A pilot at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada flies an unmanned aerial vehicle over Afghanistan.

A pilot at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada flies an unmanned aerial vehicle over Afghanistan. (Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Air Force is offering drone pilots a chunk of cash to entice them to keep flying unmanned aircraft from a desk, a career field the service says is taxing and critically understaffed.

Beginning Oct. 1, drone pilots with at least six years of experience will be eligible for retention bonuses ranging from $75,000 to $135,000, depending on length of contract, the Air Force announced late Wednesday. The re-up bonus is $15,000 annually, for either five or nine more years. Half of the money would be paid up front.

The Air Force said in a news release the bonus is similar in value and commitment to what has been offered to aviators in the past who have similar training and experience.

Some newly minted Air Force pilots will also soon find themselves at the controls of either an MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper, the two armed drones the Air Force operates. Beginning in August, the service will begin placing about 80 new pilots into Remotely-Piloted Aircraft squadrons, Air Force officials said in the release. The pilots would be assigned right out of undergraduate pilot training and would serve for one tour to “help alleviate growing pressure on overtaxed RPA crews,” the release said.

The plan is to only tap into the undergraduate pilot training pipeline for one year while the Air Force increases the number of drone pilot graduates from about 190 to 300 annually. The last time the Air Force directly placed a graduate of traditional pilot school into the drone career field was in 2011.

After serving one tour, aviators would then be placed in a manned aircraft if desired, the Air Force said.

“The most critical challenge we face in this mission area is a shortage of RPA pilots,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III was quoted as saying in the release. Using graduates fresh out of pilot training was “the fastest way to address that shortfall without sacrificing mission capability in other platforms.”

About 1,066 pilots fly drones from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., and other bases, though the Air Force says it needs about 1,281 pilots to fulfill a Pentagon mandate of 65 daily missions, according to The Los Angeles Times.

To get a sense of how much more in demand armed drones are, the Air Force says that it took 16 years for it to reach 1 million flight hours and a mere 2 1/2 years to double those flight hours.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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