The military needs to get a better handle on why pilots are leaving the military and how many are leaving for jobs with commercial airlines, a new Government Accountability Office report said.
The report, which was released Thursday, comes as the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy grapple with a pilot shortage, especially in the fighter pilot community, where there are shortages as high as 27 percent, according to the GAO.
The GAO found that the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps monitor pilot retention through loss rates, but they don't track how many pilots leave the military for the airlines, a shortcoming that could hinder pilot retention if the services pursue the wrong incentives to remain on duty.
The Defense Department lacks "data to understand the full range of pilots' post-service career preferences," the report said, despite requesting increases to aviation retention bonuses to be more competitive with the airlines.
"This limits DOD's ability to more fully understand pilots' decisions to remain in or leave the military," the report concluded.
DOD officials told the GAO "that there is an assumption that military pilots join the mainline airlines, but there is no data to support it."
The report focused on pilot of fixed-wing aircraft. The Army was not included because its fixed-wing positions make up less than 7 percent of its aviation force, according to the GAO.
A 2016 RAND Corp. study on Air Force pilot retention identified a correlation between major airline hiring and active-duty Air Force pilot separations from 1996 to 2013, according to the report.
But RAND wasn't able to get data on officers who become pilots for large airlines, what aircraft they flew and how long they remained on active duty because that information is not routinely collected, the GAO said.
Jeff Myer, 47, a former Air Force pilot who retired as a lieutenant colonel, has been flying for United Airlines for four years.
He said in an interview Friday that no one from the Air Force followed up with him about his post-service career plans.
"In my case, when you put in the retirement paperwork, the Air Force ... says, 'Thank you for your service,' but at that point, they're worried about the folks that are on active duty and understandably so," said Myer, who flew the C-141 and KC-135.
"There was never a follow-up, 'Hey, what are you doing in your after-life, did you go to the business (world) or did you go to the airlines?'"
After 22 years of service, Myer said, he had met his goals with the Air Force and wanted to keep flying instead of moving into another staff job.
"If the opportunity had been presented to me (to keep flying), I probably would have given it strong consideration to stay on" and retire as a colonel, he said.
The GAO recommended in its report that the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps find a way to gather information about former pilots' employment.
The office also said the Air Force should better analyze staffing levels by officer grade to help ensure aviation retention bonuses are targeted to the appropriate pilot communities.
DOD concurred with the recommendations but noted some concerns. One of those was from the Air Force, which said it believed the report underestimated the forecasted number of future airline hires and their average compensation.