As the Army Aviation Branch approaches its 25th anniversary, it is important to reflect on how the branch has grown in size and technological sophistication. Although the decision to form a separate branch was vital to the growth of Aviation, it also caused complex challenges in personnel management, training and leadership roles.

Over the last two and a half decades, the Aviation Branch has not only focused on these challenges, but it has made significant gains in assuming additional missions and functions in the rapidly changing world of the new millennium.

"As a Soldier who joined Army Aviation before the Branch was formed, I can tell you that the formation of the Branch was the best thing that could have happened to us," said U.S. Army Aviation Warfighting Center and Fort Rucker Command Sgt. Maj. Don Sanders.

He added since that time, the Branch has not only transformed its equipment, procedures and training, but has also transformed the most important part - its people - the officers, noncommissioned officers and Soldiers.

Costly deficiencies

According to an article in the April 1983 edition of the U.S. Army Aviation Digest - a professional journal published monthly by the Aviation Branch here and distributed between February 1955 and April 1995 - the Army faced major concerns about declining retention and inadequate accession in Aviation warrant officers. The continuing retention problem had become an even greater concern when the losses were viewed in terms of training replacement costs.

At the time, the Army was losing about 40 percent of its Aviation warrant officers, according to Chief Warrant Officer of the Aviation Branch CW5 Randall Gant.

Although the Army's crop of warrant officer flight students increased between 1982 and 1983, the retention rate continued to decline, according to the Digest. It cost roughly $254,661 to train an Army Aviator in 1983 and it was projected that of the 859 Soldiers trained that year, 344 would leave at the end of their initial obligations in 1987, costing the Army $88 million.

According to the Digest, the Army faced an additional concern about the predicted losses due to an aging force and the loss of aviation experience. The Aviation warrant officers approaching 20-year retirement eligibility in 1983 were from the Vietnam-era and had a vast amount of aviation skills, including combat experience.

"The reduction in experience could have a serious impact on the Army's readiness for future combat," according to the Digest.

Underlying factors

Prior to 1983, before the Aviation Branch formation, senior Aviation leaders faced another problem. They faced challenges associated with developing the training and personnel management of NCOs and Soldiers in various aviation-related occupations, across different and often disinterested branches, said Sanders.

"Crew chiefs were branched with the truckers and (boaters)," he said.

There were also issues regarding career tracking for commissioned officers. Because pilots also belonged to different branches, they "couldn't take assignments that made them competitive in their own branch," according to Dr. Jim Williams in his book, "A History of Army Aviation."

The financial loss and the loss of experienced aviators indicated that the Army needed to increase warrant officer recruitment and retention within the Aviation Branch. As a part of the ongoing effort, the Army Research Institute developed a questionnaire designed specifically for Aviation warrant officers to help identify key factors in their decisions to leave the Army.

"(The) ARI survey conducted during that era pointed to concerns such as insufficient professional development, compensation disparity and lack of leadership roles as the causal factors," said Gant.

According to Gant, when the Branch was created on April 12, 1983, many leaders were concerned about attracting and retaining the best applicants for warrant officer flight training.

"We saw the same concern again from 2000 to 2005, as applications for the active component to the warrant officer program declined from 3.2 to 1.8 per vacancy requirement," he said.

Solutions and changes

In order to recruit high quality NCOs and retain senior warrant officers, the Army implemented a warrant officer pay table reform initiative in April 2007. This initiative, recommended by the Army Training and Leader Development Panel, increased the pay differential between NCO and warrant officers grades and provided more incentives for NCOs to apply for the warrant officer program.

"Last year we saw a targeted pay increase benefiting senior warrant officers and an extension of the pay table to 40 years, with the potential of retirement at 100 percent base pay," said Gant.

The reform provided incentives for the retention of experienced senior warrant officers. This change also corrected the perception NCOs had that there was no real monetary advantage to becoming a warrant officer, according to Gant. Additionally, the maximum age for initial aviation training was increased from 29 to 32. This initiative expanded the pool of NCOs eligible for aviation training.

This initiative increased incentives for Soldiers within the Aviation Branch, which was outlined as a key factor in the ARI survey.

According to Gant, today's warrant officer attrition rate is just 11 percent, despite repetitive deployments and short dwell time. The Branch accesses more than 500 warrant officers for flight school each year.

"We are selecting the right mix of experienced applicants ensuring longevity in our senior ranks," he said. "Our Aviation Branch is receiving and training the highest quality Soldiers for the future."

The Branch is continuously updating professional military education for warrant officers and the Aviation Warrant Officer Advanced Course curriculum was restructured to meet current emerging doctrinal requirements.

Regarding NCOs, the consolidation of aviation military occupational specialties into one Branch allowed leaders "to more efficiently manage the selection, training and personnel functions of NCOs and Soldiers," Sanders said. This alleviated concerns about insufficient professional development within warrant officer and enlisted ranks, which was a key factor regarding retention.

The establishment of the Aviation Branch also allowed the Army to formally train commissioned officers in combined arms leadership at the Aviation Captains Career Course here to improve their technical expertise, according to Gant.

"This training has given them the tools needed to fulfill their command or staff responsibilities and duties in Army Aviation," he said.

Also, warrant officer leadership roles and missions have expanded greatly since the establishment of the Aviation Branch, Gant said.

In 2002, the Chief of Staff of the Army established the position of Warrant Officer Advisor to the CSA.

"This Soldier informs Army leadership on all issues affecting the Warrant Officer Corps," he said. "The (chief warrant officer 5) holding this position sits as a member of the Senior Warrant Officer Advisory Council, a body that addresses warrant officer issues and reports directly to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army."

The Army Training and Leader Development Panel study called for the establishment of a chief warrant officer of the Branch position. This was accomplished in 2002 and soon after, regimental and brigade senior warrant officer positions and duties were being more formally recognized and better defined.

"Aviation has come a long way since the establishment of the Branch 25 years ago. Today we are better equipped, organized and trained than any other time in our history. We can see improvements in the overall quality of our people," Gant said.