Contractors to help Air Force manage shortage of experienced pilots, technicians

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OTTAWA — The Royal Canadian Air Force is turning to contractors to address a shortage of experienced military pilots that has forced commanders to walk a delicate line between keeping enough seasoned aviators available to train new recruits and lead missions in the air.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger revealed the military plans to hire contractors to fill some pilot-instructor positions so its active-duty aviators can continue to fly real missions in Canada and around the world.

“It’ll be a small number in the order of nine to 10 for phase one,” Meinzinger said. “And what that means is I won’t have to post in that number of equivalent experienced pilots to teach at the school houses. Meaning they can stay out at the line units.”

The hope is that most of those hired will be retired military pilots.

The measure follows a similar initiative to address a shortage of aircraft technicians, which has seen 49 contractors — many of them retired CF-18 techs — hired at Canada’s fighter-jet bases in Bagotville, Que., and Cold Lake, Alta., to mentor and train younger personnel still in uniform.

The program is expected to cost $6.7 million this fiscal year.

The shortage of military pilots and technicians was first revealed in an explosive auditor general’s report earlier this year in which the watchdog took aim at the Liberal government’s plan to buy second-hand Australian jets. He warned that the air force needed more personnel — not planes.

Efforts have since been made to better retain experienced personnel, in particular, by better supporting military families, tapping reservists to help with basic maintenance work and adjusting some positions to keep pilots in the air rather than flying desks.

The military is also working on a contract for a new training program that will let the air force increase the number of new pilots trained in a given year when necessary. The current program allows only a fixed number to be produced.

While progress has been made, officials say the air force is still short about 225 pilots. Any shortfall will become especially acute when Canada starts to receive new fighter jets, as the air force will be required to train pilots on the new aircraft while still guarding against any attack.

While the current shortfall has coincided with significant growth in the global commercial airline sector, Meinzinger is hoping experienced air force members will opt to keep working with the military as a contractor rather than leaving for a job somewhere else.

“If we can, as opposed to seeing someone leave a regular-force position and move into the civilian industry, we would rather them stay with us part time,” he said. “So one of the things we’ve done is make that as agile a transition as possible.”

The contractors are intended to be a short-term fix while the military works to attract and retain more personnel to meet its needs over the long term, Meinzinger added.

“I see these as temporary enablers. If we look at the long run and as we do more of the (recruitment and retention) work, ideally we get to a healthier point where we don’t have to be as reliant on this particular provisioning as we are today.”

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press