Training School and must undergo the FAA Class III physical before coming into the program, the release adds.

Applicants also must meet the following criteria:

  • Active-duty officers need to meet Air Force UFT board requirements.
  • Active-duty enlisted or space professionals must comply with UFT board requirements and qualify for their commission through either the Air Force Academy, ROTC or Officer Training School.
  • The applicant must be a U.S. citizen.
  • Members are ineligible to apply if they have any open law violations or criminal investigations, have previously been convicted by court-martial or have received an Article 15 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  • They must have their unit commander's approval and endorsement.
  • They need a current passing physical fitness test score.
  • They must have a Pilot Candidate Selection Method score prior to the RPP class start date.
  • They must have less than five hours of total civilian flight time. Those with more than five hours can apply, "but will only be considered on a space-available basis," according to the release.
  • Applicants must be prepared to retake the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test and Test of Basic Aviation Skills at the first available opportunity upon completion of RPP. The recommended test time is within two to four weeks following the RPP.

Maj. Sean Stumpf, Aircrew Task Force talent management branch chief, said previous classes have done exceptionally well. Roughly 90% of officers who completed RPP and applied for UFT in 2019 were selected to move on as either their first or second choice to serve as pilots, system operators or large-drone pilots, per the October release.

Stumpf said the RPP helps increase the Air Force's diversity initiatives, especially in communities that are underrepresented among the pilot ranks, including women and minorities.

About 86% of Air Force aviators are white men. Less than 3% of pilots are women, Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, head of the Air Force Recruiting Service, said in September during the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber virtual conference.

"This is why we established a detachment within Air Force recruiting two years ago charged with improving diversity for those who wear flight suits," Thomas said in a follow-on opinion piece published last month by Yahoo.

"The Air Force is committed to increasing diversity within its rated force — $18.1 million has been designated in fiscal 2021 for various Rated Diversity Initiatives," Stumpf said in the release. "RPP is one initiative with significant momentum in increasing diversity in aviation."

He added that the number of underrepresented individuals participating in RPP has doubled over the course of the program. For example, roughly 57% of fiscal 2020's class was composed of students from underrepresented groups, he said.

"Diversity in all forms makes our Air Force better," Stumpf said. "It's more than race, gender and ethnicity; it's about leveraging unique strengths, perspectives and experiences. A force made up of various backgrounds inherently brings out new and innovative ideas, which is vital to the Air Force mission."

The spring 2021 RPP class is scheduled to train at the Denton Enterprise Airport in Denton, Texas.

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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