Despite offering fat retention bonuses to entice pilots to stay in the Air Force, the percentage of eligible pilots accepting them is plummeting.
The Air Force said it typically hopes about 65 percent of eligible pilots will accept the retention bonuses. But in fiscal 2015, only 55 percent took the bonuses and signed up for longer stints.
And the so-called “take rate” has plunged even further since then, to 48 percent in fiscal 2016, and 44 percent in fiscal 2017, according to figures released by the Air Force. In all, 476 pilots accepted retention bonuses last year.
The dramatically increased bonuses ― once called Aviator Retention Pay and earlier this year renamed the Aviation Bonus Program ― are one of several tools the Air Force is rolling out to try to stem an exodus that has contributed to an almost 2,000-pilot shortfall. Commercial airlines are aggressively recruiting Air Force pilots and can offer salaries that are far higher than what the military offers.
In June, the Air Force for the first time began offering retention bonuses of up to $455,000 to fighter pilots who agree to extend their service 13 more years, at $35,000 per year. Until then, the most a fighter pilot could get was a retention bonus of $225,000, or $25,000 per year for a nine-year extension.
Fighter pilots are also eligible for $35,000 annual bonuses for extensions of one, two, five or nine years. Only five out of about 200 eligible fighter pilots accepted the 13-year extension in 2017, although it was only available for the last four months of the fiscal year. In all, 122 fighter pilots accepted retention bonuses last year.
Although the increased bonuses have not been enough to turn things around, the Air Force says it’s encouraged that the decline appears to be slowing.
“Any time we’re short of that [65 percent] target, it’s an area of concern,” Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Kate Atanasoff said in an email. “However, given the continued increase in airline hiring, which is historically our biggest challenge to retention, we’re encouraged that the take rate has not continued to decline at the same rate. We’ll continue to pursue programs that incentivize retention both through quality of life and monetary incentive programs.”
For most categories of pilots, the decline in take rates between 2016 and 2017 was indeed smaller than the previous year’s decline.
For example, the take rate for 11F fighter pilots dropped from 47.8 percent in 2015 to 39.5 percent in 2016, a decline of 8.3 percentage points. It fell further to 34.6 percent last year, which represented a 4.9 percentage point drop.
But not all categories of pilots are slowing down. For some, the decline is accelerating.
The 11H rescue pilots’ take rate actually ticked up 0.2 percentage points in 2016, to 78.6 percent, before falling 2.9 percentage points to 75.7 percent in 2017.
And 11R C2ISR pilots saw an increase from 55.3 percent in 2015 to 58.5 percent in 2016, before recording a 19.4 percentage point decline to 39.1 percent in 2017.
The 11S special operations pilots’ take rates increased in 2017 by 10.5 percentage points, to 59.2 percent, and 11U and 18X unmanned pilots’ rates went up 7.1 percentage points to 62.3 percent.
Atanasoff said that many factors may have contributed to the C2ISR decline. It is a relatively small community ― just 23 11R pilots accepted retention bonuses in 2017 ― so small fluctuations in the actual number of pilots could have larger effects on the percentages, she said.
Also, Atanasoff said, the Air Force cut the maximum bonus C2ISR pilots could receive in 2017. They previously were eligible for up to a nine-year extension at $25,000 annually, or a maximum bonus of $225,000. But in 2017, the maximum extension was cut to five years at $28,000 annually, or $140,000.
“The Air Force is working diligently to explore and implement new retention initiatives to keep our skilled aviators,” Atanasoff said.
Most other categories of pilots saw increases in their maximum possible bonus in 2017. For example, bomber, special operations and mobility pilots for the first time became eligible for up to nine-year extensions at $30,000 annually, or a total of $270,000, up from the maximum $225,000 some of those pilots could have received in 2016.
When asked why take rates continue to decline, Atanasoff pointed to the continuous combat operations the Air Force has been maintaining since the Gulf War 26 years ago, as well as the shrinkage of the service’s aircraft and manning levels.
“These two opposing forces have put a strain on our airmen’s ability to maintain a work-life balance,” Atanasoff said. “At the same [time], airlines are hiring at record levels, offering our airmen stability for their families and financial compensation that the Air Force can’t compete with.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.