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Shorter Contracts, Hefty Bonuses Available for Air Force Pilots

Capts. Wes Sloat (left) and Jared Barkemeger, 7th Airlift Squadron pilots, operate a C-17 Globemaster III during takeoff from the flight line of Fort Bragg, N.C., during Operation Panther Storm, July 27, 2017.  (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Keith James)
Capts. Wes Sloat (left) and Jared Barkemeger, 7th Airlift Squadron pilots, operate a C-17 Globemaster III during takeoff from the flight line of Fort Bragg, N.C., during Operation Panther Storm, July 27, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Keith James)

The U.S. Air Force's air mobility and special operations pilots will see a substantial increase if they choose to take advantage of this year's aviation bonus program.

The service last week announced that air mobility pilots (Air Force Specialty Code 11M) who fly aircraft such as the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules, and special operations pilots (Specialty Code 11S) who fly aircraft such as the MC-130 Combat Talon will see a bonus bump to $35,000 this year from $30,000 last year. The increase is due to declining take rates, said Capt. Carrie Volpe, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Additionally, all pilots who are eligible for the 2019 program can sign up for shorter-term contracts. The Air Force reduced the minimum contract term from four years to three, she said.

"The aviation bonus program is a critical component to increasing retention in a very competitive job market," Volpe said in an email Wednesday. "However, we know the choice to stay in uniform isn't solely a financial consideration. Much like their initial decision to serve, airmen consider a number of factors when they contemplate leaving the Air Force."

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While some categories are seeing increased bonuses, the service has reduced the offer for combat search-and-rescue rotary-wing pilots (Specialty Code 11H) from $28,000 to $25,000 per year for contract lengths of three to nine years, based on "the health of the career field," officials said.

The Air Force added air battle managers (Specialty Code 13B) to the program. These airmen, who provide command and control to air and ground units, could receive $20,000 annually for three-to-six-year contracts or $25,000 annually for seven-to-nine year contracts, the service said.

The remaining breakdown:

Bomber pilots (11B), fighter pilots (11F) and mobility pilots (11M)

  • Annual payments of $35,000 for contract lengths of three to 12 years.
  • Lump-sum, up-front payment options of $100,000 exist for seven- to nine-year contracts and $200,000 for 10- to 12-year contracts.

Remotely piloted aircraft pilots (18X/11U) and special operations forces pilots (11S)

  • Annual payments of $35,000 for contract lengths of three to 12 years.

Command and control/intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance pilots (11R) and combat search-and-rescue fixed-wing pilots (11H)

  • Annual payments of $30,000 for contract lengths of three to nine years and $35,000 for contract lengths of 10 to 12 years.
  • A lump-sum, up-front payment option of $100,000 exists for seven- to nine-year contracts.

Combat search and rescue rotary-wing pilots (11H)

  • Annual payments of $25,000 for contract lengths of three to nine years.

Combat systems officers (12X) and air battle managers (13B)

  • Annual payments of $20,000 for contract lengths of three to six years and $25,000 for contract lengths of seven to nine years.

First-time bonus applicants or those whose bonus programs have expired may enroll with the following stipulations: both manned and unmanned pilots are eligible for annual payments of $25,000 to $35,000 based on the member's set AFSC contract length ranging from three to nine years.

These contracts may not extend the pilot's time in service beyond 24 years.

Secondly, combat systems officers and air battle managers applying for the first time can receive annual payments of $20,000 for contract lengths of three to five years and must have 19 years or more of "total active federal military service," the Air Force said. Their bonuses too may not extend their time in service beyond 24 years, officials said.

The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act for the first time allowed the Air Force to increase aviation retention pay from $25,000 to $35,000 per year and flight pay up to $1,000 per month "as needed to address manning shortfalls and challenges," the service said in a release at the time.

The Air Force has a set goal of a 65 percent acceptance or "take rate" among its rated pilot community. But some career fields have fallen short. According to a report from Air Force Times, mobility pilots saw a 10-point drop in 2018, with more pilots declining bonuses than the previous year -- down from 47.6 percent to 37.9 percent.

In the manned communities overall, the take rates have been consistent. In fiscal 2017, the take rate was 43.8 percent, while in 2018 it climbed slightly to 44.8 percent, according to statistics provided to Military.com on Wednesday.

"Our retention initiatives must also address a wide range of quality-of-life and quality-of-service concerns," Volpe said.

"The aviation bonus is not designed to compete financially with commercial airline salaries," added Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services. "It is just one of a myriad of levers the Air Force is implementing to enhance both the quality of life and quality of service, that when combined, help to retain our aviators."

Kelly said there has been "some stabilization" in the pilot communities based on a number of initiatives.

"Based on those results and current retention numbers, we made several program adjustments to this year's bonus program that are intended to build on this momentum," he said in provided responses to Military.com.

"In addition, the Air Force has implemented a variety of non-monetary retention initiatives, such as the Second Assignment in Place program, improvements to the assignment process, reducing the number and length of individual deployments, providing increased administrative support, and eliminating additional duties in flying squadrons to enhance our aviators' and rated aircrew's ability to focus on the mission and readiness," Kelly said.

The Air Force has started new initiatives, such as a unique fly-only track within Air Mobility Command, bonus incentives and preferred basing, since the service announced it was roughly 2,000 pilots short in 2017.

The service has not provided an update on how many vacancies it had in 2018.

The Air Force is focusing on what it can offer airmen that they may not experience in the private sector, such as "pride, professionalism, dedication and commitment," Kelly said.

It's about "our airmen who are defending the high ground and ensuring our nation's security," he added

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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