Tactical

Air Force again dangles $600,000 in bonuses to keep pilots in uniform

Air Force pilots and others in rated fields who opt to stay in uniform can earn up to $600,000 over 12 years under the latest round of retention bonuses announced Nov. 30.

The fiscal year 2024 incentives offer manned aircraft and drone pilots, combat systems operators and air battle managers an extra $15,000 to $50,000 per year, depending on their assigned aircraft and the years to which they commit.

Annual bonus pay programs aim to keep airmen around to blunt the effects of a pilot shortage that has lasted decades, robbing the service of aviators in policy jobs that rely on their know-how to help the service plan for the future.

“The requirement to preserve critical skills in our Air Force has never been more important,” Maj. Gen. Adrian Spain, the training and readiness director at Air Force headquarters, said in a Nov. 30 release. “Retaining these professional aviators’ experience and expertise … is imperative in order to outpace future challenges.”

Bonuses are funneled through a pair of programs that target airmen as they near the end of their initial service commitment, or the time they owe the Air Force after training. Those agreements last 10 years for manned aircraft pilots and six years for drone operators, CSOs and ABMs.

One initiative, the Rated Officer Retention Demonstration Program, is open to active duty airmen whose contracts expire in fiscal 2025 or 2026. How much extra pay they nab depends on how much time is left before their commitment ends, according to a chart the service provided to Air Force Times on Thursday.

Fighter, bomber, mobility, search-and-rescue and special operations pilots, as well as those in high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance planes, can earn $30,000 to $35,000 a year with a three- to four-year contract — or $90,000 to $140,000 in total.

Signing up for another five to seven years earns those pilots an extra $37,500 to $42,500 per year, or between $187,500 and $297,500 overall.

And signing a contract for eight to 12 more years would land them $45,000 to $50,000 in annual bonuses, or $360,000 to $600,000 in all.

Airmen who fly command-and-control and intelligence aircraft can qualify for annual payments of $30,000 to $35,000 over the course of three to 12 years, totaling $90,000 to $420,000.

Some pilots who agree to five to 12 more years can receive up to $200,000 as a lump sum payment up front, depending on what they fly and how early they join the program, according to the chart.

The service also continues to dangle non-monetary carrots for those in the demo program, offering troops a greater shot at staying where they are, moving to their preferred base or blocking assignments they don’t want. Airmen must extend their contract by at least four years to qualify for those perks.

Congress created the program late last year to lend more predictability to the Air Force’s aviation workforce. When people renew their commitments sooner, it shrinks the number of those who could decide to exit at the last minute — making the Air Force scramble to fill those billets.

The new initiative expires at the end of 2028.

The Air Force’s legacy bonus program — newly dubbed the “Experienced Aviator Retention Incentive” — is also offering $15,000 to $35,000 per year, for three to 12 years, to airmen whose initial service commitments expire by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2024.

That option is available to airmen across the active duty force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.

Applications for the two programs will be accepted until Aug. 1, 2024, or the bonus budget runs dry, whichever comes first. The service is asking Congress for $250 million to fund aviation-related bonuses in fiscal 2024.

Early data shows airmen have jumped at the higher sums offered by the new demo program. Airmen signed 210 contract extensions in the first 10 days of the program when it opened in August, service spokesperson Master Sgt. Deana Heitzman said at the time.

In comparison, Heitzman said the service had inked 664 contracts over the course of the legacy bonus program, which has been capped at $35,000 a year since 2017.

The drone community could eventually see another financial reward, too. When signed into law, the 2024 defense policy bill will require the Air Force to report to Congress on how it could pay airmen assigned to work with unmanned aircraft up to $3,000 each year to cover the cost of living at remote installations like Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

Those jobs can prove costly to airmen and families who must spend more on limited child care and health care, as well as gas for long commutes, in rural areas.

Critics of pilot retention bonus programs say the Air Force is throwing money at its problems rather than creating more opportunities for airmen to fly, fixing issues that hurt their personal and professional lives or making systemic changes like adding warrant officers.

The service has cut flying hours in recent years as America’s post-9/11 wars have wound down, instructor hiring has slowed and the Air Force fleet has shrunk.

Those changes have spurred airmen to seek jobs at commercial airlines and shipping companies, where they can make hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, or in other sectors like defense contracting.

That’s kept the Air Force hovering about 2,000 people shy of the 21,000 manned aircraft pilots it believes it needs to succeed in war and policymaking.

“At the end of the day, USAF leadership is unwilling to actually allow operational tactical pilots to do what they joined to do: fly,” Reddit user TaskForceCausality posted in August. “Unless the USAF is prepared to fund flight hours like pilots of a generation ago … they need to set the expectation with newcomers that flight officers will be doing admin ground duties as a primary job.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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