New Round of Incentives Aims to Keep Navy Pilots in Service

 A pilot prepares for flight on board USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). (Kenneth Abbate/U.S. Navy)
A pilot prepares for flight on board USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). (Kenneth Abbate/U.S. Navy)

The U.S. Navy has expanded three key aviation bonus programs in an effort to keep experienced active-duty and Reserve pilots in the cockpit longer amid a Pentagon-wide aviator shortfall.

The service on Tuesday announced that it has shifted the timeline contract requirements for the Aviation Department Head Retention Bonus and Aviation Command Retention Bonus programs, according to a release. Furthermore, officers eligible for Aviation Incentive Pay could see a rate boost as early as April 15, the release said.

"Our bonus and flight pay programs have proven successful in the past at retaining our best and brightest aviators," Capt. Michael Baze, head of aviation career management at Naval Personnel Command, said in the release. "However, these programs have remained essentially unchanged for well over a decade, and are beginning to lose their effectiveness in the face of growing competition for talent."

Baze said the service asked aviators of all ranks how the Navy should best modernize the programs moving forward.

"Aviators reported they wanted our programs to be more flexible, merit based, and competitive with civilian opportunities," he said. "We took that feedback seriously, incorporating each of these elements in the program changes you see here today."

The latest aviation bonus move comes weeks after Vice Adm. Robert P. Burke, chief of naval personnel, told lawmakers the bonuses are needed to retain more experienced aviators amid a Defense Department-wide pilot shortfall.

"We continue to face challenges within some historically retention-challenged communities, particularly among aviators in specific model/type/series platforms," Burke said in a written statement provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 14.

In accordance with the new policies, aviators eligible for the active-component department head bonus can choose from a five-year contract or a three-year contract. Those who choose an early five-year contract will take more money home annually than those who choose the five-year contract later or a three-year contract.

"The eligibility timeline has shifted from the expiration of the aviator's winging service obligation to their lieutenant commander board" for the bonus programs, the release said.

This applies to officers selected for promotion to lieutenant commander who are within the fiscal year 2018 lieutenant commander statutory board or are being considered for department head in the FY19 Aviation Department Head Screen Board (ADHSB), scheduled to convene on April 30.

Should they take the early versus standard rate, Helicopter Mine Countermeasure (HM), Electronic Attack (VAQ), Strike Fighter (VFA), Carrier Onboard Delivery (VRC/VRM), and Carrier Airborne Early Warning (VAW) pilots are eligible for as much as $175,000 over five years.

The numbers represent a $25,000 increase over last year's budget boost, which topped out at $150,000 over five years. That was up from fiscal 2016, when bonuses over the term maxed out at $125,000.

Meanwhile, the new Aviation Command Retention Bonus, or ACRB, will shift from a two-year, $36,000 total contract to a three-year, $100,000 total contract, the release said.

"Members must select after screening for commander command and the obligation takes them through 22 years of service or the completion of their post-commander command tour, whichever is longer," it said.

ACRB applicants must be screened as commanding officer of an eligible operational command, operational training command, or special mission command in order to apply, according to the policy.

The eligibility window starts now and closes Aug. 31, the policy said.

Lastly, for active or reserve component aviation incentive pay, officers who screen for and serve in administrative milestone billets will see a pay hike.

Based on years of service, those in administrative milestone billets, such as department head and commander or major command, will receive the rate increase beginning April 15, the policy said.

"Aviators who do not screen or serve in milestone billets, but continue to qualify for flight pay, will continue to receive flight pay, but at a different rate than aviators in milestone positions," the release said.

Someone in an administrative milestone position between 10 and 22 years of service is eligible for $1,000 per month -- the most in that bracket, according to the policy. By comparison, an aviator not in an administrative role but still eligible for flight pay will receive $650 a month for the same timeframe, the policy said.

"Aviation has taken a holistic approach that synchronizes targeted increases in both flight pay and bonuses in a mutually supportive fashion with achievement of major leadership milestones," Baze said.

"The end state will be a judiciously applied, merit based, more competitive continuum of pay for our top aviators from department head through post-commander command," he said.

"Coupled with a range of non-monetary incentive improvements we are making, these changes will go a long way toward helping us retain the warfighting talent we need into the future," Baze said.

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

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