HILL AIR FORCE BASE — When your workforce is down by thousands, necessity often breeds creativity.
Budget constraints, delayed retirements of older aircraft and recruiting troubles have left the Air Force with a significant shortage of maintainers — one that according to a top general, currently sits at about 4,000.
So beginning in 2017, the Air Force will begin using contract maintenance personnel to work on planes at several active-duty maintenance units across the U.S.
According to a press release from the Air Force Secretary’s Public Affairs office, the measure will include only “nondeployable flying units and back shop maintenance” for aircraft like the F-16, the A-10 and the C-130.
The Air Force says the transition is temporary and is scheduled to conclude after fiscal year 2020, but it will allow for some 1,100 maintainers to move from the aforementioned legacy aircraft over to the F-35 Lightning II program.
“Changes in the geopolitical environment also require us to maintain our current fleet, rather than divest legacy aircraft,” said Lt. Gen. John B. Cooper, in the release.
Cooper, who once served as commander of Hill Air Force Base’s 309th Maintenance wing, is referencing the Air Force’s continued attempt to retire the A-10, a move that has been repeatedly blocked by Congress.
“All of this has affected our plan to transition maintenance manpower from legacy aircraft to the F-35A as originally planned,” the general said.
Hill now has maintainers working on both legacy and next-generation aircraft. The base will serve as the Air Force’s first operational F-35 unit, but it also flies a fleet of F-16s and will do so until at least 2018.
Nathan Simmons, with the 388th Fighter Wing, said no contractors will be working at Hill as part of the new measure, and it’s also unknown how many of the 1,100 transitioning maintainers will end up in the base’s F-35 program.
Although the fighter wing was plagued with a manpower shortage to the tune of about 100 maintainers a year ago, Simmons said the wing now has adequate maintenance manpower to meet the Air Force’s “Initial Operating Capability” deadline for the F-35 and to sustain projected F-16 capabilities.
“Decisions on how the transition will flow are still being made at Headquarters Air Force,” Simmons said in an email. “We’re currently flying and fixing both the F-35 and the F-16. The (388th Fighter Wing) will continue to execute its plan to achieve IOC for the F-35 platform.”
The Air Force has laid out several other measures to fill the maintainer gap, including upping the number of promotions in the maintenance field, reenlistment bonuses for maintainers, offering retired maintainers to return to active-duty and others.