A key symbol of the jet fighter culture vanished in 2011 from Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, the hub of air-war strategy and tactics, when senior Air Force officials ordered the “Home of the Fighter Pilot” sign to be taken down to be more welcoming for drone operators.
“It wasn’t inclusive enough for the large mission at Nellis,” a spokesman for U.S. Air Combat Command, which oversees the service’s arsenal of bombers and jet fighters, told The Washington Times.
The vacant space is now a symbol of the fighters and bombers giving ground to remotely piloted aircraft, whose operators at Nellis control drones flying surveillance and hunt-and-kill missions thousands of miles away.
Since a high point in 1991 with the historic Desert Storm strikes on Iraq, the Air Force fighter colony has grown smaller, with fewer flying hours and declining readiness rates. A flier shortage has necessitated that a squadron readying for deployment “borrow” pilots from a returning unit.
One man trying to bring public attention to the decline is neither a fighter jock nor government watchdog. He is a real estate salesman in Las Vegas, about a half-dozen miles from Nellis, whose avocation is to play booster for the men and women who operate F-16 Falcons, F-15 Eagles and other jet fighters.
“I’m just a civilian. I’ve not been in the military before,” David Radcliffe, a member of the nonprofit Nellis Support Team, told The Times. “But it’s just the elephant in the room, quite frankly. It’s not being talked about as a serious issue.”
‘The appeal is fading’
A former Las Vegas police officer, Mr. Radcliffe said he has established contacts with several fliers. He knows of pilots who fly only twice a month, a rate that makes it difficult to maintain skills for operating a supersonic jet.
A cutback in flying hours has gone on for some time, since before automatic “sequestration” budget cuts began March 1 and ushered in a whole new set of flying restrictions.
“These are perishable skills,” he said. “You just can’t do it twice a month and call it good. I just want to keep those kids from being killed and our Air Force as capable as it can be. Sequestration can easily hollow it out.”
Mr. Radcliffe decided last winter to take his boosterism up a notch. He wrote a column for the British publication Jane’s Defense Weekly, arguing: “The notion of being a fighter pilot has always been the stuff of childhood dreams, but within the USAF, the appeal is fading.”
Relying on his sources, he wrote of a declining interest by cadets at the Air Force Academy in trying out to be fighter pilots. More want to go the cargo plane route, an avenue toward a civilian job as an airline pilot.
“Pilots are getting little flying time,” Mr. Radcliffe wrote. “This is not what they signed up for.”
The Times showed the article to two retired Air Force generals with many fighter flying hours to their credit. Both endorsed its general accuracy.
Confirmation on some points also came from an active-duty fighter pilot — Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, who just happens to be the Air Force chief of staff.