Many Air Force pilots get big personal satisfaction from flying fighter jets, cargo planes or bombers in defense of their country. After all, protecting your compatriots is as much a calling as it is a career. But that doesn't mean flying for the Air Force is light on financial rewards. Sure, there's a base salary, but add to that perks – including health and life insurance, retirement plans, combat pay, tax breaks and even free rounds of golf. What you earn as a pilot depends on your grade, or how long you've been flying, as well as which rank you've achieved.
The least you’d earn in 2013 was $35,327 as an entry-level second lieutenant with less than two years in the service. Work your way up the ranks, and you’d make more. In 2013, first lieutenants started at $39,103, and made as much as $54,115. Captains took home anywhere from $45,256 to $73,627. Majors made $51,473 to $85,943. For colonels, pay ranged from $71,561 to $126,688. Lieutenants general netted anywhere from $164,221 to $203,710. And if you’re really ambitious, you can aim for General of the Air Force. You wouldn’t make less than $187,765, and you could earn up to $230,879.
On top of salaries, the Air Force gives pilots allowances to cover food and housing. The food allowance was $242.60 a month for officers in 2013. The housing allowance depends on whether you have a spouse and kids. For pilots with families, monthly housing allowances in 2013 ranged from $3,420 to $4,509 in a big city such as New York. That allotment was smaller for pilots living on base. At North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, for example, officers with dependents got $1,359 to $1,911 a month for housing. If you’re single without kids, you’ll get less help with housing costs. That 2013 New York allowance dropped to between $3,258 and $3,552 for households with no dependents. At Fort Bragg, it was $1,086 to $1,551.
Working as an Air Force pilot is demanding work. You may spend months at a time away from your family in dangerous combat situations. Fortunately, the service compensates you for those tough times. The Family Separation Allowance as of 2013 was $250 a month, while Hardship Duty Pay was as much as $1,500 a month. For pilots under threat of physical harm because of civil war or terrorism, the service paid $225 a month in Imminent Danger or Hostile Fire Pay. The Air Force even helped pick up the tab for transportation, car shipment or storage and pet quarantine fees.
Air Force pilots enjoy benefits including insurance and vacation time. Insurance coverage includes comprehensive medical and dental care, as well as care for family members at military clinics for little or no copay. Plus, pilots get up to 30 days of paid leave each year. Through the military’s Thrift Savings Plan, pilots could sock away as much as $17,500 a year as of 2013 in a 401(k)-style retirement account. Pilots who stick around for 20 years earn a monthly retirement income.
Your typical Air Force base has golf courses, arts and crafts centers, bowling alleys, tennis courts and swimming pools that cost pilots nothing to use. If you travel on vacation, you can stay at other bases for as little as $6 a night. There are even tax breaks – for every month you serve in a combat zone, your wages are excluded from your taxable income.