Air Force so desperate to keep drone pilots, they’re offering them $125,000 bonuses
The US Air Force is aiming high to retain drone pilots — offering them $125,000 bonuses to keep flying five more years.
Pilots with six years of service after completing their undergraduate remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, training — meaning their obligation is expiring — may receive five annual installments of $25,000, the Air Force Times reported.
They also may receive 50 percent of the bonus up front, the Air Force said in a release.
Under the program, the officers must be active-duty lieutenant colonels or below, must be receiving RPA aviation incentive pay and they cannot complete 25 years of active duty before the five-year bonus period ends.
“It is important to ensure RPA pilots receive a bonus that is equitable to other pilots,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in the release. “These airmen are making extremely important contributions to the fight; we need these professionals to stay with us and we’re committed to retaining them in our force.”
The Air Force in July offered a plan to give $15,000 bonuses for commitments of either five years — for a total of $75,000 — or nine years, for a total of $135,000.
Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson told the Air Force Times that July’s plan “was a projection,” while Tuesday’s announcement represents the final, approved version.
The Air Force also said it will allow pilots whose undergraduate flight training active-duty commitments will expire in fiscal 2017 to sign up for retention pay bonuses this year.
The Air Force has struggled with a dearth of drone pilots since at least 2007, the LA Times reported. It trained 180 new pilots in fiscal year 2014, the most recent data available — while 240 veterans left the field.
“It’s extremely stressful and extremely difficult,” Peter “Pepe” LeHew, who retired in 2012, told the LA Times.
He called the work — which at times involved flying surveillance in one country in the morning and bombing another later in the day — “mentally fatiguing.”
Predator and Reaper drone pilots also have complained about long hours and a demoralizing stigma after being labeled “Chair Force” joystick jockeys, the paper reported.
Some pilots said they were forced to work six days a week for an average of 900 hours a year — while fighter pilots fly an average of 250 hours a year, the paper reported.
“Looking into the eyes of the pilots out there, you can tell they’re tired and worn out,” an Air Force told the LA Times. “There’s a feeling of hopelessness that they can’t continue doing this unless something changes.”