Since the Cold War ended in 1991 the U.S. Air Force has been faced with a constant, and often losing, struggle to maintain the skill levels of its pilots. It’s mostly been a money problem. Budgets shrank and, at least until 2013, fuel kept getting more expensive. This appeared to turn around in 2013, when flight hours per year fell to 120 hours for most pilots. That’s about half of what it was right after 2001. Even though flying hours have increased again there is concern that problems with fuel costs and several other factors will threaten the domination of the air the United States has had since World War II. Because of that domination of the air space no American troops have been attacked from the air since the early 1950s (in Korea). All that is attributed to the relatively high number of hours American pilots spend training in the air each year. But with it costing over $30,000 an hour to keep combat aircraft in the air many military budgets can’t handle it and neither better flight simulators or more air time in combat zones makes up for that. .
The experience since the 1960s indicates that combat pilots need about 200 hours in the air each year to build and maintain their combat skills. So it was with great reluctance that some nations cut back on those flying hours in the 1990s. It wasn’t just the United States. Even some nations that are threatened with attack have cut hours. Back in 2005 South Korea cut its pilots back from 139 to 134 hours, and then to 131. In the 1990s, South Korean pilots were getting 150-200 hours. That's what German and Japanese pilots still g0t until recently. The South Koreans maintained that they were being practical about this, because their most likely foe, North Korea, had its pilots flying much less, on average. The South Koreans believed that the situation is so bad up north that the North Korean air force won't even be able to get many of their 500 combat aircraft off the ground. And those that do fly would be operated by very inexperienced pilots. But South Korea has to face a growing threat from China, which is increasing flight hours for its combat pilots.
The nations with the reputations for the most skilled pilots (Israel, United States, Britain and Canada) have always sought to get combat pilots in the air 200 or more hours a year. As flight hours decreased everyone discovered another problem; fighter pilots were less likely to stay in the military the fewer flight hours they got. In the 1990s several new problems emerged. The most important one was the growing use of smart bombs. This meant most combat aircraft (except the A-10) in a combat zone rarely did more than fly in circles waiting for a request to drop a smart bomb. That meant the greater number of flying hours a pilot got in “combat” meant a lot less because they were not practicing combat maneuvers. It was also boring and added another reason to leave the air force. What pilots really needed (and wanted) was practice maneuvering. Being a “smart bomb truck driver” did not require a lot of practice. This made the need for peacetime flight training even more urgent. The air force has managed to increase fighting hours since 2013. It’s now up to 150 hours and efforts are being made to get it to 180 hours for combat pilots who need it most.
The importance of flight hours was made clear during World War II (1939-45) when some nations simply didn't have the fuel available for pilot training. They documented combat (and non-combat) losses increasing as training-hours-in-the-air declined. Nazi Germany's warplanes began losing, big time, when they could no longer produce enough fuel to allow their trainee pilots sufficient time in the air. This was a trend that had been ongoing since 1942. Up until that time new German pilots got 240 hours of flying time before entering combat. By comparison, British pilots only received 200 hours and Russian pilots even less. Germany ruled the skies. But in late 1942, Germany reduced training time to 205 hours. The British now had the fuel, and increased theirs to 340 hours, while the U.S. was providing 270 hours. In the Summer of 1943, the British increased flying time to 335 hours and the U.S. went to 320 hours. At the same time, the Germans reduced it to 170 hours. In 1944 the Germans were down to 110 hours, while the British were at 340 hours and the Americans at 360. The pilots with fewer flying hours got shot down more often and in turn were less likely to shoot anyone down.
The situation was the same in the Pacific, where increasingly effective U.S. submarine attacks sank so many Japanese tankers that there was not enough fuel available to train pilots. In 1941, a Japanese pilot trainee 700 hours of flight time to qualify as a full-fledged pilot in the Imperial Navy, while his American counterpart needed only 305 hours. About half of the active duty pilots in the U.S. Navy in late 1941 had between 300 and 600 hours flying experience, a quarter between 600 and 1000 hours, and the balance more than 1000 hours. Most of these flight hours had been acquired in the last few years. But at the beginning of the war nearly 75 percent of the U.S. Navy's pilots had fewer flying hours than did the least qualified of the Japanese Navy's pilots.
On the down side, the Japanese pilot training program was so rigorous that only about 100 men a year were being graduated from a program that required 4-5 years. In 1940 it was proposed that the pilot training program be made shorter, less rigorous, and more productive, in order to build up the pool of available pilots to about 15,000. This was rejected. Japan believed it could not win a long war and needed the best pilots possible in order to win a short one. Naturally, once the war began the Imperial Navy started losing pilots faster than they could be replaced. For example, the 29 pilots lost at Pearl Harbor represented more than a quarter of the annual crop. The battles of the next year led to the loss of hundreds of superb pilots. This finally forced the Japanese to reform their pilot training programs. Time to train a pilot, and hours in the air spiraled downward. By 1945 men were being certified fit for combat duty with less than four months training. In contrast, the U.S. Navy was actually increasing its flight time, while keeping pilot training programs to about 18 months. In 1943, the U.S. Navy increased flight hours for trainees to 500, while Japan cut its hours to 500. In 1944, the U.S. hours went up to 525, while Japan cut it to 275 hour. In 1945, a shortage of fuel had Japanese trainee pilots flying on 90 hours before entering combat. In the air, this produced lopsided American victories, with ten or more Japanese aircraft being lost for each U.S. one.
This experience was remembered after World War II, and reinforced when, in campaign after campaign, the side with the fewer training hours per pilot, suffered the greatest losses. Now, unable to afford fuel for training, flight simulators are being used more frequently. These devices are becoming cheaper and more realistic, but research (mostly from training exercises, not actual combat) shows that each hour of simulator time is worth only about half or two-thirds of an hour in the air. The U.S. Air Force also has to face another problem with flight hours; robotic (autonomous) UAVs replacing manned combat aircraft. That possibility is approaching reality a lot sooner than expected. Ironically the robotic pilots will probably arrive at the same time flight simulators become effective enough to replace most actual flight hours.