Fewer Than 10 Drone Pilots to Receive $1,500 Monthly Bonus This Year

A new classFewer than 10 U.S. Air Force drone pilots are slated to receive this year a new $1,500 bonus designed to address a personnel shortage in the highly stressed workforce, an official said.

The low number confirms what operators of the MQ-1 Predator and other remotely piloted aircraft suspected about the increased financial incentive — that it would only target a select number of experienced airmen.

The Air Force last month announced it was more than doubling monthly incentive pay from $650 to $1,500 for RPA pilots who have finished a six-year service commitment.

The move — which doesn’t apply to those with less experience — is a temporary fix until officials can change the policy to offer them aviation continuation pay of as much as $25,000 a year, like they do with pilots of manned aircraft, officials said.

Rose Richeson, a spokeswoman for the service at the Pentagon, said that while the new incentive was effective immediately, “None of our pilots will receive that pay until they hit that six-year active-duty service commitment, and the first ones will hit that mark at the end of FY2015,” referring to the Sept. 30 end of the government’s current fiscal year.

When asked how many drone pilots will initially be eligible, she said, “It’s less than 10 prior to 2016.”

One RPA pilot who requested anonymity so he could speak freely about the effort said he and his colleagues wouldn’t see the additional money, which amounts to $10,200 annually, for a long time, possibly years. As a result, the incentive might not be enough to stem the tide of pilots leaving the service to pursue other career opportunities, he said.

“They’re not trying to fix the problem — it’s more Band-Aids,” he said, referring to leaders. “They’re trying to spend the least amount of money to get the best benefit. If they really want to fix the problem, all they have to do is take more people out of planes that are over-manned,” such as the C-17 cargo aircraft, KC-10 refueling tanker and F-16 fighter jet, he said.

The individual noted that drone pilots typically fly between 900 and 1,100 hours a year, while fighter pilots generally fly about half as much — some even less.

“If you read an article about the F-22, it talks about how great they are, but they’re not really doing anything,” he said. “They weren’t really designed for air-to-ground missions, they were designed for air-to-air combat, which we don’t really have anymore.”

Meanwhile, the officer said, “Our schedules are rough. We fly six-day workweeks. I’ve had 1,500-, 1,600-, 1,700-hour years the last couple of years.” He added, “I can’t imagine working this schedule for another few years.”

Overall, the Air Force has about 1,000 active-duty pilots for Predators and Reapers, though more than 200 additional aviators are needed. The service trains about 180 such pilots a year, but needs about 300 of them and loses about 240 due to attrition. Training units are chronically understaffed because many trainers are pulled from operational units, officials said.

The RPA pilot said part of the problem stems from a cultural divide within the Air Force and the ongoing stigmatization of unmanned aircraft operators, who are still judged by some of their peers as not being “real” pilots.

“This is an undesirable assignment by most accounts,” he said. “We don’t feel the plane, but on any given day, I can kill somebody. That’s the absolute truth. It’s no less real.”

Beyond pay, the Air Force plans to mobilize more members of the Reserves and National Guard to help man active-duty RPA units, encourage airmen who volunteered to fly MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapersin the past to return to the units, and delay allowing pilots who are authorized to fly both manned and unmanned aircraft to leave the drone units.

The service is also considering following the Army in allowing non-commissioned officers, or NCOs, fly unmanned aircraft, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has said. It’s looking at encouraging pilots from services that are divesting aviation assets to move into the RPA field, he said.

Several readers e-mailed Military.com to weigh in on the issue. Rich Redhill, a former chief master sergeant in the Air Force who oversaw 250 air traffic controllers across five bases throughout the Alaskan theater of operations, said not permitting qualified noncommissioned officers to fly drones is “officer politics at the highest levels.”

“It’s amazing that the Air force will consider warrant officers from other services, but not train a cadre of existing senior NCOs to fill this role,” he wrote. “Our senior enlisted workforce has, on innumerable occasions demonstrated their skills in any number of previously officer billets.” He added, “Doesn’t the Air Force think that with the proper training I or my peers couldn’t excel as drone pilots?”

Priscilla Moreland, who retired from the service as a lieutenant colonel, said one way to alleviate the shortage would be to lower the existing height requirement.

“Right now, the minimum height-limit starts at 5’4″. My daughter is 5’2″. What difference does it make what height you are when you are flying a drone? You are not actually sitting in an airplane,” she wrote. “Why are the AF generals still sticking to old, outdated rules? What is their reason?”

She added, “There are people with college degrees who would love the opportunity to be a drone pilot, but don’t qualify with the height limit requirements. It’s time for the Air Force to ‘get with the program’ and have some flexibility. Aim high.”

Douglas Dorman called for letting older veterans back into the service for “drone duty.”

“There are more than enough Air Force veterans out here that because of disabilities or other circumstances would love an opportunity to be trained as a pilot on the drones,” he wrote. “A lot of us didn’t realize what we had in the service until we were out.”

— Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Blake


    Words cannot describe my feelings toward this

  • chuckiechan

    I think being a drone pilot would be the most boring job in the world. You are snoozing along and a message pops up to go kill some idiot in a pick up truck.

    It seems like a one way trip down insanity lane to me!

    • ccc40821

      The boredom ends when you have to launch a missile towards a person, that you may have been following maybe for days. Killing somebody this way is probably very stressful (unless you’re a psychopath) compared to shooting somebody who’s in your gunsight for mere seconds.

    • ucavlover

      I imagine it’s like a police officer or a hunter, staking out targets for weeks on end, building a case, until finally you get the green light to take them out with a bazooka

      unless you’re giving cover to a unit on the ground, in which case you’re more like a guardian angel. boring at times, but all too often you save the good guy’s life so he can go back home to see his kids, can’t imagine a more satisfying job

    • Dig

      Insanity is hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings killing thousands, using children for indiscriminate sucide bombing, public beheadings by the score etc etc- using technology to selectively target and eliminate those responsible who bring terror and chaos to their own is perhaps the most sane thing we can to. Hats of to these folks doing a necessary and honorable job.

  • FASnipeHT2

    We will soon fight wars via computer .http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0708414/ Star Trek, taste of armegeddon 1967

  • Robbie

    I’ve got no problem with paying extra to retain highly skilled, scarce technical specialties like the RPV operators. I strongly disagree with those who want to award them combat medals, though. If you’re not in-theater and exposed to enemy action, you should not be eligible for decorations for which bravery and personal risk are the essential measures of merit. There are plenty of other medals to recognize non-combat excellence……

    • Jeff

      I thinks it’s a case of wanting to recognize their contribution but their untraditional contribution doesn’t fit the mold of traditional means. They make a combat contribution even if not present. Maybe it’s time come up with some lower order of combat medal, but without recognition this job will continue to be something in demand but understaffed.

    • Mr.T

      Have a look at your average officer how many of the medals do you think are from combat . Answer none.

      Medals are a system of rewards. A pay raise or qualification you can carry on your chest.

    • ucavlover

      please, don’t tell me modern attack aircraft are exposed to “enemy action”. their biggest worry is to crash because of technical problems, you’re more likely to die from a car accident on base
      they’re more like delivery men in sportcars

      most UAV pilots are constantly exposed to enemy action in a spychological sense, and because they go home every night, so are their families by extension. on top of that because they’re always on station at hot spots, they see more action than anyone else, and the USAF is pushing them so hard they don’t even get decent R&R

      UAV pilots are at the forefront of modern wars, from a psychological perspective they’re right in the trenches with the ground grunts. and because of the USAF’s bureaucratic stance, they’re not even recognised for what they do. that’s the definition of real heroes, fighting the fight even when your boss hates your guts and your countryment think you’re an overrated gamer

    • Moon 65

      I do agree with you , As a Viet-Nam vet

    • MONTI

      RPV operators aren’t eligible for combat medals at all, per the DOD regulations. Nor are they eligible for the Air Medal, thus the highest decoration available to them is the Aerial Achievement Medal, that anyone flying 20 combat or combat support sorties can get (IE flying for 2 hours over a designated AOR for 20 days).

      So, an RPA operator could do the same job as a manned aircraft, but whereas the manned aircraft will get an Air Medal or potentially a Distinguished Flying Cross, the RPA operator gets an Aerial Achievement Medal.

      “If you’re not in-theater and exposed to enemy action, you should not be eligible for decorations for which bravery and personal risk are the essential measures of merit”

      What about those getting the Purple Heart for the Pentagon or Fort Hood tragedies? They weren’t in-theater and exposed to enemy action.

    • Jeff

      I completely agree with you. Pay them to retain the skill level, but combat medals on par with ground troops? I don’t think so. Anyone who thinks that drone pilots experience the same level of psychological stress as troops on the ground has clearly not been exposed to ground combat. I have been in ground combat, and have looked up to see the CAS planes fly by, and wished like hell that I was sitting in that plane at that moment. Drone pilots have a far superior and safer environment than the CAS pilots. We already have medals for those that support the effort from home station, and if you don’t physically set foot in-theater, you shouldn’t be elevated to the status of those that have.

      • MONTI

        USAF RPA operators *can’t* get combat medals, period. Stop bringing it up. If you are referring to the Distinguished Warfare Medal, it’s critieria and eligibility requirements specifically stated it *couldn’t* be rewarded for combat.

        The AAM it the only action medal that can be awarded to MCE RPA operators, which they get regardless of their actions, just that they flew 20 combat support sorties of individual duration of 2 hours or more on separate days. For RPA operators, the AAM is effectively a participation medal.

  • BlackOwl18E

    All I can think about when reading this article is this meme: http://www.navymemes.com/uploads/posts/t/685.jpg

  • 94520shatto

    A six year commitment at grunt pay to do what the average teen with a PlayStation could do? Probably with no training.
    Trust bureaucrats to bureaucratize until everything works so inefficiently as to be useless.

    • BJ Blaskowitz

      Would you trust a teen to fly a multi-million dollar piece of tax payer funded equipment that come armed with bombs? Besides, drone pilots kill more people on average than most strait legs do in their whole career. Fact is, these are the people who are shoving a missile up the ass of the terrorist of the day, day in and day out. Seems right to give them an incentive to do so. They shouldn’t get benefits like strait legs or whatever, but there needs to be something to keep these guys on the controller. Plus, flying a drone takes a bit more technical skill than turning on a prefab PS3.

    • NathanS

      Drones have a massive time-lag delay (latency) due to the distances involved. Fast reflexes are simply irrelevant. And patience is very much required; can you imagine asking a teen to fly a holding pattern for 19 hours? They would be out the door in 5 minutes.

      Essentially, a “teen gamer” is the opposite demographic to what you need; mature, patient and cautious.

    • blight_

      The average teen also has issues crashing a mass-produced automobile into a street lamp.

      Give them a multiplayer flight sim played on a 56K modem with massive lag, and force them to view the screen with a monocular on one eye to simulate the lack of situational awareness.

      You’ll wash out 80% or more. Run the test for six days a week for a month, and you’ll have those who can hack it.

  • vince

    How can I be a Drone Pilot?

  • oblatt22

    Of course the air-force was dragged kicking and screaming into eh drone game only by the CIAs success with them in Afghanistan. Their dilemma is that it interferes with their primary missions - funneling money to contractors and airline pilot training. And yet they cant let anyone else fly because then they have competition.

    As soon as they have a chance drone will be found to be unnecessary or not cost effective or something.

    • Robbie

      Actually, in 2001 the Air Force used Hellfire missiles to create the first armed drone under its Big Safari program. The CIA rushed that capability into service in Afghanistan to good effect as it was able to circumvent legal restrictions through its black programs.

  • EHoo32

    I am an AF veteran and civilian pilot that would love an opportunity to fly a drone for our country. Keep the opportunity within each branch that offers this and allow past and or present enlisted members an opportunity to become a drone pilot.

  • rudy

    As an Ex-Uav pilot during Vietnam, and a Navigator ( Electronic Warfare officer) I flew drones for three years. While archaic by todays standards, we scored an amazing sucess ratio.
    There are hundreds of retires like me ( who also have pilots liscenses) could handle the new birds with ease…….Put an ashtray, and coffee cup holder + a bathroom close by and it wopuld be a piece of cake…..Also much cheaper……..

  • Sparkchaser

    Here We Go….. the U.S. Air Forces’ NEEDS come first (or….in this case, perhaps the U.S.Armys’ ). At the close of the Viet Nam War, if you wanted to TRAIN in another Career Field The Airman, AIC, SrA, or Ssgt,had to Locate an Air Force Career Field that was (below manning requirement) or “Shorthanded”. I was a 42350: Avionics Aircraft Repair Tech. at the time the NEEDS of the Air Force were screaming for Crew Chiefs. Also, for a very EASY way for Promotion they were Always looking for M.T.I.’s as there were so many S.P.s Getting out and becoming Well Payed Security Advisors for Civilian Firms. (The High ratio that M.T.I.s were S.P.s. who wanted to make E - 6 and remain in the Air Guard and/or Reserve Status). In this …realizing that they could be “Reactivated ” as Sr. M.T.I .s According to their D.O.R and /or time served + Guard or Reserve. The Many took advantage of this opportunity and Reactivated in the Kuwati Crisis and beyond.. Saying All this…to make the Point. BOTH the Air Force and the Army NEED to realize their Career manning shortage … Create The ranks of W.O.I; W.O 2., and W.O. 3. there by Pulling from a Sr. Warrant Officer Cadre ( esp. The U.S. Army ), who already possess these W.os’ in abundance as the “Older” adreniline junkies who are Flying Special Ops. and Clandestine Missions (that the U.S. armed services ‘don’t fly ‘ These W.O.’s who would be more than delighted to become Drone Operators/ pilots

  • Gary

    Used to be that airline pilots had to retire at 60. It’s 65, now, but, many could still fly drones and would like to. (I am 57, so, a few good earning years left, but…) In any case, there are many who are out on some type of disability that would not prevent flying drones. Some even have manned fighter experience. (I was a tanker pilot but flew T-37s and T-38s until upgrade to aircraft commander…I had an airline First Officer who went back, on leave from the airline, to fly drones. Many would do that, while young and junior, as they continue to acquire seniority at their airline while they do it on military leave.

  • rtsy

    Give it to the vets instead

  • derwurst

    While in the USAF I tried to crosstrain in a critical career field and was turned down twice so i exited the USAF and never looked back. Recently I talked with a ex Texas National guard Army helicopter mechanic doing the USAF job that I had wanted to crosstrain into back in 1969. He is in charge of the PMEL shop at the local ANG base and is paid over 75k/year. if the USAF wanted to keep personnel they have to ask. Not second guess and train a Air Policeman to be a crew chief with zero mechanical ability. I was ready to commit and they said no so I left the USAF. The USAF lost my talents because they didnt care.

  • Keith

    Height restrictions, you got to be kidding? There is an old saying,” Rules are made for when brains run out”. Applies here folks.

    • Waldo

      No, it doesn’t. You don’t know what you’re talking about because you’ve obviously never been in a Predator or Reaper cockpit (we call them GCS-Ground Control Stations) or sat in any military aircraft cockpit. The minimum height standard guarantees the pilot is physically able to reach all the controls-stick, rudders, throttles, and all emergency handles. Yes, RPA pilots need to actually FLY the aircraft and do not do that by pushing buttons on a keyboard. 5’4″ is the minimum height for ALL military aircraft and most airliners in the US and the free world. There are no minimum height waivers for US military pilots for good reason, though maximum height can be waived for certain aircraft, including RPAs.

  • BITA

    I was forced to retire because of Budget cut backs and not making the rank of Lt Col. I spent 15.5 years in the Active Duty and spent 2 years in training and 13.5 years as a Weapon System Officer on the B-52. I have combat time and over 2800+ hours of experience on the BUFF. I could easily slide into the REAPER job and would gladly do it HOWEVER, the USAF failed to properly put experience to use in their efforts to cut costs of those nearing retirement

    • Greg bland

      I was retired early to. U have to realize the older u are and the more rank u have, means its time for u to go. U cost to much to pay and oh my u cost to much to fix at the med center. U just have to be happy they didn’t circumvent ur retirement pay. So u know the idea of bringing back qualified vets as drone pilots will not play out. Oh did I mention the F35 cost to much to pay for and cost to much to fix in maintainence … sounds familiar … Rather get the vet out the door and keep the F35. Nothing like hollowing out expeience to keep “cost downstream”.. I hear there working on enlisting illegal immigrants any way so its all going to be a wash anyway. Aim high

  • Skycop

    I have served in the Air National Guard for 25 years. 19 years enlisted as a SP, then received a commissioning opportunity. I’m a commercial pilot - helicopter, single-engine airplane, multi-engine airplane, glider, and CFI…and single-engine seaplane. (Jack Brown baby). I would love the opportunity to relieve my active duty brothers & sisters with flying drones part-time. What an awesome responsibility! Thank you all for your service and the crazy amount of flight hours you’re investing every year.

  • Mike Miller

    They are trying to give the video jockeys the same flight pay as those that are really flying? What a crock. How much more are the real pilots going to ask for when they are the ones deploying and away from their families when these guys are in no danger of dying and go home every night.

  • Mike

    I’m 35yrs old and would fly RPAs in a heartbeat. LOSE THE AGE RESTRICTIONS

    I was turned down for an age waiver at 30yts old after being selected to fly fighters. I scouted all units even RPAs they woukdnt even entertain another waiver attempt. This is ridiculous thinking in my opinion.

  • xo cho

    I’m an 66 year old retired AF VN vet. Put me in that seat, I’ll gladly push them buttons for just a few burgers now and then!!

  • Chris

    This article seems to be a little biased. The manned pilots don’t receive 25k a year every year. That money is only reserved for those people who have served their commitment (10 years from the end of pilot training) and then get locked in for another 5 years getting paid 25k a year for 5 years (taxed of course). There are quite a few manned pilots that don’t take this bonus because normally as soon as you do you are sent out the door on a 365 to the desert. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some sort of incentive for drone pilots, just wanted to make sure the facts are represented. For instance, I am a KC-135 pilot with 5 years experience so my flight pay is $206 a month or about $2500 a year. At the peak of my flying career, after 14 years of flying, it is $840 a month or about 10k a year. SO, for brand new RPA pilots to be receiving $650 a month seems to be already an incentive since I have to basically wait until their commitment is up to receive that kind of money as a manned operator.

    • MONTI

      Manned pilots do receive up to 25k a year for re-upping for another tour. 25K a year, over $2k a month. However, RPA specific pilots (18X, those who were never manned aircraft pilot) do NOT get any sort of sign-on bonus, which may be part of the reason there is such an outflow from the program.

      However, prior manned aircraft pilots (11M, 11F, 11B, 11R, etc) that are currently in RPA billets CAN get the up to $25k re-up bonus.

      Brand new RPA pilots don’t and won’t receive the $1,500/month bonus. That $1.5K bonus is only for those 18X RPA pilots who complete their 6-year initial ADSC then sign back up for more years. $1500/month = $18K a year. The re-up bonus is a Congressional level bonus (which hasn’t been approved for 18X pilots OR sensor operators). The $1500/month is a SECAF level bonus, but because it isn’t contractual, that bonus may or may not even stick around.

      Personally, I feel that the $1500/month bonus is a token effort by the AF to show that they are doing something about it. An extra $650 a month for 10 pilots is only $78,000 extra dollar the AF has to spend…not even a drop in the bucket for the AF budget.

  • M. K. Smith

    Really $25,000 to a drone pilot? Unlike a Real pilot who could get shot down or killed during a mission the Fly-boys with a joystick in their hand have no worry of capture or death. Somebodies ass needs to be fired if they get that type of bonus, time to write my congressman about Government waste again.

  • Tsgt Ret.Vic Sharron

    In the field of realsm while flying drones, many comments refer to boredom…I have been flying a huge variety of aircraft with my Microsoft Simulator since 1975. There are a host of additions to the simulator that reduce boredom such as,,,(don’t laugh),, one called the “Butt- Kicker”. This addition
    Simulates the vibrations recieved, when lowering the flaps, lowering the gear, etc..The most noticable is when you touch down!!. There is an additional program that adds sounds that you “feel” from outside the aircraft ,,etc wind,engine noise!…you might even “white knuckle” a few times..there are many more additions, unbelievable Sky renditions, storms,Snow,,rain.etc..

  • Waldo

    All you folks who think it’s a simple solution to train pencil-necked computer geeks to fly Predators and Reapers in combat are as out of touch as they are. It is far easier to train qualified pilots in the complex computer skills required to fly RPAs (Remotely Piloted Aircraft-not really “drones” in the classic definition) than to try to make a qualified pilot out of a computer whiz. The Air Force figured this out and recalled about 800 of us retired pilots (and navigators with commercial/instrument pilot licenses) to fly RPAs while the program was expanding so rapidly a few years ago. I just got out again in 2013-with 29 total years of active duty in two services and four wars over a 42-year span. I can tell you that flying Predators (and supervising flight operations and deploying down range to command an LRS, Launch and Recovery Squadron) was THE toughest assignment I’ve ever had, bar none. Spare me your inane resentment of RPA pilots’ receiving bonus pay. American taxpayers are getting a genuine bargain there.

  • Dave

    Waldo: Well said.

  • Sonny Dyess

    We did duty of flying for this country on way less pay. God and country means nothing to the new generation. Our president has brought the military to the worst state it has ever been in our history. What we do as a country shows where we are today.
    Need the old guard back.

  • jimntexas

    Dos Gringos does a lot to drive people out of the UAV career field.

  • Mal

    Stop trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.Pilots fly planes, computer operators operate drones. They are necessary, effective and deserve recognition as such but they are not pilots.

  • Kenneth Pittman

    In WWII there was an enlisted pilot training program. 2,576 enlisted men are known to have graduated as sergeant pilots under this program. Ultimately they flew virtually all types of AAF aircraft. Although most were elevated to the new rank of flight officer with officer privileges or to second lieutenant before assignment to a combat unit, about 332 pilots departed the United States while still sergeants and about 217 flew combat missions overseas as sergeants. Not counted in this number are other sergeant pilots based in the United States flying antisubmarine combat patrols. At least 137 Americans enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and were trained as Noncommissioned Officer pilots, then later transferred to the Army Air Force as sergeant pilots before promotion. BG Charles “Chuck” Yeager was one of these enlisted pilots when he went to Europe. Do we really need so many officers flying overly expensive aircraft? TheF-22’s are useless if you can’t bring yourself to use them…they cost too much to risk them. Also, NCO’s get payed much less than officers. I say if money is the big issue…pull SSgt.s off their X-Boxs and PlayStations, train them to fly UAV’s and let 2500 officers move on to Delta airlines. If it’s about being not having a degree or being intelligent enough to become pilots, more than 60% of NCO’s have a degree these days.

  • Rob

    I don’t think there should be any incentive pay for drone “pilots” -in fact, we should quit using the word pilots to distinguish those that are real pilots and those that are joy-stick operators.
    I wish the Air Force would get into THIS century. There is no valid reason an enlisted person could not fly a drone. How about the Air Force song, (besides leaving out most of the enlisted force) now the with the advent of drones -how many AF personnel actually “Gone into the Wild Blue Yonder”? It’s time the AF stepped up and realized the true value of it’s Airmen -the backbone of the Air Force.

    • MONTI

      “There is no valid reason an enlisted person could not fly a drone.”

      How bout the higher accident rate of enlisted-operated Army to officer-operated Air Force RPAs?

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  • josh

    The military started with enlisted pilots, and they flew all the way until WWII, and then the officers took the role away. A college degree has nothing to do with piloting. Some younger enlisted are private pilots on the side, but they can’t be pilots in the real Air Force because they don’t have a degree in underwater basket weaving. This problem has been created by officers and they’re ignoring history. If nothing else, this is a prime opportunity for the USAF to implement warrant officers. It’s long overdue!