On a sunny Sunday in March, 29 new U.S. Air Force recruits took an oath to support and defend the Constitution.
This was not just any swearing-in because the man turning civilians into airmen was an Air Force Thunderbird pilot. When Maj. Eric Gorney finished the ceremony on the tarmac at Florida’s Orlando Melbourne International Airport, he climbed into an F-16 and along with five other Thunderbird pilots proceeded to dazzle the tens of thousands of spectators who minutes earlier had applauded the Air Force’s newest members.
At a time when all four branches of U.S. armed forces are actively recruiting to meet new personnel goals, high-profile performance teams like the Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels are powerful tools. Similar recruitment efforts are deployed around the world by the Snowbirds in Canada, the Red Arrows in Britain, and other teams as far-flung as Finland and Jordan. Maj. Ray Geoffroy, a spokesman for the Thunderbirds, said the team’s goal was to “recruit, retain and inspire” the next generation.
Not since the end of the Cold War has global military spending been as high as it is in 2018, according to Jane’s Defense Budgets. This leaves the aviation and defense industries in Europe, Asia and the Americas struggling to fill new positions created by increased military budgets. It’s a subject likely to be discussed at the Farnborough Air Show that starts Monday in Farnborough, England. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put the increased demand for aerospace and mechanical engineers over the next decade at 6 to 9 percent and software developers and information security analysis at 24 to 28 percent.
“The U.S. defense budget is the big dog in global military spending,” John H. Schmidt, global managing director for aerospace and defense at the consulting firm Accenture, said of the $700 billion spending plan. “We’re seeing increased investments in existing programs around the world,” he said.
Searching for people to do the work funded by these budgets puts the defense and aerospace industries in competition with companies like Google, Alibaba and Facebook, names that are more familiar and more firmly rooted in the minds of the digital generation.
In this environment, companies are trying to be more creative to get the attention of younger workers. “While competition for skills is fierce, we continue to attract and recruit incredible talent globally,” Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said in a statement.
“In the past, if you wanted to do cool high-tech stuff, there wasn’t anything else” but the military, Schmidt said. Now, he added, the military has to address the impression among many young people that it is “old and slow.”
The adrenaline-fueled military air show teams are one way of changing that impression. When show season begins, the Thunderbirds arrive with their F-16 fighter jets. They give journalists and celebrities an opportunity to ride along on a gravity-defying flight, challenging them not to pass out or throw up.
But the pilots also work on the ground, officiating as Gorney did at enlistment ceremonies. Last year, they also visited 55 schools and 25 hospitals. They met with scout troops and civic organizations, spreading the message that military service can help people “become the best version of themselves,” Geoffroy said.
Thirty-one thousand new enlistees joined the Air Force in 2017, down about 500 from 2016 but higher than the previous six years. More than 1,000 people enlisted in the Air Force at Thunderbird events last year, with 4,000 more expressing interest in the service, according to Brooke L. Brzozowske of the Air Force Public Affairs Office. The public fascination with military performers can be seen around the world. In Finland, which has one-year military or civil conscription for all men at the age of 18, the Midnight Hawks demonstration team flies four BAE System Hawks at air shows and roars over the country’s two annual military parades on Independence Day and Defense Forces Day.
“People are quite keen about the military,” said Capt. Marc Fuss, a pilot and the team leader. “Still, we need to keep the spirit up and keep them aware of the air force and defense forces and that is the role our display team plays.”
The Royal Jordanian Falcons team promotes tourism through its summer appearances at European air shows and encourages young people to join the air force and learn to fly, according to retired Col. Ghazi Sadoun, a pilot and team operations leader.
England’s Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, known as the Red Arrows, shows off the British-made Hawk T1 jets it flies and the Rolls-Royce engines that power them, also a British product. Watching the Red Arrows turns some spectators into performers, according to the team’s website: “Many of the pilots and other members of the Squadron joined the Royal Air Force as a direct result of seeing the Red Arrows perform as children.”
The Red Arrows will fly at Farnborough, where many in the industry will watch the performance. Military contractors will appreciate what the general audience may overlook, according to Mike DeLaney, president and founder of the executive recruiting company GNR Corp.: the unseen but critical technology onboard the planes.
Finding more people to design, create and maintain the systems is critical. “People don’t realize how much is in the plane beyond the wow factor of how fast it goes,” DeLaney said. “In the F-35, the helmet that the pilot wears is a half-million-dollar piece of equipment and technology. That’s the more enticing thing.”
According to Schmidt: “Aerospace is on the cutting edge of many technologies.” If in the past the armed forces and the companies that do business with them didn’t make effective use of that argument, that appears to be less the case now with a personnel crisis on the horizon. Whiz-bang displays, however, may not be enough to counter an unwillingness among some tech workers to create software with lethal applications.
In April, more than 3,100 Google employees signed a letter to the company’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, asking that the company not participate in a Pentagon program to create artificial intelligence for targeting drone attacks.
DeLaney experienced something similar in his business, which provides candidates to companies with military contracts. “Some individuals I recruit have shot me down,” he said, when he approached them about defense-related jobs. DeLaney said the candidates told him, “I don’t want to make things that blow up or put people in harm’s way or are a threat to people.”
“There’s no single big red ‘easy’ button to be pushed” to overcome these hurdles, said Maj. Gen. Mark Smith, national commander and chief executive of the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. The Civil Air Patrol and similar organizations around the world give teenagers experience in a military environment so they can determine whether it is right for them. In the summer, the 17 countries participating in the International Air Cadet Exchange Program send young people overseas to fly planes, work on machines, take survival courses and spend time on different military bases.
“Young people have to have the opportunity to get hands-on experience and explore potential career opportunities that are aviation-related or of interest to the air force, like cyber security or maintenance or logistics, robotics and unmanned vehicles,” said Brent Wolfe, secretary-general of the Canada-based cadet exchange.
As part of the 2018 U.S. defense budget, a small amount has been set aside to help pay for flight training for cadets who otherwise would not be able to afford it. It is part of the Civil Air Patrol’s mission to promote aviation and careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Smith said helping the cadets get a private pilot’s license could “prime the pump” and motivate some to fly for the military and maybe even become the kind of pilots who will inspire the next generation.
“There are a lot of kids that think the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels are amazing and really cool,” Smith said. “They give kids an appreciation for what the military is doing.”