Navy, Congress put money on pilot shortage

The Navy announced its yearly sweetener for pilots to stay in the service this week, at the same time lawmakers are using their power to try to retain Air Force pilots longer.

Navy pilots can receive up to $150,000 over five years for reenlisting depending on what squadron they fly in.

Reenlistment bonuses bottom out at $75,000, stated a memo released by the Naval Chief of Personnel.

The bonuses are only offered to pilots whose enlistment will expire in fiscal 2018. All contract extensions will be for five years and intent for reenlistment must be received by the end of August 2018.

Aviators who are weapons tactics instructors or who graduated from test pilot school are able to draw in an extra $10,000 for reenlisting.

The military as a whole is hurting for pilots. The Air Force is in a 1,200-pilot deficit and Congress is trying to throw that service a bone so it can pay pilots more to reenlist.

The House Armed Services Committee 2018 defense authorization bill bumps up yearly reenlistment bonuses for Air Force pilots up to $50,000 from $35,000.

The Senate version of the bill does not have the same provision.

In June, the Air Force unveiled a bonus system for pilots that reached up to $455,000 over 13 years for reenlistment.

The Air Force and other services are trying to find other ways to keep pilots on the payroll.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein met with airlines in May to try to make “the right thing easier,” he said.

The right thing, he said, involves the Air Force retaining talent while still letting the airlines use quality pilots.

That might involve making the transition between guard, reserve and active duty easier for pilots so they can work for airlines part of the year and then move to being a full-time Air Force pilot when needed, Goldfein said in April.

DoD Reporter Scott Maucione discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

Air Force pilots are moving to major airlines after serving 10 years in the force. The airlines are offering airmen wages up to $200,000 to fill their large demand for pilots.

Goldfein said the need for pilots will soon reach international levels.

“I need 1,200 [pilots] a year, [the airlines] need 4,500 a year, for 10 years. They exhaust my supply pretty quick and they exhaust our supply pretty quick, so the next place they are going to go is international,” Goldfein said. “We really have to look at this holistically to say ‘What are the nation’s needs for a pilot force to do commercial business, private and military aviation?’ and then ‘How do we look at new creative ways of plusing up the supply.’”

The Navy saw a 3.7 percent drop in new retention bonus contracts in 2015, dropping from almost 59 percent to 55 percent, stated a 2016 report to Congress.

The Air Force is seeing even bigger declines. In 2013, 68 percent of eligible pilots signed on for incentive pay contracts with the Air Force. That number dropped to 59 percent in 2014 and further to 55 percent in 2015. Only 410 out of 745 pilots eligible for bonuses actually took them in 2015. Only 42 percent of pilots offered early bonus contracts took the bait.

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That’s especially troubling when the Air Force estimates that the cost to train one F-22 fighter pilot, for example, is $12.5 million.

“We have no trouble recruiting pilots. We have more people who want to be pilots than we have spaces to train them. For us the issue is … we are not retaining enough,” Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, told Federal News Radio in March.

Grosso added that as pilots reach their 11th year in the service, the Air Force needs to keep around 65 percent. Over the years, that number has slowly declined.

“We have gaps in the force and we are very, very concerned about this and our chief has called this a crisis,” Grosso said.

Grosso told Congress the new blended retirement system may provide less of an incentive for pilots to stay in the service for a full 20 years as well.

Part of the Air Force’s attempt to become more appealing to pilots involves bettering their quality of life.

“What we found in the past — and we’ve been through this before because airlines have hired before — is quality of service is as important as quality of life. And quality of service is making sure that you’re given the opportunity to be the best you can be in your design, in your chosen occupation. Pilots who don’t fly, maintainers who don’t maintain, controllers who don’t control, will walk. And there’s not enough money in the Treasury to keep them in if we don’t need to give them the resources to be the best they can be. In my mind, readiness and morale are inexplicably linked. Where we have high readiness, we tend to have high morale because they’re given the opportunities to compete. Where we have low readiness, we have our lowest morale,” Goldfein told the Senate Armed Services Committee last September.

To make up for that the Air Force reduced additional training and extra duties for airmen, so they can have more free time. The service is currently looking for additional areas to cut in order to better quality of life.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) suggested the military services try to contact pilots who left the service, but did not join an airline to see if they may be interested in flying again.

“Maybe they went to start a business of their own or tried some other ‘grass is always greener’ thing and now they are realizing they miss the camaraderie, they miss the mission … it’s challenging to try and find these people it’s challenging to find the experienced pilots that have left. Maybe they are two, three, five years out, it doesn’t matter. Retraining them with the experience they’ve had and bringing them back even for just one assignment is worth the investment,” McSally said.

Navy reenlistment bonuses over five years
Position Bonus
HM Pilot $100,000
HSC Pilot $75,000
HSL/HSM Pilot $75,000
VAQ Pilot $150,000
VAQ NFO $100,000
VAW/VRC Pilot $125,000
VAW NFO $75,000
VFA Pilot $150,000
VFA NFO $75,000
VP/VQ(P) Pilot $75,000
VP/VQ(P) NFO $75,000
VQ(T) Pilot $75,000
VQ(T) NFO $75,000