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New Bonus: $455K Over 13 Years for Air Force Fighter Pilots

A fighter pilot conducts pre-flight checks inside an F-35A Lightning II before a training mission April 4, 2013, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
A fighter pilot conducts pre-flight checks inside an F-35A Lightning II before a training mission April 4, 2013, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Brett Clashman)

The Air Force on Monday unveiled a tiered bonus system to combat a chronic pilot shortage, with bonuses of up to $455,000 over 13 years for fighter pilots.

And while the benefit clearly takes aim at fighter pilots, it's also designed to target aviators across a number of platforms, including drones, and for periods of as short as one year.

"Pilot retention right now is in a crisis when it comes to fighters, and we're changing around the way we do incentive pay," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in announcing the initiative during a breakfast in Washington, D.C. The bonus "will encourage pilots to stay where they are needed most," she said.

The new Aviation Bonus Program is an expansion of Aviator Retention Pay and puts into place the cap authorized for the incentive under the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. It also details for the first time the "tiered" benefit, with specific amounts based on specialty area.

$35K a Year for Fighter, Drone Pilots

Fighter and drone pilots are slated to receive the highest maximum bonus of $35,000 a year, while special operations combat systems officers the least at $10,000.

Here's a look at the different tiers for the bonus, according to figures released by the Air Force:

Tier 1 -- Fighter Pilot (Air Force Specialty Code: 11F)

  • Bonus eligibility based on one-year, two-year, five-year, nine-year, or up to 24 years of aviation service (13-year maximum) commitments.
  • Maximum annual bonus: $35,000.

Tier 2 -- Bomber Pilot (11B)/Special Operations Pilot (11S)/Mobility Pilot (11M)

  • Bonus eligibility based on one-year, two-year, five-year, or nine-year commitments.
  • Maximum annual bonus: $30,000.

Tier 3 -- C2ISR Surveillance Pilot (11R)/Combat Search and Rescue Pilot (11H)

  • Bonus eligibility based on one-year, two-year, or five-year commitments.
  • Maximum annual bonus: $28,000.

Tier 4 -- RPA Pilot (18X/11U/12U/13U)

  • Bonus eligibility based on a five-year commitment.
  • Maximum annual bonus: $35,000.

Tier 5 -- Combat Search and Rescue Combat System Officer (12H)

  • Bonus eligibility based on a five-year commitment.
  • Maximum annual bonus: $20,000.

Tier 6 -- Fighter Combat Systems Officer (12F)/Bomber CSO (12B)

  • Bonus eligibility based on a five-year commitment.
  • Maximum annual bonus: $15,000.

Tier 7 -- Special Operations Combat Systems Officer (12S)/C2ISR Surveillance CSO (12R)

  • Bonus eligibility based on a five-year commitment.
  • Maximum annual bonus: $10,000.

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Upcoming Deadline

The Air Force Personnel Center on Tuesday will begin notifying airmen eligible to receive the bonus. Officers have until Oct. 1 to decide whether they want to extend their service, an Air Force spokeswoman told Military.com.

"You're only eligible to take one of these bonuses if your service commitment is expiring in fiscal year 2017," the spokeswoman said.

Officials said there is a benefit to extending career time sooner rather than later.

For example, with fighter incentive pay of $35,000, "if you lock in for, say, nine years, you'll get the bonus" no matter what, the spokeswoman explained. But "if you do just a one-year to the two-year sign up, OK great, you'll get it for those," but an unpredictable budget cycle the following year could torpedo another chance for an annual bonus.

The spokeswoman said shorter commitments work best for airmen who are considering a career change but may still be on the fence about when they want to exit the service.

No Enlisted Pilot Bonuses Yet

While enlisted personnel have begun flying the RQ-4 Global Hawk, they are not currently eligible for the same aviation bonuses, the spokeswoman said. Depending on career field, enlisted bonuses work through a different, re-enlistment bonus system, she said.

In September, then-Air Force Chief Master Sgt. James Cody said enlisted drone pilots -- who became eligible to fly the Global Hawk in 2015 -- will qualify for the same bonuses the Air Force plans to offer its officers. But not yet.

"There aren't any enlisted eligible, and there won't be for a couple years until they come up on their commitment," the spokeswoman said.

Only those officers whose service commitments expire in fiscal 2017 are eligible. Colonels and colonels-select; airmen recalled under the Voluntary Recall to Active Duty (VRAD) Program; inter-service transfers; and rated officers who are medically disqualified from aviation service are also ineligible for the bonus incentive, the service said.

'Where the Need Is Most Critical'

The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act 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 has said in a release.

In passing the legislation, lawmakers in Congress instructed the Air Force not to "just take this $35,000 and give it to every [pilot] -- do give it to the people who need to be given" up to that amount, the spokeswoman said.

When releasing the fiscal 2018 budget submission last month, service officials said the bonus caps wouldn't be altered but that levels would vary based on career fields.

Wilson, the Air Force secretary, said "The bonuses are higher for where the need is most critical."

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

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