The Marines Are Doling Out Up to $280K in Bonuses to Keep Pilots Flying

The Marine Corps is opening its aviation bonus program to some of its more experienced pilots as the military continues its fight to keep seasoned officers from leaving their cockpits for civilian jobs.

Pilots will be eligible to earn bonuses up to $280,000 starting in 2020 if they agree to keep flying another eight years, Marine officials announced this week. The bonuses target captains and majors who fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8 Harrier, MV-22 Osprey, C-130 Hercules, UH-1 Huey, AH-1 Cobra and CH-53 Stallion.

Those are the grades and communities that are seeing pilot shortages now or are expected to in the future, according to a draft memo outlining the incentives.

In 2020, the Marine Corps is extending its bonus program to pilots with more than 14 years of flying experience, a group previously ineligible for re-up cash. Those Marines can pocket up to $75,000 if they're willing to stay in uniform for another three years, a Marine administrative message expected to be released this week states.

"I hope our aviators see this expanded bonus program as a genuine effort to keep their talent and leadership in the squadrons to continue flying and mentor the next generation of aircrews," Lt. Gen. Michael Rocco, a helicopter pilot who now heads up Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Quantico, Virginia, said.

Here's what aviators can expect from the Marine Corps' 2020 bonus program.

Bigger Bonuses, But No Lump Sums

Some pilots will be eligible to earn up to $280,000 in bonuses, a $70,000 increase from the biggest aviation bonus the service offered in 2019.

Pilots won't be able to swap those for smaller lump-sum bonuses like they've been able to do in years' past though. That's because the option was not widely taken in 2019, Maj. Craig Thomas, a spokesman for Manpower and Reserve Affairs said.

Six- and eight-year service contracts come with the biggest bonuses for F-35 or Osprey pilots. For those platforms, pilots with less than 11 years in who agree to serve another eight will earn $35,000 a year. And those with less than 12 years who sign on for another six will also qualify for $35,000 a year.

Hornet, Harrier or C-130 pilots who've served less than 12 years and sign up for another six, and those with 12-14 years of service who agree to another five, will also pocket $35,000 a year.

The biggest annual bonuses for Huey, Cobra and CH-53 pilots will top out at $25,000 per year. Those payouts are for pilots who've served less than 12 years and sign on for another six, or those with 12-14 years in who agree to another five.

Longer Contracts

The 2020 bonuses also come with longer service requirements.

Last year, pilots wanting to take advantage of the highest bonus totals only needed to agree to six more years of service. In 2020, pilots after the biggest payouts will need to sign on for eight.

The two-year contracts manpower leaders offered last year have also been axed. In 2019, pilots were given the choice between two-, four- and six-year terms as leaders sought to give them more career flexibility. This year though, those interested in earning a bonus will have to stay at least three years -- and that option is only available to pilots who've already served at least 14 years.

Thomas said that's because the Marine Corps wants to keep its pilots longer. And opening up the bonus program to officers closer to the rank of lieutenant colonel should alleviate the need for a two-year option, he said.

Retaining qualified aviators is vital to meeting Marine Corps warfighting requirements, Rocco said. The steep 2020 bonus offerings -- with their longer contract requirements -- will give the aviation community the stability it needs to take on those missions in the years to come, he added.

Older Pilots Can Qualify

Past aviation bonus programs were only available to more junior pilots with less than 14 years in uniform. This year, the service is offering those officers incentives to extend their Marine Corps careers.

Offering the bonuses to majors in that category expands the eligibility population, Thomas said, since some officers in that rank don’t get a first look at promotion before the 14-year mark.

“By offering the [aviation bonus] program to these seasoned majors the Marine Corps can retain that talent for three years, which will most likely carry them to the next rank,” he said.

Osprey, F-35, Hornet, Harrier and C-130 pilots with 14 or more years of commissioned service who agree to serve another three can qualify for bonuses worth $25,000 for every year of that new contract.

Huey, Cobra and CH-53 pilots in that same category can pocket an extra $15,000 for three years, or $45,000 total.

"The aviation bonus ... adds one more positive benefit when Marine aviators weigh their options whether to continue serving or move on from the military," Rocco said.

No Cash for WSOs

Weapons system officers are out of luck in the 2020 bonus round.

Last year, F/A-18 weapons system officers could pick up as much as $80,000 in bonuses. But this year, there are no aviation re-up bonus opportunities listed for Marines in WSO military occupational specialties.

"We have enough Marine officers filling those roles," Thomas said. "Thus, an incentive is not needed for that aviation community."

Pilots Who Signed Up for Past Programs Can Still Apply.

If pilots looking at the 2020 offerings spot a sweeter deal than one they took previously, they can still opt in.

Fiscal 2018 or 2019 bonus-takers who are still under contract have the option of applying for a 2020 bonus, as long as they meet all of the program's criteria. Those details can be found in the MARADMIN expected to be posted by Friday.

If a Marine opted for one of the lump-sum payments in 2019 though, they won't be eligible to apply, a draft copy of the message states. They must also apply at least one month before their bonus anniversary date or the April 1, 2020, deadline for the new bonus program -- whichever comes first, according to the message.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@miltiary.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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