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USAF maintainers from Ellsworth AFB, S.D., service and inspect the B-1B Lancer. They are maintainers within the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing's 34th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit. ​USAF photo by TSgt. Arthur Mondale Wright.

It took more than two years, but the Air Force should soon have its maintenance force back in balance. The service hopes to have its maintainer shortfall closed by the end of the year, and has now eliminated most of a shortage that once stood at over 4,000 maintainers. Numerically, the protracted effort to rebuild the ranks has largely gone according to plan, and the career field is now 99 percent manned overall.

In mid-2016, when dedicated Air Force efforts to end the maintainer shortage were just underway, planners believed balance would not be restored until 2019. That remains the expectation.

“Airmen are hitting the flight line,” Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Air Force Magazine in a recent interview. The multi-pronged strategy to reduce the shortfall utilized fairly standard personnel management processes: USAF increased accessions while offering retention bonuses to experienced maintainers to keep them in uniform.

The service is not out of the woods just yet, however. “The challenge we have is they’re young,” Goldfein explained. The increased maintenance accessions get qualified airmen onto the flight lines, but it takes longer to build advanced skills. Consequently, the maintenance force remains short of experienced airmen—and will continue to be unbalanced for some time.

The maintenance force today sits 400 airmen short of total requirements. It is “a bit out of balance in terms of 3-, 5-, and 7-levels,” Goldfein said, referring to the progressively more experienced apprentice, journeyman, and craftsman skill levels that denote increasing capability. “We’re going to have to grow them.”

The service is also looking to implement creative ways to make the most of its maintenance force, as USAF’s aircraft fleet creates seemingly contradictory pressures. On the one hand, the fleet continues to get older on the average. At the same time, however, new aircraft like the F-35 strike fighter need increasing numbers of dedicated maintenance professionals.

Consequently, the Air Force is “looking at different ways of [providing maintenance] in the future, and challenging our own thinking on the traditional models we have in place,” Goldfein said.

“We’re looking really hard at smart [flightlines] in the future,” he said, searching for ways to bring industry best practices and technology that “we know is out there,” into the Air Force. If successful, this could reduce manpower demands, speed up maintenance, and increase readiness.

Overall, however, “we’re getting to zero,” the Chief said. “So that’s good.”