Why I Took the Bonus: A View from Inside the Air Force’s Pilot Retention Crisis
The U.S. Air Force has been the master of the sky for decades — and the sky is falling. At least, that is what it feels like as our over-tasked and under-manned branch of service comes face to face with a seemingly insurmountable challenge: keeping experienced pilots in the service when their original commitment expires. The fear and angst is understandable. In the fighter community, the manning shortfall was expected to be 1,000 pilots by 2022. Now, according to as yet unreleased data from the Air Force, we expect to be 950 short during this fiscal year. In a security environment with no shortage of threats, this demands action.
Tempting as it may seem, the U.S. Air Force cannot recruit its way out of this shortfall and our leadership is right to focus on retention. The much-publicized Aviator Retention Program (commonly known as the “pilot bonus”) is key to enticing the service’s most experienced pilots to keep flying. The active duty service commitment for a pilot is 10 years. Most pilots are then eligible to sign on for an additional commitment and receive $25,000 for each additional year. That amount has been capped since 1999. Congress recently authorized an increase in the amount (now $35,000) to further incentivize a new commitment. The outlook, however, has been grim: The bonus “take” rate among fighter pilots plunged from 47.8 percent in 2015 to 39.5 percent in 2016. In the special operations community, from which I hail (I fly the MC-130), the take rate is not much better, dropping from 56 percent to 43.6 percent. In all communities, we’re far short of the target 65 percent rate. With the airlines in the midst of a hiring boom, I thought it was a good time to explain why I took the bonus and chose to stay in the Air Force.
A cash bonus is a useful incentive for a re-commitment of service and an increase in that bonus amount is definitely warranted. But it is not going to be the overwhelming factor in any pilot’s calculus. It’s really not just about the money. While love for my country certainly played a role in my decision to stay in the Air Force, I am not writing a patriotic clarion call. I hope instead to highlight the unique fulfillment that pilots can only get flying for the Air Force. Pilots need that. And it is my opinion that most of them ultimately want that more than money.
Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Dave Goldfein, has been a proponent not only of an improvement in quality of life (of which the bonus is a part), but also a reinvestment in a pilot’s quality of service. Quality of life includes such things as financial stability, strong family support, and an easier (or, perhaps, more predictable) deploy-to-dwell ratio. Quality of service consists of having the right number of flight hours, good equipment, and enriching leadership opportunities. Gen. Goldfein’s approach to this problem is prescient. I would argue that these two elements are more than intertwined. They are practically the same.
I am not a fighter pilot, but I have some shared experiences. The special operations community is experiencing the same taxing ops tempo and needs experienced aviators to continue the fight. In a larger sense, we need everyone we can muster given the challenges facing our Air Force and our nation. As the “connective tissue” that binds the joint force and enables our asymmetric advantage over our adversaries, airpower has become, as Gen. Goldfein has remarked, like oxygen: When you have it, you don’t even think about it. When you don’t have it, that’s all you think about. Having said that, it was not a foregone conclusion that I would stay in. Like the rest of us, I struggled with the decision after years of deployments, permanent changes of station, and the frustrations that come with the territory of modern military life. What’s keeping me in isn’t a look back on the past 11 years. It’s a look to the future and what I’m likely going to reflect upon when I’m too old and the Air Force won’t let me fly anymore. When that day comes, I need to be able to look back and know that I got everything I could out of this wild ride.
My experiences have paralleled many others who have shaped what has become known as the “American century.” When an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, I was on the first C-130 airborne out of Yokota Air Base for Operation Tomodachi. In Poland, I got to plan an exercise with a nascent special operations unit in an effort to strengthen our relationship with an increasingly vital NATO ally. In Jordan, I saw first-hand the possibility of peaceful cooperation among politically and culturally disparate partners during an annual CENTCOM exercise. In the Philippines, I launched casualty evacuations for our partnered armed forces fighting violent extremism within their own borders. Those are but a few chapters.
My highs in the Air Force have been matched by some of the lowest lows. The loss of comrades, both in the field and to unseen wounds. The missed birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and family emergencies on top of the helplessness felt when the time away from a loved one was too much.
I’ve never worked in the private sector, yet I think it’s a safe assumption that some career choices might provide comparable experiences and rewards. But I doubt service to most companies would bring the same measure of fulfillment. Anyone who has seen the movie “Office Space” might have the same difficulty I am envisioning how making the Initechs of the world more profitable could possibly compare to the work we do, whether deployed abroad or at home station.
What is real and tangible to me is the feeling of camaraderie during a debrief after a flight (even a less-than-stellar one). Or the emotion of an Air Force family that comes together when a unit experiences a loss. I know the feeling of getting a team on the ground re-supplied when it needs it most. Those are experiences that won’t be replicated when I leave an Air Force cockpit. And those are the feelings that prove that quality of service and quality of life are, for me, inseparable.
Choosing to stay is not an easy sell. There are deployments and temporary duty assignments on the horizon. There are going to be times when a task-load doesn’t decrease just because your unit is under-manned. My wife and I just welcomed a baby boy into the world and I am disheartened to know that there will be milestones, birthdays, sports matches, and school plays that I’m going to miss. The work-life balance will often be, well, unbalanced.
But I’m taking the long view here. We as a branch of service are over-tasked and under-manned right now. But I’m cautiously optimistic about the next chapter. I’m optimistic that we’re going to overcome the resource battle. I’m optimistic that our security strategies are going to be based on real-world threats, not budgets. I’m optimistic that our leaders, while still putting the mission first, will continue to find ways to take care of the force and their families.
In some respects, this is perhaps the best time to be in the Air Force. We are smaller, yet more engaged, with the hope of a rebuilding effort on the horizon. Officers with a decade of service have the unique opportunity to make an impact within the force for years to come.
I recall a master sergeant who spoke of the pride he had in being an airman because a commander gave him responsibilities that exceeded his confidence. We’ve all experienced that. And what is more revealing is how often we are able to meet the challenge placed before us, whether through innovation or just good old-fashioned determination. We rarely ask to do something great; we frequently are just put in front of a monumental problem — and asked to solve it. Those of us at our 10-, 11-, or 12-year mark reach our crossroads with the best tools in our belt to steer the Air Force. We may have that opportunity on the outside. We definitely have it now at this point in our service’s history. I may get deeper pockets on the outside. I may have fewer sacrifices to make. But ultimately, I’d be giving up more by not staying in.
Maj. Matthew Taylor is a Defense Fellow in the U.S. Senate as part of his Intermediate Developmental Education. Prior to this assignment, he was the Group Tactics Officer for the 353rd Special Operations Group at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. An MC-130J pilot by trade, he has spent his entire operational career overseas in both Europe and Asia as well as multiple deployments to the Middle East.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Steven R. Doty