Fast Jet Performance

When Pilots Quit – Why We Must Stop Telling People They Are Valued Unless We Truly Value Them

I am expensive.

Not that I have an apartment in Knightsbridge and wear Louis Vuitton shoes, no, but to the taxpayer, I am worth a lot of money.

Every trainee fast jet pilot in the last 7 years has come through a school that I have been an instructor on. Training each pilot has cost the taxpayer £4 million and there has been about 30 of them per year.

Quick maths says that I’ve been involved in £840 million worth of training.

And my own training costs, well I could only hazard a guess. There aren’t many instructors who train instructors (how to teach other instructors) how to teach the students.

It gets complicated after that but, because I commanded the team that did just this, I know there’s not many.

But ‘illusions of grandeur’ and humour aside, I turn 42 this year and I really need to start thinking about finding another job. Years of teaching air combat have convinced my neck and back that they would prefer to become mattress testers but I reckon they could still be involved in some pretty fierce typing if the right consultancy firm came along.

My desire to stay in the cockpit meant that further promotion passed me by like a ship in the night but I am not bitter. As I approach 18 years of service I have only worn the shackles of a desk job once – in the job I am currently in and even now I still hold a cockpit for a couple of weeks of the month.

I am not complaining.

When I left the Royal Navy, after the decommissioning of the Sea Harrier left many of us without anything to fly, the RAF reached out and picked up a few of us waifs and strays.

And in the RAF, a finer employer you could not find and, if you’ve ever looked even a little bit skywards, then apply to join because it is as far from a regular job as you will ever find. ​

The crew room is a bit like the old Top Gear, just with fighter jets and less money.

But like any profession, the novelty eventually wears off and the fact that it has taken almost 20 years to do so is testament to how good a career it actually is.

But I do need to start looking to the future and recently I dusted off my CV.

I told the Service that I wished to leave and gave in my notice, the future was golden and just around the corner a fresh start was looming.

I could see a new horizon on the, er, horizon.

But then the RAF decided to interfere with my cunning plan and made me an offer to continue my stay in the Service but on different terms.

It got me thinking.

The offer they made me was given to just 30 people. It said that the RAF would allow me to serve until I was 60 and it would guarantee flying related posts (but not always a cockpit) and my flying pay, about £12,000 a year, would now become pensionable.

In return I would have to agree to stay in the Service for at least the next 5 years.

Seemed like quite a reasonable offer, I thought.

So I turned it down.

You see, having recently bought a stupidly expensive house after only seeing it for just 30 minutes, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘value’, recently.

A value proposition states that, if you want something, you have to offer something in return. This can be camels, time or your daughter’s hand in marriage but nowadays it is normally money and the amount of money you offer is directly proportional to the amount of value you place in the item.

For example, when people sell a business they sometimes find it hard to value it accurately. Because of all the hard work they’ve put into it over the years, they frequently value the business too highly and it doesn’t sell. Often you’ll hear people say that a business is worth what someone is willing to pay for it and this is absolutely true.

Microsoft buying LinkedIn for $19bn or Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp for $22bn are cases in point and far exceeded market expectation at the time.

And it’s not just businesses. The watch I wear costs less than £300 and has a margin of error of just one second in 100,000 years. It receives a radio signal from an atomic clock every night to set the time accurately – something that is essential when flying high performance military aircraft.

Yet some of my pilots will still insist on wearing Breitlings or Omegas which are some of the most inaccurate watches I have ever used yet cost an absolute fortune. For the restaurant yes, for the cockpit, no.


Yes, value is a very subjective issue and when my wife and I bought our house, we did it because she didn’t want anyone else to live there; the price then just became a case of what we could afford and not what we thought was necessarily good value.​

Which brings me onto how we value people – especially those we employ.

As I’m 42 this year, the next 5 years are going to be reasonably critical for me should I wish to step outside and find another career and, at the moment, I have to give a year’s notice to leave the Service.

That’s right. A whole year.

This means that should a company come knocking for my services, I have to tell them that I can’t join them for a while. Not surprisingly, companies do not come knocking.

Incidentally, when I questioned this with our Manning or HR department they said that I needed to give that much notice because it takes them a year to train another Hawk T2 instructor.

‘I know it does,’ I replied ‘I’ve trained every single one of them.’

I think the irony was lost on them.

When I was one of three Flight Commanders on the Squadron, one of us, a good friend of mine, had served a few months more than me and the other Flight Commander and was offered a financial incentive to stay in for five more years. The money was £100,000 – a significant sum. The other Flight Commander and I had been to university, joined the RAF a couple of years later and were not in the timeframe to be eligible for the offer even though we were doing the same job.

We were doing the same job but were not as valued as our colleague.

You see, in the Services we are constantly being told that we are valued.

We are told that we are valued when our pay is frozen and our benefits are cut. When the original pension terms we joined on are changed for the worst and when we are constantly undermanned and have to cover the jobs of others for no extra remuneration.

However, sometimes a Senior Officer would get a little bit confused with the eloquent ‘value’ rhetoric and I do remember one getting frustrated with some of our engineers during a speech he was making when he coldly stated: ‘This train is going to Glasgow – if you don’t like it then you can all get off!’

If you need to know why the RAF had an engineering manpower shortage in the mid-2000s then you might like to start looking here.

So for me, the lack of the £100,000 wasn’t a huge deal – a frustration, yes and something that I still remember but it didn’t ever really make me bitter. But for my friend, the other Flight Commander, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At the time the Squadron was plagued with difficulties and the stresses on the command staff and the pilots were high. At the end of his tour my friend decided to leave the RAF, the money to him was very much a factor and he took his family to the Middle East to fly out there instead.

My other colleague who took the money said that it did keep him in the Service; the money had retained talent as it was supposed to do.

Incidentally, that £100,000 doesn’t all end up in your bank account! It’s given to you in the first year and is heavily taxed on top of your salary. You’ll end up with just over £50k or about £10k per year that ties you in for the next 5 years and, for some, it can be a decision they can quickly come to regret.

I recently read of an employee who got angry at a co-worker who had just returned from maternity leave, completed the required few weeks that she had to do, and then promptly left the company to start another job.

Wouldn’t that make you mad?

Well it shouldn’t.

You see, ‘at-will’ employment works both ways – the company is not obligated to the employee nor is the employee beholden to the company. This incentivises employers to bring value to the employee and the employees to bring value to the business. The employer makes the rules; the employee just has to operate within them.

When I led my team of instructors I was always careful to try and be as authentic as possible in my dealings with them. I remember one of them, who also happened to be a good friend, walk into my office one day for a brief chat.

‘I’ve just been in to see the boss to tell him that I’m thinking of leaving.’ he said.

‘Well, what did he say?’ I asked, expecting that the boss would have bitten his hand off to get him to stay – after all, we did have staffing problems on the Squadron.

At the time, my colleague was probably the most experienced fast jet flying instructor in the RAF. He was a Central Flying School Accredited instructor (a globally-recognised and world-renowned qualification) whose experience was unmatched. I had flown with him on my wing over Southern Iraq, flying Tornado GR4s back in the day, and my trust in him was unquestionable. He had come up against a natural break point in his career and was at a cross-road.

‘He told me that when I had made up my mind I was to let him know.’ he said.

I was surprised and not best pleased.

As a trait, compassion is not a bad one for all leaders to have, some would say that it was essential, and yet here was a man who was obviously just looking for someone to give him the proverbial hug. He just needed ‘the chat’ – someone to tell him that he was still needed on the Squadron.

Although people go to work for the money, it’s not all about the cash. People go to work because they are comfortable with the environment, the workload, their colleagues and the company. But above all, they need to feel like they are making a difference and that they are valued.

That is why pay rises don’t always work.

A pay rise is a pay rise for a day then it just goes back to being a salary.

It’s the same when someone threatens to leave unless they get a pay rise; they have already made up their mind to go and, even if they get the raise, the company will be planning on moving them on soon anyway as they have shown their hand and the scenario will probably play out again in the near future.​

But we can all agree that being paid more does help with the mortgage and, as you become more qualified and experienced in your industry, more interest in shown in you from other employers.

‘In fact, while a higher salary won’t necessarily boost your happiness, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Michigan State University found that people with higher incomes reported feeling less sad.’ – Quora

So my buddy eventually left to train foreign militaries overseas as he realised that he wasn’t valued on the Squadron after all. Probably nearer £6 million worth of education was just given across to a defence contractor and all because somebody was unable to say eight simple words.

’I value the work you are doing here.’

Recently my attention was drawn to a General who may have finally recognised that people are the centre of gravity of an organisation and without people ‘the guns don’t shoot and the planes don’t fly.’

“Most people with good ideas are annoying because they are frustrated. The Marines that we want to re-enlist don’t want to stay because they get tired of being around stupid people. They do. They get frustrated; they get tired of beating their head against the wall. [They say] ‘You guys won’t listen to me, I’m outta here. I’m going to go to college and make a million bucks.’ And they do.” – General Robert Neller, Commandant of the USMC (September 24, 2015 – Present)

But often, even well-meaning commanders find themselves taking a hard line on their people in order to meet all of the tasks they receive from higher headquarters and the impact of their words can be devastating for employee retention.

‘If you leave, someone else will step in.’ – General Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff USAF (August 10, 2012 – Present)

That last quote comes from a commander who is already over 500 fast jet pilots short alongside many other trades and the following quote highlights a common complaint from the people that stay and have to carry on doing ‘the same with less’.

‘In fact, given our current fiscal realities Ladies and Gentlemen, we will not do less with less…we will do the same with less…all done in a world that remains very dangerous.’ – Gen. James F. Amos, Commandant of the USMC (October 22, 2010, to October 17, 2014)

This is where, I believe, we often have a leader/follower disconnect; it is one I’ve been guilty of myself.

A competent workforce is not eroded overnight; it can take months or years and its demise is insidious in nature. It is for this reason that a commander will often not realise the detrimental extent of their policies until it is too late.

It is at this point where we attempt to do ‘the same with less’ and people get angry, stressed and they leave. We should, of course, refuse to compromise our authenticity in command and prioritise maintaining the integrity of our workforce but this is often sacrificed for the short-term gain of being looked on favourably by the next rank up.

If we have less, we must do less.

But another reason people leave is a failure to invest in them.

Some very intelligent people join the military and it is in its interest to hang on to these fast thinkers. The problem is that these minds need to be stimulated and if they aren’t then they look for the stimulation elsewhere.

When we fail to motivate our workforce, frustrations will appear and when we stop investing in our people, they will leave.

I remember reading about one HR director who said to the CEO ‘What if we give them all the training and then they leave?’

The CEO replied ‘What if we don’t give them the training and they stay?’

One thing to remember, though, is that you are not bigger than the system. Make sure that you leave your job better than when you found it.

“Son, the Air Force was there before you or me and it will be there long after you punch. Don’t do anything because you think leaving is going to make the Air Force miss you, it won’t. Take care of your family first, do the best you can at your job, and get an education the Air Force can’t take away from you.” – Quote from son of a SMSgt (26 years’ service in USAF)​

So maybe we need to look at how we value our employees, do our words actually match our actions?

If people are expendable then we must expect them to eventually go, there is no harm in vocalising this message and it lets everyone plan for the time when they will transition into another space; families can be told and employees can prepare.

But if it is true that we value our workforce then we need to do more than just say it, we need to show them that we mean it. And if we are seeing critical talent leaving, that we can’t afford to lose, then ask them why they are going – it might not be about the money, it could be something that is easily solvable.​

But often by the time someone tells you they are leaving, they’ve probably already decided to go; it’s not the individual making the decision but the family support network behind them. Communication can go a long way in helping them with their decision.

‘The most effective leaders are actually better at guarding against danger when they acknowledge that it exists. Cowards, in contrast, cling to the hope that failure will never happen and may be sloppy in the face of danger – not because they don’t acknowledge that it exists, but because they are just too afraid of it to look it in the eye.’ – Simon Sinek
Photo by BAES

I didn’t want to see my team of instructors leave for the Middle-East but it happened because we didn’t incentivise them to stay. Each one of these pilots cost over £4 million to train and when they left they gifted this training to a contractor to employ them overseas. It doesn’t seem a very good deal for the taxpayer or the Service. ​

From an HR perspective, if it’s cost you £4 million to train an employee it is well worth you incentivising them to stay, that is just common sense. Even if we were to think of some crazy figures and pay an instructor £1 million for a 10 year bond, it still saves us spending another £3 million in training an unknown quantity.

Speak to anybody who employs high-performers in the finance sector and they will tell you, categorically, that we are throwing money away. That’s why they give their employees huge yearly bonuses, to reward them for the value they have brought the organisation and to stop them leaving.

For me, I will soon be flying in bluer skies but, as I feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, I hope that I will be flying alone; for to find another one of my pilots behind one of those clouds will mean that we have failed to retain the one thing that can truly endure and sustain future talent…

Talent itself.

So let’s stop telling our people that they are valued unless we can back it up by offering proper value in return.

And let’s not be surprised when ‘There is no money to incentivise retention’ means that there are no longer people to do the job.

‘Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.’ – Richard Branson, Virgin

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