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Air Force Signing Bonus For Drone Pilots Reaches Dizzying New Heights

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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The Air Force is now offering bonuses of up to $175,000 to keep airmen engaged at piloting drones.

For some drone pilots, the Air Fore is offering as much as $35,000 annually as a bonus to keep them from leaving, that is, if they sign on to a five-year service contract, Air Force Times reports.

The bonus offer was somewhat anticipated, as Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James announced in August her intentions to increase the retention bonus up from $25,000.

However, drone pilots won’t be able to receive 50 percent of their bonuses up front.

The service’s announcement comes on the heels of a fraudulent bonus system perpetrated by the California National Guard, in which officials gave bonuses to troops who simply weren’t supposed to receive them. About a decade later, the Pentagon has attempted to collect those bonuses back, but the collection attempted provoked such an outcry from veterans advocacy organizations and members of Congress that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for an immediate halt to collection efforts Wednesday.

Part of the reason for the recent change in bonus structure is that the Air Force is finding it difficult to keep drone pilots engaged, as many in the past have opted to leave to become private drone contractors, since the pay is much better–sometimes two or three times their Air Force salary.

As recently as December 2015, the service has been hemorrhaging drone pilots, mostly because the work is so taxing. At times, a drone pilot’s shift can reach up to 13 hours a day for six days a week, due to a dramatic increase of operations in areas like Iraq and Syria. Moreover, it takes a considerable amount of time to properly train drone pilots. As then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Walsh noted back in December, “We can only train about 180 people a year, and we need 300 a year trained – and we’re losing about 240 from the community each year. Training 180 and losing 240 is not a winning proposition for us.”

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