Air Force Programs Aim To Retain Pilots With Cash Incentives


The U.S. Air Force is addressing its own pilot shortage with two programs “designed to keep aviators in uniform,” according to the Air Force Times. Air Force pilots can now earn up to $50,000 in annual bonus pay under the plans.

Air Force spokesperson Captain Rachel Salpietra said that eligible aviators signing new contracts this year will earn an extra $15,000 to $50,000 annually for three to 12 years. That would come to as much as $600,000 in bonus pay over the course of their new commitment. There is also the possibility of lump-sum payments of $100,000 or $200,000 up front, “depending on their job and how long they remain in the service,” according to the publication. The offer extends to pilots of both manned and remotely piloted aircraft as well as air battle managers and combat systems officers with initial service commitments expiring in fiscal 2023.

Under a new congressionally mandated initiative dubbed the “Rated Officer Retention Demonstration Program,” USAF pilots have another option: “If their contracts are set to end between fiscal 2024 and 2026, they can tack another four years onto the end of that commitment and nab $50,000 in bonuses per year—or $200,000 in total,” according to the Air Force Times report. The program was mandated by Congress as a means of enticing pilots to stay with the service as opposed to taking airline jobs.

USAF training and readiness director Major General Albert Miller said, “These incentives are necessary to maintain that talent and competitiveness with our pacing challenge.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. Once again passing over numerous ‘eligible’ enlisted folks who have pilot ratings, maybe an AA degree and would promise their left arm in advance to get an opportunity for UPT and a promise to get a BS within a set period … say, five years. Something like the old USAF cadet program. Oh well … we all know how important a BS in Music is to become a USAF pilot.

  2. Absolutely every enlisted person should have entry into the program – the commissioning program, and take it from there. I know plenty of prior Es who have done it, but it takes work, commitment, and sacrifice… everything worthwhile does.

    Get the degree (any degree), get accepted into a commissioning program, then get accepted to pilot training, make it through, earn the rank and THEN get paid what you are worth. Don’t undercut the profession – earn it.

    • How about a compromise? Consider an instrument rating, or perhaps a commercial rating, as the equivalent of a BS, and allow them to skip basic flight as a result. I know of a handful of enlisted AF who got their commercial rating during their enlisted time, AF never let them fly of course. Now all are ATPs and one is even an engineering test pilot. AF is missing out big time on a lot of great talent already in their ranks.

      • Again, I’m not in favor of short cuts. Military flying has some fundamental differences compared to civilian flying. I am a former T-37 IP with 21 years of flying experience in the USAF. Formation (even heavies do Air Refueling) is one. The pace of training is another – if it took you 75 hours to get your private license in the civilian world – great. That won’t cut it in the Air Force. Aerobatics is another. How many civilians with an instrument rating have been in a spin or legally upside-down, or pulled more than 4Gs? Every Air Force pilot has – multiple times. And then there are the complex aircraft. How many young civilian ATPs have turbine time? The Air Force starts you off in a T-6 on day one. Civilian ratings do not equal military competence.

        Certainly there are some civilian pilots with a commercial license and some time in an Aztec who could adapt to flying a C-5 in the required time and be successful. But most would fail – in very expensive training program (aka C-5 school). And not because they are slackers or because military pilots are zipper-suited sun gods, but because the foundational training is different.

        Keep the standards high. Those with the desire, talent, and work ethic will meet it. Lowering the bar to make it easier or to “compromise” is a mistake.

        • Well JDG, I, too, served 21 years in the USAF with most of it supporting flight test at Edwards AFB. By the time I was 24, I had earned Commercial SMELI ratings and — later — an A&P. But by the time I was able to finish my degree, I was too old to be considered flight training so I never tried to become an officer because all I wanted to do is fly. Somehow, you want us to believe that a piece of paper makes a difference to those who would dearly love to fly, have shown the requisite aptitude as well as shown adaptation to military life. Perhaps you don’t know that the mighty Chuck Yeager didn’t have a degree until later … and it was in basket weaving (his Son worked for me). I know an SR-71 pilot who was a cadet initially. Maybe you’re not reading the words here … the USAF is having a pilot accession and retention problem. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Right now … there are about 100 USAF enlisted wearing pilot wings for drones. They proved their mettle going thru the very same initial programs that USAF pilots do … why not start with them. Another idea would be to reform the USAF Warrant Officer corps. It’d be a pseudo flying ‘sergeant’ idea from WWII. Prove yourself, get thru UPT and then get a degree if you want to become an officer. Else, stay a Warrant. Works for the Army! No one is saying that civil ratings are the equal of USAF training. We’re saying that there are many enlisted who have shown their love of aviation, ability to do it and oughta be given a try to solve the current problems.

          Frankly, sir, I’m tired of all that ‘wild blue yonder’ bravo sierra that a degree makes a difference. It doesn’t. On the occasions when I got a chance to manhandle an F-15 and F-16, et al, I was complemented on my abilities; made me sad knowing how much that’s what I really wanted to do. It was the USAF’s loss … not mine. On one occasion in the F-16, the Wing commander got lost … I had to tell him where he was. Becoming a military jock has everything to do with the training you get, not the previous education in something irrelevant … like psychology.

          The ONLY place where I see the need for relevant degrees is for aspirants to the test pilot schools. And — oh — I served on the C-5A Test Force. You’re right, I could fly it.

          • But, you didn’t get to pilot training. Period.

            Lots of us were late rated and did WHATEVER it took.

            You did not, simply.

            Once winged, the USAF wastes many with its shifting tracks and targets.

            The count, quality, experience and balance has never been correct or stable. Force reductions, then retention bonus- it’s one extreme or the other.

            You gotta get a degree and bars to get wings- it’s really simple to eat the elephant- just takes tenacity over time for some of us when timing vs production numbers is a challenge.

          • There’s the issue personified: You have a problem so you don’t change anything and merely throw money at it hoping for change.

            In MY case, I was working my way thru engineering school but wound up getting drafted during Viet Nam. I opted for the USAF instead. By the time I earned my degree IN service, I was too old.

        • How is it a short cut to be enlisted in the USAF, have completed all your advanced training, know the airplane inside and out, and still go become an FAA certificated commercial pilot in all that free time you don’t have? This compared to some rich kid who went to college on daddy’s money to get a degree in history or art, likely able to graduate easily while attending class half time with a hangover, but this kid is more qualified and determined simply because he has a butter-bar on his uniform? A piece of paper from a University means nothing when it comes to pilot aptitude or dedication. It’s a pay-wall, pure and simple.

          Furthermore, the flight ops cadets I knew in ROTC graduated with a commercial license and all sorts of other ratings. This was their degree to earn their commission. Guess what? They got to skip basic flight because they already had proficiency in flight. So clearly the military already allows this, but still requires a useless receipt saying you paid your way into a commision.

          • That’s exactly it, Matthew … thanks. Anyone who ever served as an enlisted member of the military knows who runs the place. But those that never did that have no idea of the hardships that enlisted folks go through. During MY first years, as an E-3, my pay was $45 twice a month. For that, people were dying in Viet Nam. So the pompous attitude of people who never experienced that infuriates me. Thanks. Mike Rowe knows this, too.

  3. The USAF would do well to have warrant officers for some AFSCs, pilots being a shining example.

  4. Stop forcing pilots to become staff officers would fix much of the problem. A pilot one day….then in charge of the motor-pool the next day….nuts……..

    • Yes. They really need to look at that mess. Friend of mine, all he wanted to do was fly his fighters. But at a certain point, he had to move up to other non flying positions. He got out when he could.

  5. 1. Regardless of degree, it was (is?) required to have a Bachelor of Science degree to get into OTS & UPT: math + science courses (unsure how much of each).
    2. For the enlisted troops who got their FAA licenses, there are multiple programs to help pay for college degrees. You are right, though, the studies (yuk!) take extra work/motivation. (Is “Bootstrap” program still alive?)
    3. A person wanting to be an Air Force pilot but avoid Air Force staff tours should consider starting in the AFRes/ANG (a best kept secret!). Beware of the long lines of applicants, especially in desirable locations.
    4. For those AF pilots on active duty, I agree with Terps (airlines ASAP). Additionally, go AFRes/ANG, if you can (interesting flying + more reliable retirement source).

    • They opened up OTS to anyone with a bachelor degree. Does not have to be a BS. Any BA will do just as well. In other words, the degree is worthless other than showing that you managed to get past the approved pay wall. A commercial license should accomplish the same, or more even, IMHO. If you want to require the two Calc and two Physics courses (which was the requirement + degree when I went thru ROTC, unknown about OCS) as a minimum, fine, but should not require receipt of a 4 year degree when you already have equivalent or better experience.

      Agreed with you and Terps, except one step further that anyone active duty should get out as soon as contract/obligation is met, regardless of pilot status. At least that was my experience as recent as 2016.

    • I didn’t learn about the AFR / ANG situation until near the end of my USAF enlisted career. Had I known, I’d have gotten out and gone that route. But you’re correct, this is an excellent alternative path for those who want to fly. As I type, airplanes from Madison, WI / Truax Field are overhead in the Volk MOA putting the “F” and “U” back in ‘FUN’ during the week.

  6. This Pilot Bonus approach has NEVER worked. The pilots who were planning to get out, still got out, and the ones who were planning to stay in reaped a windfall to keep doing what they were going to do anyway. In a number of cases it was the folks who wouldn’t be employable on the outside who stayed in, reducing the quality of the force.

    Money isn’t the reason people leave. Ask the questions to get at the real root causes and address those.

  7. Well … with THIS news in Barron’s mag, throwing $50K at aviators ain’t gonna work:

    “Airline pilots had an annual average salary of $225,470 last year, up from $198,190 the previous year, Labor Department statistics show. Pilots’ pay is reaching astronomical levels, with some of the most experienced aviators earning up to $700,000.”