Air Force Offers Fighter Pilots $225,000 Signing Bonus

Fighter pilots were once considered such glamorous gigs that Tom Cruise played one in the hit Hollywood movie, "Top Gun." But now, three decades later, the U.S. Air Force is experiencing such a dire shortage that it's guaranteeing a $225,000 signing bonus -- $25,000 a year for nine years.

The Air Force says it is down 200 fighter pilots this year. On top of that, just 65 percent of the pilots are staying on the job past 11 years, which is a 15 percent drop off from 1993, according to the Air Force Times. As a result, the Air Force projects that it could be short some 700 pilots by 2021. Such a shortfall represents roughly one quarter of the total 3,000 flyer pilots in the Air Force.

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Low wages to blame
Analysts point to the wage disparity between the military pilots and those working in the private sector. As the Los Angeles Times reports, it takes 11 years of service for a fighter pilot to achieve an annual salary of $90,000. The median wage for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers, however, stands at $114,200, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The new signing bonus is aimed to level the playing field.


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A decade of wars exacts a toll
In total, 6,737 Americans have died in combat during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the online tracker, iCasualties.org. And nearly 12 years after the attacks of September 11, squadrons are still deploying, returning and then redeploying to the Middle Easte theatre. "People have no idea how hard it is when you have to move your family all the time," John Wigle, a former F-15 fighter pilot and current program analyst in the Air Force's operations department, told the L.A. Times. "Military life is not for everyone."

As the wars wind down, the Air Force predicts the number of combat missions will decline in the coming years. "In years past, we couldn't execute all of our peacetime training flying hours that was a requirement because we were deployed too much," Gen. Hawk Carlisle told the Air Force Times. "As things draw down... we'll increase home-station flying hours and concentrate on that."

Indeed, the drive to boost the number of fighter pilots comes at a time when the Army, for one, is drawing down its total number of active duty soldiers, as the Associated Press reported. At the height of the Iraq War, the Army had 570,000 active duty soldiers, but plans to lower the number to 490,000 by 2017. In its bid to cut the size of the force, it has even stopped accepting recruits with criminal or substance abuse records.

The Air Force has successfully used money to bring in more fighter pilots in the past. In 1989, the Air Force introduced a similar program, called the Aviator Retention Program. "Were it not for the program, there would be a greater problem than the one we currently have," Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke, who oversees the program, also told the Los Angeles daily.

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Dan Fastenberg

Dan Fastenberg

Associate Editor

Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.

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jdoe2jdoe2

Any prospective pilots should understand that you cannot believe a word these so called military leaders say, or anything they promise.   They are completely lacking in honor and integrity.  Just look at how they've screwed over retirees regarding tricare prime.  As soon as they decide they do not need to pay you those promised bonuses, they will be gone.

July 26 2013 at 11:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gratheeus

It has probably already been mentioned, but why is Top Gun being referenced in an article about the Air Force? Top Gun was about Navy fighter pilots, not the Air Force.

July 26 2013 at 1:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
petwofan

Dont forget Taxes! Uncle Sam will Tax the Whole lumps sum $225,000.00. Then we you get your $25,000.00 They will tax it again.

July 25 2013 at 12:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Thomas

Having retired as a USAF pilot in 1999, I was tempted (I LOVE flying).......right up until I remembered that I am 59 years old and ineligible to serve. And when I saw the "gotcha" that the money will be paid out over 10 years, I remembered why I retired in the first place....because the Air Force screws you every chance it gets. It just took me 23 years to figure it out!

July 24 2013 at 10:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
alstenzel

So, why show a U.S. Air Force "fighter" pilot approaching a U.S.Army helicopter? Another uninformed "journalist" attempting to cover an aviation story I guess.

July 24 2013 at 6:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
paulandcorrie

Bring back the flying Sergeants program.

July 24 2013 at 4:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eltrip

Why be a fighter jock when you can drive a drone from home?

July 24 2013 at 2:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bill

I flew the F-4E in SE Asia (Udorn, Thailand), Moody AFB, GA. and Seymour Johnson, NC. I did it for my salary and 100 bucks a month flight pay (later $650 a month), iI paid for my own college tuition and never took a bonus and retired at 20 years as a Lt.Col. I had a blast and wouldn't trade the experiance for driving a bus for the airlines. A lot of pilots got out during the Carter years (1975-80) but I stayed and it was not for the money. If you think about it, how do you motivate someone to strap on a Mach 2.6 guided rocket and dogfight an enemy where there can be only one winner? Hint - Its not the money. Money is a satisfier not a motivator. And Oh BTW only the top half of any Undergraduate Pilot Training class gets offered a fighter plane.You can't buy a good fighter pilot but the right person with the "right stuff" will do it for the fame and the glory.

July 24 2013 at 2:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bill's comment
jigokurei

Hi, Bill:

I had a computer/driver's ed teacher here who was also a F4 pilot; actually a co-pilot...trailing on and just after Vietnam. However, he too loved his glory days; as I learned from his story telling and recollection of it. The F4 was a marvelous beast; one I would have easily traded a good income for for the privilege to fly myself. It is true; it is not always about the money...but sometimes a little extra doesn't hurt. However, I do believe the incentive has to do more with the desire to fly over money and not the other way around; especially when it comes to the top toys. I don't believe the income disparity should be an equal playing field, but I do believe the top talent should get a little better pay incentive for their courage, loyalty, and careers.

July 24 2013 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cainhd

FIGHTER PILOTS: In ROTC or the USAF Academy , the prospective fighter-pilot gets a free ride both in college expense, a monthly pay-check (small but enough for some beers and other fun things) plus college tuition. Now he gets the free ride of "fighter pilot" and that is the greatest thing in the world, although I never got there. Bombers, Trainer Instructor, and some cargo time was my plight. I had finally been accepted for F-4 in SE Asia. I was jumping for joy ( submitted volunteer statements each 6 months) and then I wrote a short study on a situation that would cause an accident. 3 days later it happened. I was removed from my F-4 and assigned to T-38 flight instructor. The General knew that as an Aviation Cadet with no college degree that I would get passed over for major, which I did, along with some 20,000 others. UAL was hiring so I did my 2 year T-38 thing and went to work for UAL. Several years later as an USAF Active Reserve Piot, I witnessed the USAF release some 5000 pilots from active duty. 2 Years later USAF wanted them back. Most were airline pilots by then. Well, the pay thing is BS big time. To be a General one has to kiss a lot of butts.
Most retirees get the OUT YOU GO at 20 years and are major, or Lt. Col. Air Line pay is based on airplane and position. The lifestyle except for very senior captains is horrible. Seniority is everything which is as it should be, and depends on management blunders which come quickly from one end of the totem pole to the bottom and back up. When Tilton took UAL into bankruptcy, he got a 19.2 million yankee dollars as a BONUS. In the USAF, it's brown-nose Generals. In the AIRLINES, it's management trying to "cut back" or give mainline flying to the small airplanes. You can get to a good position then get sent back very quickly.
In ONE year I was a DC-8 F/0 (co-pilot) then a cut back, and I went back to 727 F/O, then back to DC-10 Second Officer, then back to DC-8 Second Officer. I finally climbed back to get 10 of 28 years in the left seat.
Notice that USAF F-P bonus is promised over a number of years. One stroke of Congress or a President can snuff it out
OTOH, It beats driving down-town to listen at some manager complain every day. HA HA!

July 24 2013 at 12:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cardiacbuzz

Yeah, right, median wage for airline pilots, co-pilots, flight engineers....$114,200.
What......and which airline, rank and career hours in the cockpit?
....sounds like captains of the heavy carriers with at least 2,000 hours at the controls.

July 24 2013 at 9:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cardiacbuzz's comment
skcalien

They say fighter pilots in the article but having been around the Air Force for most of my adult life, I say it is the wide body pilots leaving since a lot of them fly planes with the same or similar platform as commercial air since Boeing provides planes for commercial and military air. Take an AWACS pilot and then look at Southwest or Frontier. At the Reserve Wing at Kelly AFB that flies C-5's a lot of their pilots are also Southwest pilots. Academy grads and then ROTC grads get the slots in pilot training. How would the draft help get more pilots since the draft is enlisted and pilots are officers. Sitting here shaking my head at the article.

July 24 2013 at 10:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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