Air Force approves $175,000 retention bonuses for drone pilots

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James poses for a photo with the first four Enlisted Pilot Initial Class students in the U.S. Air Force Initial Flight Training School at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Pueblo, Colorado Oct. 17. The Air Force announced the initiative to integrate the enlisted force into Remotely Piloted Aircraft flying operations as pilots Dec. 17, 2015 starting with the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Name badges were blurred due to Air Force limits on disclosure of identifying information for RPA operators. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Randy Martin)

The US Air Force is offering hefty bonuses to UAV pilots in an effort to keep retention numbers up.

With Remotely-Piloted Aircraft (RPA) pilots in hot demand, the critical-skills retention bonuses currently offered are about $35,000 per year, with a total of $175,000 if personnel sign on for a five-year commitment to active duty.

In addition, personnel already receiving a similar bonus can sign on for an additional year for $35,000. The USAF officially authorized the bonuses in a release on Friday.

In layman’s terms, personnel must meet specific criteria and be in one of several specific career fields related to RPAs to be eligible for the bonus.

Specifically, the bonus requirements are “18S special operations RPA pilot, 11U pilots who started on manned aircraft and permanently transitioned to RPAs, 11X pilot, 12U RPA combat systems officers, or 13U RPA air battle manager career fields, and their undergraduate RPA or flying training commitments must be expiring in fiscal 2016 or 2017.”

To sweeten the deal for those on their way out of their commitments, the USAF is making the program retroactive, so that airmen whose commitment expired in 2016 have time to submit applications before the end of January 2017.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James announced the plan of raising the bonuses in August, as part of the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act signed the year prior.

According to the Air Force Times, a few unfortunate changes had to be made to the former nine-year, $25,000 per-year bonus that used to award some RPA airmen as much as $225,000, as well as RPA pilots no longer being able to receive a 50% lump-sum payment up front.

With demand rising for American airpower across the globe, the USAF has made great strides to retain its RPA crews, particularly in an era where pilots of manned and unmanned aircraft alike have been routinely leaving the Air Force in search of bluer skies and better opportunities.

To combat the loss, the Air Force has been offering retention bonuses and is even flirting about with the return of enlisted airmen, with four USAF NCOs currently enrolled in the Initial Flight Training School in Pueblo, Colorado.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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