The Air Force may pay pilots nearly a half-million dollars to stay in uniform

Christopher Woody
Air Force General Gina Grosso salute military

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)


The US Air Force, struggling to retain pilots and fill undesirable positions, is considering paying up to $455,000 in annual bonuses, the branch's personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, told the House Armed Services subcommittee for military personnel on Wednesday.

In 2016, Congress raised the limit on what the Air Force could pay pilots to remain in the service to $35,000 from $25,000, though that fell short of the Air Force's requested $48,000 limit.

Grosso told the House subcommittee members that the branch was also considering one- and two-year extension deals for pilots, in addition to the current five- and nine-year extensions on offer.

All told, an Air Force pilot who stays on board for 13 years and earns the full $35,000 bonus could pull in $455,000 on top of their normal salary.

The Air Force is increasingly falling short of its quota of pilots. Grosso told the subcommittee that the whole service branch — including active Air Force, guard, and reserve — has 1,555 fewer pilots than it needs. That includes a 1,211-fighter-pilot shortage.

Taking into account the $11 million cost for training a pilot to man a fifth-generation fighter, "a 1,200 fighter-pilot shortage amounts to a $12 billion capital loss for the United States Air Force," Grosso said.

air force

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Swafford/USAF

A number of factors have "birthed a national aircrew crisis," Grosso told the subcommittee. Among them is the service's high operational tempo over the last three decades, enticements from private industry, and frustration with elements of Air Force life.

"Being 'always there' comes at a cost to equipment, infrastructure and most importantly, our airmen," she said, according to Department of Defense News. "And we are now at a decision point: sustained global commitments and recent funding cuts affect capacity and capability for a full-spectrum fight against a near-peer adversary."

Many Air Force pilots have been drawn away by commercial airlines, which, saddled with retirement requirements, have been hiring, taking on 4,100 pilots in 2016, a hiring level expected to continue for the next 10 to 15 years, Grosso said.

A pilot jumping from military service to the private sector can also see, on average, a 17% raise.

"Cultural issues that affect the quality of life and service for our airmen," such as duties not related to flying and difficulties maintaining work-life balance, also appear to have driven fliers away, Grosso said.

air force

US Air Force

In addition to financial inducements for established pilots, the Air Force is looking for ways to broaden its intake.

Grosso said late last year that applicants will be able to select what information about them is presented to Air Force hiring officers in order to better match themselves with certain positions.

Moreover, airmen will be relieved of some training responsibilities.

Other requirements, like tattoo and uniform standards, were also up for reevaluation.

The Air Force is considering expanding the number of medical waivers issued to possible recruits, giving second chances to some who would ordinarily be dismissed. It will also soften rules barring those with past marijuana use.

"We are always looking at our policies and, when appropriate, adjusting them to ensure a broad scope of individuals are eligible to serve," James Cody, outgoing Air Force chief master sergeant, said earlier this year.

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