The Air Force is hoping its current active-duty pilots will stick around and the service wants to sweeten the deal. It’s solution: money. Lots of money.
A new wave of bonuses are being offered to pilots, with as much as $600,000 in play, over 12 years. The bonuses, officially announced Nov. 30 for the 2024 fiscal year, include the new Demonstration Bonus, and the Aviation Bonus, now known as the Experienced Aviator Retention Incentive. The EARI is being offered to pilots whose initial contract ends at the end of September 2024. Now they can earn anywhere from $15,000-$50,000 per year in bonuses under the expanded program.
The offers are to fighter and bomber pilots, as well as aviators specializing search and rescue aircraft, drones and “critical” weapons systems. Maj. Gen. Adrian Spain, Director of Training and Readiness, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations at Headquarters, Air Force, said that the service needs to “preserve critical skills.” The Air Force is hoping that this is an offer that troops can’t refuse.
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“Specifically, aviation-related skillsets, formed through the crucible of combat and daily execution of high-intensity operations, is the foundation necessary to continue to effectively deliver warfighting capability to the Joint Force and the American people,” Spain said in an Air Force release. “Retaining these professional aviators’ experience and expertise within the Total Force is imperative in order to outpace future challenges that may emerge throughout the spectrum of conflict.”
The highest possible cumulative bonus is for pilots who sign a 12-year contract. That can earn as much as $600,000 over that time period.
Air Force personnel can apply for the EARI through August 1, 2024. However if the program hits its maximum ahead of that date the application window will cut off.
The Aviation Bonus was briefly halted earlier this year after the Air Force said it had briefly run short of money to pay for it, but it was reinstated.
Meanwhile, members of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves have until the end of December to apply for the 2023 fiscal year Aviation Bonus.
As for the Demonstration Bonus, that is only being offered to specifically rated officers, as a way to retain skilled pilots in crewed aircraft. It’s a new program, created in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, and will run for five years.
In addition to the financial incentives, the Air Force is also offering some non-monetary ones as well, including the chance for personnel to have the assignment of their choice.
The military as a whole has been struggling with both recruitment and retention. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said that the service could “manage” its recruiting shortfall, saying the issue wasn’t a crisis. Financial incentives have been added as a way to make new or continued service more appealing. The Army, Navy and Air Force have all offered tens of thousands of dollars in recent years. The Air Force (and Space Force) have also raised the maximum age for new recruits, hoping to bring in a wider field of new airmen and guardians.
Will it actually work? It’s unclear how effective bonuses and other financial incentives have been for enlistment and retention compared to other factors, and the military is still trying these tactics because the retention problem exists. But, this new bonus is a lot of money. And the Air Force hopes that will do the trick.
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