Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning is greeted by Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Lofgren at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The Air Force offered big bonuses to pilots but few accepted. (Lawrence Crespo/Air Force)
An extra $225,000 is apparently not enough to keep a fighter pilot in the Air Force.
In June, the Air Force announced a $225,000 bonus for eligible fighter pilots in exchange for a nine-year commitment. However, pilots are not taking the service up on the offer because of reduced flying hours caused by budget cuts, acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning said.
“If you’re not flying your F-22 because it’s grounded, you might as well go fly something else,” Fanning said.
Just a few pilots have applied for the bonus, Fanning said. The Air Force could not immediately provide a specific number.
The Air Force cannot compete with increasingly lucrative offers from the private sector, Fanning said. Private airlines are facing a large number of retirements in their pilot ranks and are going after Air Force pilots to fill their cockpits. That, combined with recent groundings of Air Force squadrons and fiscal uncertainty, is making it difficult to get long-term commitments from pilots in exchange for the bonus.
“They aren’t taking it because they aren’t flying,” Fanning said. “They don’t know what their future is.”
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 7 that pilots had told him they were “bored” because their squadrons were not flying.
“That doesn’t mean they’re planning to leave the Air Force, but it certainly means they are keeping their options open, at a minimum,” he said.
Welsh said enlisted airmen have told him they plan to find work that is “a little more exciting” because their squadrons weren’t flying.
In fiscal 2013, the Air Force was forced to ground 13 combat squadrons because of the budget shortfall under sequestration, with additional squadrons forced to fly at a rate of reduced readiness. If the budget cuts continue, the Air Force will be forced to ground more squadrons in both fiscal 2014 and 2015, Fanning said. The service also would be forced to cut 25,000 airmen and more than 500 aircraft over the next five years, with most of the cuts coming sooner rather than later.
“It’s going to take five years to dig out of this,” Fanning said Nov. 14 at the Defense One summit in Washington, D.C.
In June, the Air Force announced that 250 fighter pilots were eligible for the bonus. Pilots can take half the money up front in a lump sum of $112,500, minus taxes, with the rest being paid out over the nine years of the contract.
Previously, pilots could only sign up for five-year contracts with bonuses of $25,000 per year.
Pilots had until Oct. 31, the end of fiscal 2013, to decide. The Air Force had hoped that 162 pilots would take the offer, which would cost the service $36.7 million, with an initial payout of $18.3 million.
The Air Force had noticed a projected shortage of pilots, Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke, chief of rated force policy, said when the bonus was announced.
“As we started looking at the data through FY 13 and in the out years, we realized that the shortage hasn’t gone away, and as a matter of fact, as we look at our projections, we think that shortage is going to continue for the next several years,” he said.
Curbing retirement costs
Fanning said that budget officials are also looking at reducing compensation costs to save money overall. Personnel compensation makes up about 40 percent of the Air Force’s total budget, and about 50 percent of the Defense Department’s total. In 10 years, that number for the department will climb to 66 percent.
Going forward, the department will need to slow this growth.
“Overall, it’s not about cutting compensation, it’s just slowing the growth of compensation,” Fanning said. “We’re not looking at cutting compensation or all benefits, just looking at making them sustainable.”
If nothing is done, compensation will take funding away from modernization and readiness.
While compensation may be a reason airmen join the service, it isn’t the only one, and other areas will be shortchanged if retirement is left unchecked, Fanning said.
Modernization of aircraft, for example, has been among leaders’ top priorities during budget negotiations.
“People don’t join the Air Force to fly old planes,” he said.■