Air Force wants to bring back retired pilots in their 50s to service

Jerry Yellin, author and retired U.S. Army Air Corps Captain, sits in the rear cockpit of a T-6A Texan II on Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, Dec. 15, 2016. Yellin was invited to be the guest speaker for Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training class 17-03 and received an orientation flight while here. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ariel D. Partlow)

A desperate US Air Force is hoping to make up for a shortage of pilots and specialty roles— by opening doors for those who have since retired.

In light of a personnel drought, the USAF is reopening a recall program that will bring in 1,000 mid-career commissioned and enlisted jobs, including pilots, combat systems officers, recruiters, air traffic controllers, and other roles.

Those wanting a second chance at life in uniform may have a two-year extension, particularly if they fill those critical roles.

The application window for the Voluntary Retired Return to Service Program opened Thursday, and all wanting to don their blues once more must submit their applications by the end of January 2026

According to the Air Force Times, if accepted, applicants will serve on active duty for no more than 48 months.

“The VRRAD program is a strategic enabler to embrace experienced talent, tapping into a valuable resource of retired members to fill critical roles to close the gap against our peer competitors,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the service’s uniformed personnel chief, said in a statement.

O-3 through O-5s will be considered in the officer ranks. Those who return under the VRRAD program are ineligible for aviation bonuses, and will only deploy unless they volunteer or are assigned to a combat unit.

Retirement benefits will cease for blue card holders the day before a retiree reactivates, and formerly enlisted personnel must not be medically retired or have left the USAF in bad standing.

Applicants must be under the age of sixty.

The news comes as the USAF tries to address other technical expertise by reopening the Warrant Officer program for the first time since the late 1950s.

Enlisted personnel are now able to apply for the warrant program to become technical experts in their fields.

However, while the warrant officer program addresses other fields, the USAF is reportedly not as open to one sure-fire method of addressing pilot shortages: allowing enlisted personnel to fly as warrant officers.

During World War II, the US Army Air Corps allowed 2,576 enlisted men to become “flying sergeants,” or enlisted men allowed to fly.

The National Museums of the USAF notes that “although most enlisted candidates were elevated to the new rank of flight officer with officer privileges or to second lieutenant before assignment to a combat unit, about 332 pilots departed the United States while still sergeants and about 217 flew combat missions overseas as sergeants.”

Though the flying sergeants were often discriminated against by “college raised” officers and often relegated to cargo or maritime patrol aircraft, the program produced four general officers, eighteen fighter aces, and notable people such as race car driver Carroll Shelby and stunt pilot “Bob” Hoover.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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