An Air Force F-35A Lightning II prepares to receive fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over England on Dec. 7, 2023.

An Air Force F-35A Lightning II prepares to receive fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over England on Dec. 7, 2023. (Olivia Gibson/U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force is offering large bonuses worth up to $600,000 to experienced aviators to continue flying in the service as it faces a yearslong pilot shortage.

The new retention incentives would pay pilots between $15,000 to $50,000 per year to commit to three- to 12-year contracts, Air Force officials announced recently. The payments would depend on the type of aircraft that a pilot flies and the number of years that a pilot commits to continuing military service, officials said.

The hefty bonuses come as the service remains nearly 2,000 pilots short of its needs, as it competes with commercial airlines and other organizations who pay large salaries for experienced aviators. Air Force Maj. Gen. Adrian Spain, the service’s training and readiness director, said it’s critical to keep trained, experienced pilots in uniform as the United States faces many challenges, including increasingly aggressive actions throughout the world from China and Russia.

“The requirement to preserve critical skills in our Air Force has never been more important. 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 a Nov. 30 news 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 bonuses come in two different programs.

The Experienced Aviator Retention Incentive is offered to pilots of manned aircraft and drones whose initial contracts run out by the end of fiscal 2024. That program is open to regular Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve pilots.

The other program is the new Rated Officer Retention Demonstration Bonus, which Congress created in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual bill that sets Pentagon policy and spending priorities. The bonus is an effort to address the decades-old pilot shortage in the Air Force.

The Rated Officer Retention Demonstration Bonus is only available to active-duty manned aircraft pilots whose service commitments expire in fiscal 2025 or 2026. The program is designed to pay pilots to commit early to remaining in the service, Air Force officials said.

The program is scheduled to last for five years and could be extended if proven successful.

Eligible active-duty pilots have until Aug. 1, 2024, to apply for the bonuses, according to the Air Force. Service officials encouraged pilots to apply early, saying that date could be shifted forward depending on the number of pilots who sign up.

The Air Force is also offering pilots some non-monetary incentives to remain in the service, including the opportunity to choose their assignment of choice, decline assignments or to remain in their current location, the service said.

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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