Air Force eyes $35K bonuses, sabbaticals to keep pilots

Air Force eyes $35K bonuses, sabbaticals to keep pilots
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The Air Force will meet with commercial airline executives this spring to try to find ways to stop a flow of experienced pilots leaving the service, a top Air Force general said Wednesday.

“[Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein] is meeting with the senior executives in the airline industry and are looking at just that,” said Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services.

Speaking before the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, Grosso said that the Air Force is exploring utilizing its fledgling Career Intermission Program, which was started to allow airmen to take a sabbatical from the military for several years to fly with an airliner.

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“We’re also starting to look at, can we allow aviators to fly part time on their own,” Grosso said. “I think those are just two ideas, and there are many more.”

The Air Force is short 1,555 pilots across its active, Reserve and National Guard forces, with 950 of them being fighter pilots. The total service requirement for pilots is 20,300.

The service has no trouble recruiting, but is losing its pilots to airlines that can offer bigger paychecks. Pilots usually leave when they are up for reenlistment, prompting the Pentagon to use reenlistment bonuses as an incentive.

To stop further bleeding, Grosso said the Air Force is also considering contract extensions for 1 year or 2 years, with $35,000 bonuses attached. The service typically offers 5- and 9-year extensions.

Congress last year authorized the Air Force to raise the bonus amount from $25,000. Grosso said the extra money is worth it, as it already takes a hefty investment to create an experienced pilot.

“People that  don’t take the bonus, 96 percent separate ... about 2/3 of them go to the airlines,” Grosso said. “There’s no question that you’re paying some people to stay. But because it’s such a precious resource and because we invest in so much money to make them, we think the trade off is worth it.