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Air Force boosts bonuses for fighter pilots to fill shortage in ranks

The Air Force will boost bonus retention pay to keep more experienced pilots in the cockpit.

The new tiered-pay system, which would pay fighter pilots as much as $35,000 for each additional year and up to $455,000 for 13 years, was meant to reverse a shortage of active-duty aviators.

The problem is most acute among fighter pilots: The Air Force reported a shortage of more than 870 on active duty at the end of September, the most recent numbers released. Additional figures for bomber, transport and drone pilots were not available.

However, in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, the military reported a shortage of 1,544 aviators, according to Erika A. Yepsen, an Air Force spokeswoman.

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Loren B. Thompson, a senior aerospace defense consultant at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, said military pay and benefits for pilots are competitive with the private sector, but the extra incentives will make “a big difference in retaining talent.”

“The Air Force is competing with airlines for pilots, and demand for commercial pilots is likely to grow rapidly in the years ahead,” he said in an email. “Although the retention bonuses are big, they were calculated to keep an Air Force career competitive with private-sector alternatives.

“It costs the Air Force over a million dollars to train pilots and then keep them proficient, so the service needs to protect investment,” he added. “Otherwise it will just become the farm team for United and Delta.”

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The latest fighter pilot annual bonuses are up $10,000 a year from a previous incentive of $25,000 for each extra year of service. Drone pilots join fighter pilots at the top of retention pay ladder with a $35,000 a year incentive.

Among other aviators, the Air Force will offer bomber, special operations forces and mobility or transport pilots bonus payments of $30,000 a year. Surveillance and search and rescue pilots would receive $28,000 annually. Combat systems officers, who are are crew members such as navigators, would receive $20,000 in the combat search and rescue area; fighters and bombers, $15,000 annually; and surveillance and special operations forces, $10,000 a year.

The Air Force has offered more options for how many years pilots may receive the payments, which varies according to the aircraft they fly and their role as a crew member.

The military branch also has focused on quality of life issues to ease demands on pilots. For example, Yepsen said some administrative duties pilots have picked up in recent years will be given to contractors.

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