When commercial airlines look at Air Force pilots, they see aviators with upward of 1,500 flying hours and 10 years or more of flying experience.

And they want to hire them. As airlines continue to grow and Vietnam-era pilots retire, the airlines will hire about 20,000 pilots over the next 10 years. United, American, Delta and the rest of the world's aviation companies see the Air Force's 13,000 veteran pilots as a ready way to staff their cockpits.

Maintainers and drone pilots are also in demand. Airlines want experienced airplane mechanics, and a growing number of companies are wooing experienced remotely piloted aircraft pilots with promises of big paychecks.

Tiffany Harvey, who oversees recruiting for Southwest Airlines, said airlines are facing a labor shortage from the impending retirement of the Baby Boomer generation, making it more important to recruit from the military.

"This is sort of low-hanging fruit," Harvey said. "We've got amazing individuals coming out of the military, that are ready and excited and passionate about starting a career, or continuing a career, that we can utilize and capitalize on their experience. We have to look at every pipeline available."

The airlines hope to lure pilots away by offering hefty salaries, extensive benefits and job security without having to deploy, a Rand Corp. study found.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh recognizes the threat. And he's doing his best to counter it.

"You're going to find that military pilots will be a focal point of this recruiting. Every time the airlines have recruited heavily in the past, we've lost more people," he told Air Force Times. "They've been deploying, and deploying, and deploying. After a while your family gets a little tired of that."

The promise of well-paying jobs with good benefits are attractive to prospective pilots, including those in the military, said Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America, an association in Washington, D.C., for private airlines.

"U.S. airlines have a long history of hiring military pilots who have completed their service, and we continue to work collaboratively with military officials to ensure the future supply of pilots is being met," Jennings said.

Rand earlier this year released a study projecting that major airlines will hire an average of 2,000 pilots per year over the next 10 years, with upward of 5,000 per year beginning in 2022. That compares with an average of less than 1,500 pilots hired annually in the previous 10 years.

Past Air Force moves to increase pilot pay and increase length-of-service requirements might not be enough to keep pilots around, Rand analyst Nolan Sweeney wrote.

The experience of Air Force pilots at a relatively young age is one big draw for the airlines. A 2013 Federal Aviation Administration requirement states that both airline captains and co-pilots must have 1,500 flying hours. (FAA regulations allow ex-military pilots to be first officers with only 750 hours.) Previously, co-pilots were required to have only 250, so this regulation increased their experience requirement sixfold, according to Rand. An Air Force pilot at the end of his or her service requirement is likely to have met the 1,500 requirement "making recruitment of Air Force pilots a likely avenue for filling co-pilot jobs," Sweeney wrote.

Mobility pilots, with experience in multi-engine aircraft, are projected to account for the most pilot attrition, while the loss of fighter pilots, already in a shortage, would hurt the Air Force even more, Rand found. The Air Force has lamented a shortage of fighter pilots, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that they have 520 pilot openings waiting to be filled.

Pay comparison

To try to keep pilots on active duty, the Air Force has increased retention bonuses to keep the aviators around following their 10-year active-duty service commitment. The bonuses range from annual installments of $10,000 to $25,000, for anywhere from five years to nine years — that is, anywhere from $50,000 to $225,000 total. More pilots than ever before — including, for the first time, drone pilots — are eligible for the Aviator Retention Pay that until now had been available only to fighter pilots.

But in many ways, the Air Force cannot compete with the salaries, benefits and the promise of no deployments from commercial airlines.

Air Force pilots receive base pay, flight pay and a basic housing allowance. The first two are the same for manned and drone pilots. The BAH varies depending on where you live.

An 18X drone pilot at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, nearing the end of the commitment to fly drones for six years is probably a captain with seven years' experience and earning $103,000 per year in base pay and flight pay.

A manned aircraft pilot assigned flying drones, or a fighter, bomber or mobility pilot, have a 10-year commitment. Those pilots nearing the end of their commitments are typically majors with 11 years' experience, who are earning $114,800 per year, with BAH amounts averaged.

According to Southwest Airlines, most pilots start at the bottom of the pay scale, which would bring an initial pay cut to a veteran airman. It takes approximately two to three years for Air Force pilots hired by major airlines to match their annual military earnings, depending on their rank at separation, said Louis Smith, president of Future & Active Pilot Advisors and a former Air Force pilot.

But the potential for more money is there — an average maximum of nearly $204,000 annually for a captain flying the largest aircraft, according to kitdarby.com. Add to that 401(k) contributions and generous per diem payments, plus profit sharing required by union contracts, and the annual gross continues to grow.

Incentives to stay in

To protect its ranks, the Rand study recommends the Air Force reinstitute a 50 percent aviation continuation pay lump-sum option and increase the value to $30,000 per year in 2018 for fighter pilots. The service should also index aviation career incentive pay to account for inflation for at least its active-duty pilots with six to 13 years of aviation service.

The Air Force's Aviator Retention Pay program — which replaced its old Aviator Continuation Pay program in 2013 — offers annual bonuses of between $10,000 and $25,000 to a variety of pilots and combat systems officers. Some of those aviators — such as 11F fighter pilots and 11U remotely piloted aircraft pilots — are eligible for a 50 percent lump sum paid up front, but others do not have that option. Aviation career incentive pay ranges from $125 per month to $840 per month.

About 73 percent of eligible pilots took the 2013 re-up bonuses.

"Enacting both measures would be greatly cost-effective in terms of the training costs retained, and doing so would help lower pilot attrition in all communities, and especially in the fighter community," Rand wrote.

Even if a pilot decides to leave active duty, the Air Force is attempting to make it an attractive option to stay in the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve. Rand says the Air Force should let pilots keep bonuses if they transfer from active to reserve duty.

To keep its pilots interested in their work, the Air Force needs to increase training and flight hours, Welsh said.

"The key in the Air Force is to make sure the people that you have who fly airplanes are still challenged by it. That they still feel it is a demanding job, and they still feel they are necessary to protect the nation," Welsh said. "All that corny stuff matters to them. They believe their job is important. They believe they are as good as anybody has been in that job, and that's why I like them all. They believe that they are basically unbeatable in their domain.

"We want them to continue to feel that way. We want to make sure they continue to train to that level. We want to demand of them to be that good. I've never heard a pilot complain about flying too much."

Stephen Losey and Jeff Schogol contributed.

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