The Air Force is now accepting applications for a new bonus program that offers certain pilots up to $50,000 a year to renew their contracts.
Known as the “Rated Officer Retention Demonstration Program,” the congressionally mandated initiative is the latest to entice aviators to remain in uniform amid the Air Force’s perennial pilot shortage.
The demo program targets active duty pilots who are serving out the initial 10-year contract that began when they finished flight school.
Those whose contracts expire within the next two years — in fiscal 2024 or 2025 — can sign new agreements to serve for another four to 12 years, Air Force spokesperson Laurel Falls said Friday.
How much money an airmen can earn for extending their service depends on what they fly.
For fighter, bomber, mobility, search-and-rescue and special operations pilots, as well as those in high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance planes, a four-year contract can bring in $35,000 in annual bonus pay each year — or $140,000 in total.
Sticking around for another five to seven years earns those pilots an extra $42,500 per year, or between $212,500 and $297,500 overall.
And signing a contract for eight to 12 more years would earn a pilot $50,000 in annual bonuses, or $400,000 to $600,000 in all.
Airmen who fly command-and-control and intelligence aircraft can qualify for annual payments of $35,000 over the course of four to 12 years, totaling $140,000 to $420,000.
Any pilot who agrees to five to seven more years can receive the first $100,000 as a lump sum up front, or $200,000 for a contract lasting eight to 12 years.
The Air Force is dangling another carrot for pilots, whether they go for the bonuses or not.
Under a separate piece of the pilot program, the service is offering to move airmen to a base of their choosing if they agree to add two or four years to their contract.
Falls said airmen will be allowed to move on a first-come, first-serve basis depending on availability at the installation they want to join and manning needs at the unit they would leave.
There are two ways an airman can become eligible for their preferred base: If they sign up for an annual retention bonus, they can extend that new contract by another two years.
For instance, a fighter pilot who signed a new 12-year contract would serve out that time and collect their $600,000 in bonus pay. Then an extra two years would begin, for 14 years in total.
And airmen who forgo annual bonuses can move somewhere new by signing a four-year contract, Falls said.
Applications to receive the retention incentives are due Sept. 15. The annual program expires at the end of December 2028.
“If the initial demo program is found to be successful and scalable, it may potentially continue with higher funding allocation requests in future years to expand offerings to a broader rated field and/or for an extended period,” the Air Force said in a release Tuesday.
Congress created the program late last year to lend more predictability to the Air Force’s aviation workforce. When people renew their commitments sooner, it shrinks the number of those who could decide to exit at the last minute — making the Air Force scramble to fill those billets.
A separate bonus program is offering $15,000 to $50,000 each year, for three to 12 years, to pilots of manned and drone aircraft, air battle managers and combat systems officers whose initial service commitments expire by Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year.
The Air Force aims to sustain a manned pilot force of around 21,000 airmen. That goal has proven elusive, thanks to a web of factors that include commercial airline hiring, military flight instructor shortages, changes in the U.S. war footing abroad, and the Air Force’s shrinking fleet.
Critics argue that throwing money at pilots, rather than focusing on quality-of-life initiatives or systemic changes like adding warrant officers, fails to meaningfully address the shortage that has left around 2,000 pilot slots open for years.
Service officials say the problem makes the Air Force more vulnerable in a potential crisis, and weakens the policy shops that rely on a deep bench of expert pilots to shape the future force.
“Retaining our experienced aviators is key to succeeding in a warfighting environment,” Brig. Gen. Kirsten Aguilar, an official in the Air Force’s personnel policy branch, said in the release. “The demo program helps posture the Air Force to reliably retain aviators to meet current and future operational requirements.”
The service is asking Congress for $250 million to fund aviation-related bonuses in fiscal 2024.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.