The government ought to recoup the millions it spends to train a pilot before it frees Air Force aviators to fly for civilian airlines.

Unhappy with working conditions, pilots are leaving the military in droves for employment with commercial carriers flush from a strong economy. The Pentagon has been unable to stop the departures, even with bonuses above $100,000.The losses will leave the Air Force with 13 percent fewer fliers than it needs by 2002, posing a significant threat to national defense and draining taxpayer dollars spent on training.

Already in fiscal year 1998, which started Oct. 1, 775 pilots have bailed out of the Air Force. That is more than the 632 who left all of fiscal 1997. The problem also is pervasive in other branches of the armed forces. Only 10 percent - 27 of 261 - of eligible carrier pilots in the Navy have elected to accept bonuses and stay.

Reasons for leaving include frustration over repeated foreign assignments, difficulty obtaining promotions, blase missions not requiring the use of combat skills and dissatisfaction with military life in general. Those issues need to be addressed by the Defense Department. Combat readiness is at risk.

Unfortunately, the government won't have an easy time reversing the trend. Simply increasing salaries won't work.Two years ago, the Air Force offered flying veterans of nine years $60,000 to enlist for five more years. Six of 10 accepted and stayed.

Today, with the bonus at $110,000, only three of 10 pilots are accepting. Most who decline the money leave the service within two years.

Among other solutions, the government needs to ensure it more than breaks even on its investment in training. That may mean lengthening the minimum enlistment commitment for fliers. Estimates on the cost of training pilots range from $6 million to $9 million. That's a hefty sum to send out the military's door and into the cozy cabins of commercial airliners at taxpayer expense.

Though everyone benefits from well-trained commercial pilots, the Pentagon needs to enhance the military work climate and pencil out the commitment it needs on its training investment to protect combat readiness and taxpayer dollars.