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More pilots than thought collecting $225,000 bonuses

Nov. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The $225,000 bonus was taken by 132 of 212 eligible pilots in fiscal 2013.
The $225,000 bonus was taken by 132 of 212 eligible pilots in fiscal 2013. (1st Lt. Christopher C. Mesnard / Air Force)
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In early November, the Air Force’s top leaders told Congress, industry leaders and reporters that fighter pilots were not taking advantage of a $225,000 bonus to stay in.

Pilots aren’t taking the bonus “because they aren’t flying. They don’t know what their future is,” acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said Nov. 14.

“I know from the F-22 community, ... they’re passing it up,” he said Nov. 18.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers during a Nov. 7 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he spoke with six to eight pilots and “none of them had accepted the bonus to that point in time. Not one. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re planning to leave the Air Force, but it certainly means they’re keeping their options open at a minimum.”

But the numbers are in, in response to a request from Air Force Times, and they tell a different story.

In fiscal 2013, 212 fighter pilots were offered the Aviator Retention Pay bonus of up to $225,000 for a nine-year commitment, and 132 — 62 percent — took the bonus. That’s 5 percent higher than the average number of bonuses approved for fighter pilots over the past five years, Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy said.

Also, 709 non-fighter pilots were eligible for the standard Aviator Retention Pay of up to $125,000 over five years,which 483 pilots accepted. That take rate of 68 percent matches the five-year average.

Fanning’s and Welsh’s comments referred to numbers provided to them before the Sept. 30 deadline to apply for the bonuses, said Maj. Toni Whaley, spokeswoman for Fanning.

“Mr. Fanning was basing his comments on information provided earlier this summer, and he continued that drumbeat,” Whaley said. “Now that the final numbers have been provided, you will see a shift in communications on this subject.”

The $225,000 bonus was announced in June to try to keep the ranks filled as jobs open with commercial airlines. Pilots who committed to stay in for nine more years received half the money upfront, with the remainder paid over the next eight years.

The Air Force wanted to sign about 65 percent of the eligible pilots, Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke, chief of rated force policy, said in June.

The Air Force had estimated that the program would cost $36.675 million.

Fanning and Welsh said pilots were uneasy about their Air Force future because of cutbacks in flying hours and squadron groundings.

“We had a lot of people not flying this summer,” Fanning said Nov. 18. “If you were in the fight, you were flying. If you were immediate next going into the fight, you were flying, or if you were doing the nuclear deterrence mission, you were flying. Otherwise, we gutted the flying hours.”

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