If you want to retain more air force pilots pour money into air cadets

The headline in the National Post on February 10 seemed dire:

“Clock ticking as Royal Canadian Air Force looks to stop hemorrhaging experienced pilots; the dip in experience as veteran aviators leave for other opportunities has forced senior commanders to juggle where to put those still in uniform.”

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The thrust of the story is that the Royal Canadian Air Force cannot retain the pilots it has, and can’t produce enough new pilots to replace those who leave.

Let me get this straight: quite possibly the coolest job in existence in our country, fighter pilot, isn’t cool enough to get people to go into it and stay in it?

Hell, we only have around 80 operational CF-18s these days (or less.) That’s why we’re buying used ones from the Australians. Out of 37 million Canadians, we can’t crew 80 fighters?

We used to have an air force that deployed 640 or so CF-100 Canucks, among the ugliest fighters ever to take to the skies. How did we find pilots to fly those, with a population half the size?

I don’t have all the answers, but I can point to one direct cause of why flying fighter planes isn’t cool enough anymore to get people to sign up: the continual starvation and wussification of the cadet program, in particular, air cadets.

I was a cadet for six years, from 1987 to 1993, graduating as a warrant officer first class and cadet squadron commander. A few years later, I became a reserve officer in the Cadet Instructor Cadre, spending most of my seven years in uniform as a training officer and mustering out as a lieutenant. Now, for three years, I’ve been a parent involved with the local squadron’s parent committee.

And through all that time, there have been some continual themes: there’s always less money. There’s always less we can do. It’s always more politically correct. There’s always less true military involvement. In other words, the program has continually become wussified. As in, made into a wuss.

One of the stated program aims, from the get go during the Second World War, was to stimulate interest among youth in the military. But over the years, what was a horrible failure has become an abysmal failure.

In the seven years I was an officer, from 2001 to 2008, I don’t recall any of the cadets from our unit going on to the regular force. Maybe one or two did later in life. Maybe I missed one. I know one became a Mountie. But of the 30 to 50 cadets we had at any one time, zero or next to zero joined the military. That is an abysmal failure.

Now why is that?

Their officers, myself included, had next to zero actual military training. Of my military knowledge, truly 99 per cent was learned on my own time and interest, and not through formal military training.

And then there was the snowflakization of the program. “No warlike training” meant you couldn’t even let the kids play capture the flag. Seriously. We played capture the flag when I was a kid going to Jesus camp, but I couldn’t lead our cadets in a glorified game of tag. (I understand that capture the flag has since returned.)

There was a slow progression to rid the program of actual guns. A pellet gun was “considered sufficient for marksmanship training,” as .22-callibre target rifles, which I used as a cadet, were being phased out. Now they hardly ever see .22s.

Then there was, and is to this day, the continual budget cuts. I thought, for sure, this would have changed when the Conservatives took power. I was wrong. And it continues with the Liberals.

So now, my kid’s squadron is doing their stage 2 marksmanship competition with air rifles, at home, and mailing in the targets. That’s because the program doesn’t want to pay to get the range teams to travel to one place for an actual competition.

Recently even food for some cadet activities has been cut back. The kids now have to bring their own, or the parent committee has to cough it up. Really? Are we that cheap now?

How much does it cost to train a CF-18 pilot? A 2014 Toronto Star article quoted $2.6 million, and seven years to get to that point. At the time we were getting foreign pilots (can you say mercenaries?) to fly many of our various models of planes, because we were that short.

When they quit, that investment is gone.

In the meantime, it costs the air cadet program about $20,000, give or take, to teach a 16 or 17-year-old how to fly a Cessna-172.

How many kids could you teach to get their initial private pilot’s wings, for the cost of training just one CF-18 pilot? About 130 or so. How hard would it be to encourage some of those kids to go on and actually enlist? To become career military pilots?

The answer is simple.

Pour money into the cadet program. Don’t just add a few cadet pilot training seats. Multiple it by 10. Instead of one kid per squadron getting their wings every year, make it 10.

Make the program cool and relevant again. Don’t be afraid of actually being part of the military. Don’t allow cadets to become Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in everything but name, which is effectively what they are now.

If being a fighter pilot is no longer the coolest thing around, we have a serious problem.