The Marine Corps has a pilot retention problem. You won’t see much “woe is me” from higher headquarters on this issue even though it’s real. Why would we want to officially confirm poor pilot retention with our enemies who would gleefully clap their hands over our misery?
Like most problems, there’s no simple answer. We’re not flying as much as we did when I was a young Marine pilot in the 1980s. Those with a penchant — and the skills — to break the “surly bonds of earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings” (John G. Magee, High Flight, 1941) join and stay-in the Marines to fly airplanes, not desks.
The metric we used when I was flying was you had to fly at least 25 flight hours a month — 40 hours was not abnormal — to remain competent. Flying military aircraft is a risky business. The more you fly, the better and safer you are.
We used to laugh at our Soviet Union counterparts who were reportedly getting less than 10 hours a month of flight time, if that. We’re where they used to be. Now who’s laughing?
There’s also too much extraneous training that has nothing to do with flying. One HHQ or congressional training mandate after another has added up to a ridiculous burden for all Marines, but for pilots, it’s even worse. Pilots have stacks of books to know like the back of their hands and masses of unique aviation training prerequisites to maintain their flight qualifications.
Back in July Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis ordered the services, according to the Marine Corps Times, to review the requirements for mandatory training that do not directly support core tasks. “I want to verify that our military policies support and enhance warfighting readiness and force lethality,” Mattis said.
Open note to Secretary Mattis: Whatever you did isn’t working. Records management, suicide awareness and transgender sensitivity training don’t retain aviators, nor do they enhance warfighting readiness and force lethality.
The airlines are hiring like gang busters, pay more, and demand less Mickey Mouse. The USAF is paying bonuses large enough to make some of their pilots wealthy.
The Marine Corps can’t afford bonuses that large. That’s OK because Marines don’t want mercenaries flying their aircraft, and they have a complicated problem the USAF doesn’t have. The Marines are predominately manned by infantry officers who won’t be getting any bonus and the “one team one fight” mentality is destroyed — as is morale — by paying pilots obscene bonuses when their mud-Marine brothers get nothing except the opportunity to excel in a stinking, wet, shivering cold foxhole at night.
Still, plenty of Marine aviators would wave off the airlines and bonuses and accept all the Mickey Mouse that comes with being a Marine in order to serve — that’s why Marines join is to serve, not to revel in plush USAF living — in a hard working, hard fighting, hard playing, and hard bonding organization were it not for one thing: the extinction of camaraderie.
There isn’t much camaraderie left anymore, and this may be the No. 1 reason for the Marines’ pilot retention problems. The lifelong “all for one and one for all” friendships and the “I’d dive on a grenade for you brother” relationships once forged in the Marines are waning.
Marines come to work, put their heads down into their computers and social media, and then rush home every evening like so many factory workers escaping from the Marines to the refuge of home at the blast of the quittin’ time whistle. Officer’s clubs are mixed rank and vast wastelands. Even participating in the Marine Corps Ball seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Leaders used to encourage — even demand — camaraderie.
Little things make a difference, little things that once built and sustained camaraderie. Every squadron ready room used to have an Acey-Deucey board, even a pool table, in an honored place next to the coffee mess and squadron bar.
There once was time and encouragement during the duty day to play games, compete with each other, spin yarns, and talk about flying. In Acey-Ducey, players took turns throwing dice into a chute and moving their playing pieces — known as men — along the board. The first player to remove all his men from the board won the game among cheers from all the kibitzers.
Even with little flying, the time for Acey-Deucey has been absorbed by all manner of HHQ higher priority requirements and Mickey Mouse. Now if a senior officer walks into a ready room and sees Marine aviators building camaraderie instead of heads down in a computer working, appearing to earn the taxpayers' investment in them, there’s hell to pay. Maybe hell’s the least of it.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.