Air Force drone pilots are about to make bank if they agree to re-up

If you fly a killer drone and you’re thinking of pulling chocks when your commitment ends, the Air Force has some cold hard cash to entice you to stay.

Top Air Force officials announced Aug. 10 that Remotely Piloted Aircraft operators who re-up for another five-year contract would receive $35,000 per year in bonus cash. That nets out to a whopping $175,000 when all is said and done and is $10,000 more than previous bonuses.

Maj. Bishane, a 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron MQ-9 Reaper pilot, controls an aircraft from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Remotely piloted aircraft pilots work closely with intelligence officers, sensor operators and maintainers to complete mission objectives. RPA personnel deal with the stressors of deployed service members while maintaining the normalcy of their day-to-day lives through programs designed to enhance communication skills, family and spiritual growth. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Maj. Bishane, a 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron MQ-9 Reaper pilot, controls an aircraft from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. RPA personnel deal with the stressors of deployed service members while maintaining the normalcy of their day-to-day lives through programs designed to enhance communication skills, family and spiritual growth. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

“The Air Force recognizes the important contribution RPA pilots make every day, and retaining these valued aviators to execute our current operations and shape the future is critical,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. “While we applaud this effort, we recognize we have similar challenges across our entire pilot force, and we’d like the opportunity to offer higher retention bonuses for all our pilots.”

Drones are some of the most sought-after air assets for ground commanders worldwide, from launching missiles at bad guy convoys to snooping around insurgent bases and scooping up radio chatter, the RPAs can go deep behind enemy lines without risking the lives of American pilots and crew.

But as the demand increases, so does the pace of pilot operations and both the drones and their crew are burning out fast, Air Force officials say.

“What we are doing in the world of our RPAs [is] to try to lessen some of the strain and improve quality of life,” said Air Force Sec. Deborah James. “With respect to our ‘get well plan,’ is that it is proceeding at pace. It is not all done yet, but there is a lot going on – a lot in process.”

An MQ-9 Reaper performs a low pass during a first-ever air show demonstration May 29, 2016, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. The 2016 Cannon Air Show highlights the unique capabilities and qualities of Cannon's Air Commandos and also celebrates the long-standing relationship between the 27th Special Operations Wing and the High Plains community. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dennis J. Henry Jr.)

An MQ-9 Reaper performs a low pass during a first-ever air show demonstration May 29, 2016, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. The 2016 Cannon Air Show highlights the unique capabilities and qualities of Cannon’s Air Commandos and also celebrates the long-standing relationship between the 27th Special Operations Wing and the High Plains community. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dennis J. Henry Jr.)

To relieve the stress, the Air Force plans to establish a new MQ-9 Reaper aircraft wing and is in the midst of surveying potential bases to host it. Officials say the service is also supplementing drone crews with Air National Guard pilots and has hired on contractors to fly some surveillance missions.

The service has also doubled the number of drone pilots in the force since 2015.

“Producing more pilots of course means a better quality of life for all of our RPA airmen, because it will give them more family time and more opportunities to pursue developmental opportunities,” James said.