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If you’re at the Academy, in ROTC, or considering applying for Officer Training School (OTS), it is common to wonder what you’ll make as an Air Force pilot. Military pay tables, incentives, and bonuses are publicly released each year, but in can be a little confusing to piece it all together.
I’ll walk you through what you can expect, using 2021 pay charts as a guide.
In general, all military officers are paid the same, except for locality specific items (like housing allowance) or career field specific incentives (like flight pay). All new officers in the military start out with the same base pay and Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS), using 2021 numbers and not yet counting housing allowance:
Allowances such as Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) and BAS are NOT taxable income. This is a huge benefit in your military pay that really lowers your tax burden, especially in an area with high BAH.
Let’s say you’re a new Second Lieutenant (O-1) without dependents that hasn’t yet started pilot training in Columbus AFB, MS.
For your first job out of college, this is pretty good, especially since it’s a very stable and safe income. You are immediately out-earning a large majority of the military. On day 1, you’re making more than a 13 year time-in-service (TIS) E-7 does.
How much more does an Air Force pilot get paid?
In reality, flight pay doesn’t make a huge difference at first, but pilots also earn a lot of extra money on short-term TDYs and deployments. Aviation Incentive Pay (or “flight pay”) starts the day you begin Phase 1 in pilot training. On your SURF, it will be listed as your AVSD (Aviation Start Date).
Here’s a chart from DFAS showing the current rates and the increments for the next level:
You also will get a pay raise with each promotion, and the pay tables go up usually every 1 or 2 years for your time in service.
Your overall years of military service is calculated off of your commissioning date, even if you didn’t enter active duty right away. Your pay date is listed on your Leave and Earnings Statement (LES) and on your SURF.
Here’s an O-2 (without dependents) with 2 years of service in Columbus, MS:
|Total Gross Pay:||$5,857.88||$70,294.56|
Lastly for our lieutenants, let’s look at the good-deal catcher who got Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii for their first assignment. Now they are an O-2 with 2 years of service with a dependent, and they’re already breaking six-figures!
|COLA (April 2021 w/ 1 dependent) *||$481.34||$5,776.08|
|Total Gross Pay:||$8,349.22||$100,190.64|
*COLA varies from paycheck to paycheck with seasonal cost of living changes as well as rank and number of dependents
With the untaxed allowances, the lucky Lt in Hawaii has $45,078.24 on non-taxable income. This is a major benefit when the IRS calculates your tax burden on a $55,000 salary instead of a $100,000 salary!
While your pay in the Air Force will never really compete with what you could make at a major US airline (after a couple years at the airline at least), here’s a glimpse of what a Major (O-4) with 4 dependents, less than 12 years, and over 6 years of aviation service makes in Hawaii, a high BAH cost and with the extra Cost of Living Allowance (COLA):
|Total Gross Pay:||$13,280.38||$159,364.57|
And $58,754.16 of this Major’s pay is non-taxable.
However, if you move that Major to Maxwell AFB, Alabama, for example, it’d be a $33,000 per year pay cut with the lower cost of living:
|Total Gross Pay:||$10,294.38||$125,532.56|
On top of these pretty decent numbers, when you’re actively flying, especially when you’re young and on the road a lot, you can easily add a few hundred a month in per diem income too.
Never budget or take out a loan relying on the per diem income- it can come and go with a little injury or career change, but use it smartly when you do get it!
Will I earn flight pay even if I stop flying?
In general, you’ll continue to receive flight pay as long as you are actively flying, but if you get medically grounded or choose non-flying job, you may lose your flight pay if you aren’t careful. You have to meet certain “gates” to continue to earn flight pay.
Operational Flying Duty Accumulator (OFDA) Gates currently appear after 12 and 18 years of aviation service. You’ll continue to earn flight pay even if you go take a staff job or non-flying assignment as long as you pay attention to these requirements.
By 12 years of aviation service (which began when you started phase 1), you need 96 months of active flying. If you meet this gate, you’ll continue to earn flight pay through 18 years of aviation service.
By 18 years of aviation service, you need 120 months of active flying, and you’ll earn flight pay through 22 years of aviation service.
By 22 years of aviation service, you need 144 gate months to continue to earn flight pay through 25 years of aviation service.
For the average pilot, this shouldn’t be difficult at all to do. If you’re looking for a break from flying one day, just quickly consider its impact on your 12-year gate, if you think you might stay in.
Your OFDA information can be found on your SURF and your personnel records. For a pilot like me with 3 “ops to ops” assignments (three C-17 flying assignments back-to-back), I’ve accumulated 132 OFDA months, and even if I stop flying now, I can continue to earn flight pay until I’ve done 22 years of aviation service.
Is being an Air Force pilot worth it?
Being a pilot in the Air Force can be an exciting and rewarding career with a stable income and a lot of opportunities to increase your savings rate. The career potential after a 12-year or 20-year career can be very lucrative. You’ll be highly trained, professional leader and communicator that is paid to travel all over.
But make sure you never do it only for the money. The lifestyle can be challenging and frustrating, but with an intentional plan, you can set yourself up very nicely. Every TDY or deployment can further accelerate your path towards financial independence too.
The foundations of a stable paycheck early in your adult life can fund your second career, cover a period of job uncertainty after you separate, or allow you to never work again after you retire.
Yes, Aviation Incentive Pay rates for the USAF vary from an extra $150 to $1,000 per month.
Starting out, the average Air Force pilot can expect to make around $56,000 per year (gross). However, after a few years, they can see that grow quickly. Depending on your location, you may start earning six-figures after 3 or 5 years of service.
It may vary greatly depending on your timing, current geo-political issues, and your airframe. As a first assignment C-17 copilot, between 2011-2015, I averaged 132 days TDY per calendar year. While at my first operational assignment, I deployed once per year, but they ranged from 60-80 days or so each. This was challenging for a young, mil-to-mil couple with their first kid. However, during my second C-17 assignment that tapered off drastically, and I averaged less than 90 days TDY per year. I’d say I had an average TDY rate with above average hours for my peer group, leaving my third assignment with more than 3,300 C-17 hours… I didn’t skip many opportunities to fly over the years. My peers in a KC-135 unit during their first assignment were gone more like 170-190 days per year, while my friends in fighters were significantly lower unless they had a deployment.
Yes! Aviation Incentive Pay rates for the USAF vary from an extra $150 to $1,000 per month.
In order to continue to receive flight pay even if you’re not actively flying, you need to earn 96 months of active flying to meet your first gate, which is by the time you hit 12 years of aviation service. This enables you to receive flight pay, even if you never fly again, through 18 years of aviation service.
If you’re married to another service member (“mil-to-mil”), you each have your own pay and entitlements, for the most part. You will each get the without dependent rate of BAH at first. If you have one kid, then the senior of the two should claim the first child as their dependent. Then one would get with dependent and the other would still be without dependent. If you then have a second kid, you can each then get the with dependent rate. Same concept applies to COLA.