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Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh testifies before the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel on March 2, 2016. Screenshot photo.​

​Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told House appropriators on Tuesday the “long-awaited” issue of pilot retention is no longer a future problem, it’s already here. “In calendar year [2015], major airlines hired about 3,500 pilots, and they expect to keep hiring at a commensurate rate for the next nine to 10 years,” said Welsh during his final appearance before the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel. “Military pilots are in the perfect position to fill those jobs, they’re highly trained, they’re experienced, and thus, they’re very attractive to the airlines.” Welsh said each year USAF works to retain about 65 percent of pilots eligible for separation with tools such as aviation retention pay. In 2015, the service was at about 55 percent pilot retention. “Proficient Air Force pilots can potentially transition from being a company grade officer in the Air Force to being a commercial captain in a few short years with an airline salary that’s roughly 2.5​ times higher than military pay with someone of equivalent experience,” he said. To address the problem, USAF is maximizing schoolhouse capacity in an effort to increase pilot production, it’s revisiting the operational demand signal for pilots in non-flying jobs, and is working with RAND Corp. to assess the net effects of the airlines’ hiring surge, said Welsh. The Air Force also wants to increase retention pay for both manned and unmanned pilots to $35,000 a year—a move Congress will have to sign off on.