November 1, 2012: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is trying to expand its aviation forces, especially the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (which contains most of the special helicopters SOCOM uses). The 160th only has 75 percent of the pilots it is supposed to have. SOCOM is struggling to fix that.
Pilots who can meet SOCOM standards are hard to find. So the 160th is seeking to recruit another 300 helicopter pilots from among existing army pilots (the main source of SOCOM helicopter pilots). This has proven difficult because there has been a chronic shortage of army helicopter pilots since September 11, 2001. Helicopters, especially SOCOMs, have been in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 160th hopes to get its 300 additional pilots within three years and be at 90 percent of authorized strength. Applicants must pass a week of screening tests, then six months of learning how to fly SOCOM type operations. SOCOM is offering cash bonuses and other incentives to attract pilots to the 160th and keep the ones it has. This is essential if SOCOM is to keep up its high tempo of operations. But that “high tempo” is what burns out a lot of SOCOM pilots and it is worse when there is a shortage of pilots.
When there are not enough SOCOM helicopters available, army helicopters can be used but these lack the additional navigation and communications gear of SOCOM choppers and the army pilots are not as experienced or as well trained as their SOCOM counterparts. This limits what SOCOM troops can do. Future success depends on getting the needed pilots.