The Air Force this year is offering some bomber, fixed-wing combat search-and-rescue, special operations, mobility, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance pilots the same massive retention bonuses as fighter pilots.

In an email Thursday, Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Kate Atanasoff said that those pilots could receive aviator retention payments of up to $420,000 if they sign up to serve the maximum 12 more years — the same maximum benefit 11F fighter pilots could receive.

This represents the broadest expansion in years of the Air Force’s Aviation Bonus Program, one of the service’s most crucial tools in its effort to stop the departure of experienced pilots.

Part of the problem is that commercial airlines can offer much higher salaries than the Air Force can, which has contributed to an alarming pilot shortfall that top leaders have warned could “break the force.”

These bonuses don’t completely close the gap, officials said, but help narrow it a little.

“This is a strategic force management tool tailored annually to meet Air Force requirements and help retain the right mix of critical aviation skills needed to improve the readiness and increase the lethality of the force,” Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said in the email. “This bonus doesn’t allow us to compete financially with airline salaries, but it recognizes the inherent sacrifices associated with aviation service and provides an offset to help potentially rebalance the scale between service and sacrifice.”

The Air Force used to offer fighter pilots Aviator Retention Pay bonuses of $25,000 per year, meaning if they signed up for the maximum nine-year extension, they could get up to $225,000. Other pilots were eligible for smaller bonuses.

Congress in December 2016 upped that maximum annual bonus to $35,000. And in 2017, the Air Force dramatically lengthened the maximum service commitment extension for fighter pilots to 13 years, or until they reached 24 years of aviation service, meaning they could get bonuses of up to $455,000.

But that expansion did little to stop an ongoing slide in the so-called “take rate,” or the percentage of aviators agreeing to stay longer in exchange for hefty bonuses.

The overall take rate declined from 55 percent in fiscal 2015 to 48 percent in 2016, and then to 44 percent last year ― well below the 65 percent Air Force officials usually hope will accept the retention bonuses.

And only five fighter pilots in fiscal 2017 opted for the full, up to 13-year service commitment and the up to $455,000 that comes with it.

This year, however, the maximum service commitment available to fighter pilots has been trimmed slightly to 12 years.

But opportunities are expanding for 11B bomber pilots, 11R command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, 11S special operations, 11M mobility, and 11H fixed-wing CSAR pilots.

Bomber, SOF and mobility pilots last year could only get annual bonuses of $30,000 for signing up for a maximum of nine years ― or up to $270,000 ― and C2ISR and CSAR pilots could only sign up for five more years with annual payments of $28,000, or up to $140,000.

This year, however, all of those pilots, if eligible, can sign up for contract extensions of 10 to 12 years, and receive annual payments of $35,000.

A B-1 bomber separates from the boom pod after refueling on April 13 en route to strike chemical weapons targets in Syria. (Department of Defense via AP)
A B-1 bomber separates from the boom pod after refueling on April 13 en route to strike chemical weapons targets in Syria. (Department of Defense via AP)

Fighter and bomber pilots signing up for 10 to 12 years will also be able to receive almost half of that maximum bonus as an up-front payment of $200,000, according to a chart provided by the Air Force.

That is a change from last year, when the Air Force dropped the lump-sum option.

Fighter and bomber pilots can also sign up for four to six or seven to nine more years, with $35,000 annual payments, and could take a $100,000 lump-sum payment if they extend their contracts by seven to nine more years.

SOF, mobility, C2ISR and CSAR fixed-wing pilots signing up for 10 to 12 years will not be eligible for a lump-sum payment.

And the annual bonuses for SOF, mobility, C2ISR, and fixed-wing CSAR pilots drop to $30,000 if they sign up for four to nine more years. They could get a $100,000 up-front lump sum if they extend their contracts by seven to nine more years.

Eligible 18X remotely-piloted aircraft pilots would only be able to sign up for four to six or seven to nine more years, with $35,000 annual payments.

They cannot sign up for 10 to 12 more years or receive lump-sum payments.

The annual payment for RPA pilots remains unchanged from last year, but the possible contract length is greater. Last year, RPA pilots could only sign up for five more years.

11H CSAR rotary wing pilots can extend their contracts by four to six, or seven to nine more years, and receive $28,000 per year, but are not eligible for lump-sum payments.

Combat systems officers for bombers, fighters, CSAR, C2ISR and special operations are also seeing increases. They can sign up for four to six more years at $20,000 annually, or seven to nine more years at $25,000 annually. They cannot receive up-front payments.

Last year, CSOs could only sign up for five more years. And 12F fighter CSOs and 12B bomber CSOs were eligible for annual payments of $15,000, 12H CSAR CSOs were eligible for annual payments of $20,000, and 12S special operations and 12R C2ISR CSOs were eligible for annual payments of $10,000.

But Air Force officials have also acknowledged that solving the pilot crisis isn’t just a matter of throwing money at the problem.

“We rely on our skilled aviators not only to win in today’s fights, but also to help us train the next generation of aviators who will ensure our nation is ready to counter reemerging strategic competitors,” Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski, the head of an aircrew crisis task force set up to solve the pilot retention problem. “While financial incentives are important, we know we must address our aircrew’s concerns about their quality of service and work-life balance if we want to retain the world’s best aviators.”