Sequestration May Ground Pilots for Six Months or More

Massive cuts will ding pilots, just like a 34 minute blackout mid-game.

FILE - In this July 14, 2011 file photo released by U.S. Air Force, a 33rd Fighter Wing aircraft maintainer moves by the Department of Defense's newest aircraft, the U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF), before giving the pilot an order to taxi the aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Budget cuts could keep pilots and aircraft like this F-35 grounded.

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The Baltimore Ravens were steamrolling the San Francisco Giants at Super Bowl XLVII this year, chugging to a 28-6 lead early in the third quarter. Then the lights went out.

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"Whichever team you were rooting for, the two teams that came back on to the field 34 minutes later were not the same teams. They didn't have the momentum," says Air Force Gen. Paul Selva. "They weren't limbered up. They weren't as ready and it took an inordinate amount of focus and leadership from the coaches to get them back on the momentum that existed at halftime."

Silva and other top military brass share this same feeling of dread.

"That's the same dynamic you'll see play out across out entire military," he said at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters Thursday. "You'll see leaders focused on training to try to not lose the things that are most critical, but it's going to take time to build it back."

Selva leads the U.S. Air Mobility Command, which is tasked with flying troops and equipment around the globe at a moment's notice.

Across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration have forced Selva to make sweeping reductions that the Air Force will feel going into the next fiscal year, including chopping 40 percent of his pilots' flying hours. An inability to train and maintain pilots and copilots – along with the support crew – could take six months or more to reverse, he says.

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Air Mobility Command plays a critical role in life lines to Afghanistan, including precision air drops to isolated forward operating bases. Funding for this and other direct missions to warzones remains largely untouched.

Everything else is on the cutting board, he says, including training flights with U.S. Army Airborne units, refueling military aircraft moving from the East Coast to West Coast, or responding to emergencies such as wildfires.

Most pilots have to "touch an airplane" every 30 or 45 days to maintain their qualifications. If they exceed that, they must undergo re-certification with an instructor.

Selva cites the firefighting readiness as an example of the long-term effect of the sequestration cuts.

"If I don't certify those crews in April, and have them ready for the firefighting season in May, [it could] take an entire year to rebuild that capacity," he says.

It could take double or triple the time a fleet is grounded for it to rebuild their readiness, Selva adds.

"Obviously if a pilot does not fly today, he is not incapable of flying tomorrow," says Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton, the service's top budget official. "But if this lasts more than a few weeks or months, it could take six months or more to bring the force back up to full proficiency."

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Bolton points to other cuts the Air Force must endure, such as 50 percent less funding for maintaining its facilities, that have a snowballing effect.

"This is the same as what you take to maintain your home. If you don't fix your driveway prior to a snowy season, the next time you try to fix it, it's going to cost more money," he said Wednesday at the Pentagon. "And it's the same for us."

"There is over a $4 billion bow-wave of work that was not accomplished – flying hours that were not flown, training that did not happen – as a result of sequestration and this budget does not fix that," he says of the fiscal 2014 budget the Pentagon unveiled on Wednesday. "And so we start '14 in the hole."

The Air Force falls back on its flight simulators to keep pilots sharp for tasks such as mid-air refueling. Reducing flight time also effects a pilot's confidence, Bolton says, who may take an afternoon or a series of days to regain the mentality necessary to pilot his plane.

Selva says the Air Force has been working to develop simulator software that could replicate actual flight. Complex details, such as the last 10 feet before landing on a runway or guiding a fuel hose to an in-flight aircraft, are particularly hard to recreate.