Anyone who has traveled by air this summer likely expected delays or worse. Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, more than 12,000 flights were delayed while hundreds more were canceled due to bad weather but also staffing shortages. The major airlines are trying to hire 12,000 to 13,000 pilots – and some airlines have sought to recruit overseas, while others have dropped a four-year degree requirement.
One problem is that commercial airlines can’t expect to see as many former U.S. military pilots making a transition into civilian life. That’s because the United States Air Force is currently facing a serious pilot shortage of its own – and it is a problem that is only slowly being addressed. According to Maj. Gen. Albert Miller, Air Force director of training and readiness for operations, the current shortfall was about 1,650 pilots.
Miller, in an interview with Federal News Network this past March, added that the number was actually an improvement over last year, when the service was just over 1,900 pilots short. The majority of the shortage is actually with fighter pilots, where the service is currently down about 1,100.
To address the issue, the Air Force has brought back retired pilots to fill staff gaps, but it has also been offering bonuses to its aviators, which are now as high as $35,000 a year depending on the length of the contract the pilot signs, and what type of aircraft they may fly.
Only further causing headache this year was the fact that the Air Force had to temporarily ground nearly 300 trainer aircraft over concerns that their ejection seats would not fire correctly in an emergency. The problem, which also impacted the entire Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II fleet, was also discovered in 203 T-38 Talons and 76 T-6 Texans IIs.
The T-6 is the service’s turboprop plane that is used to teach basic flight skills, while the T-38 is a supersonic jet that is employed with trainees for fighter and bomber flight training. Both aircraft use an ejection seat built by Martin-Baker, which was designed to employ multiple explosive cartridges so that there is a backup option should one charge fail. The cartridges are used to launch the pilot out of the aircraft in an emergency.
In total, one-third of the Air Force’s largest training fleets have been temporarily out of service, and trainees have had to “flex” to a simulator-only schedule. It remains unclear how that will impact pilot training and readiness throughout the rest of this year.
AI is Their Co-Pilot
There are now various efforts underway to use advanced technology to address the pilot shortage gap. The United States Air Force and Merlin Labs are now developing software that could allow the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules to fly with just a single pilot, whereby artificial intelligence (AI) would act as the second pilot. The C-130, built at Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Marietta, Georgia, now holds the record for the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft – first entering service in 1954.
“Merlin’s advanced hardware and software technologies allow for increased safety and the possibility of crew reductions in the face of a global shortage of pilots,” Merlin Labs said via a recent statement announcing the partnership.
The software will be able to follow verbal instructions from air traffic control, while the goal is for it to respond much like a human pilot. It is just one of several efforts currently underway to explore how AI can fill the pilot shortage.
The U.S. Army is also looking at how AI could be employed in its aircraft. Earlier this year, a Sikorsky UH-60A successfully conducted a 30-minute flight over Fort Campbell, Kentucky. It had no pilot or aircrew. The test was conducted as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program.
“With reduced workloads pilots can focus on mission management instead of the mechanics,” Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said via statement. “This unique combination of autonomy software and hardware will make flying both smarter and safer.”
The ALIAS program has been able to leverage the considerable advances in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years, as well as similar advances in remotely piloted aircraft. However, today, even with the most automated aircraft, pilots must still manage complex interfaces and respond to unexpected situations. ALIAS could take these even further, supporting the execution of an entire mission from takeoff to landing, including autonomously handling contingency events such as aircraft system failures.
“With ALIAS, the Army will have much more operational flexibility,” Young continued. “This includes the ability to operate aircraft at all times of the day or night, with and without pilots, and in a variety of difficult conditions, such as contested, congested, and degraded visual environments.”
Rise of the Machines?
Even as there have been some concerns as to whether the military can or should trust AI, machine learning and similar technologies are increasingly employed already – often to assist pilots.
“All modern combat jets are inherently instable, which makes them more maneuverable, and only fly due to the help of a computer,” explained technology industry analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.
“Computers with and without AI are already an integrated component of flying, the question is how far do we push the envelope with the help of AI,” Entner told ClearanceJobs. “It is inevitable that our planes rely more and more on AI to assist and take workloads off the pilot and push comes to shove prevent disasters.”