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How much does it cost to train an Air Force pilot? A LOT

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Pilot money

The United States operates some of the most advanced and capable tactical aircraft ever to take to the skies, but what does it cost to train the pilot? More than you might think.

Back in 2019, the U.S. Air Force worked with the RAND Corporation to conduct an analysis of what the branch spends on bonuses and incentive pay aimed at retaining existing pilots, versus the cost of recruiting and training new pilots to replace them. According to the 73-page report, this comparison was of particular import at the time (and today) because the commercial-airline industry has been aggressively pursuing qualified pilots to replace its aging workforce, encouraging highly-trained Air Force pilots to get out of the military and take on cushier jobs ferrying passengers between New York and LA.

New pilots versus old, in terms of dollars and cents

There are a number of variables to take into consideration when trying to determine the right pilot force structure. High levels of retention mean high levels of expertise, but it also means higher personnel costs across the board as aviators continue to progress in their careers toward higher pay grades. An all-senior pilot force also creates problems as those senior pilots begin to reach retirement age. Conversely, an all-junior (or recruited) pilot force offers lower costs in terms of payroll and bonuses, but comes with the high initial cost of recruitment and training.

Obviously, the right structure is a mix of the two, with several senior aviators sticking around being the pay structure, bonuses, and incentives make it worthwhile as compared to commercial or civilian endeavors, and a number of aspiring aviators coming in each year to train for their military careers. This offers a mixture of experience, skill sets, and costs that allows the pilot corps to be sustainable over the long haul, but to manage this balance, the Air Force must have a thorough understanding of what such a mixture will cost for the purposes of budget allocation.

Of course, the first step in making this determination is assessing exactly how much it costs to train a person off the street to fly a hundred million dollars worth of state secrets into enemy airspace and live to tell the tale.

Related: Approaching Mach 2 in an F-16: ‘The jet started to shake’

Pilot training costs vary widely

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reserve Officer Training Corps Cadets Preston Tower, left, Alexander Knapp and Ian Palmer fly three T-38C Talons in formation in a mixed reality environment during a flying training session with the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 1, 2019. The 80th FTW has been installing and fine-tuning virtual and mixed reality training platforms in their Innovation Lab, which allows Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program students to further practice their skills outside of an actual aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

In order to assess the cost of training a pilot, RAND had to consider several things outside the direct expenses incurred by the student (housing, payroll, etc), like the cost per flight hour for aircraft leveraged and the support costs incurred by maintaining these training fleets. Costs from each stage of training, from flight screening all the way through assignment to formal training units, were included.

The analysis found that the cost of training pilots varied greatly based on the platform. For instance, it costs about ten times more to train a pilot to fly America’s premiere air superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor, than it costs to train a pilot to fly a C-17 cargo plane. This, of course, makes a great deal of sense seeing as aircraft like the F-22 costs far more per hour to operate than more utilitarian platforms like the C-17.

Related: Ukrainian pilots are training to fly F-16s. Here’s what we know

Here’s how much the U.S. Air Force spends training its pilots

F-16 pilot enters cockpit
U.S. Air Force Capt. Christopher Chidgey, 480th Fighter Squadron pilot, enters the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Sept. 21, 2022. The pilot carried out a comprehensive check of the aircraft before entering the cockpit to make sure the aircraft would operate safely and efficiently. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Imani West)

The chart below shows the Air Force cost of training one pilot on each platform, according to the RAND Corporation analysis from 2018, as well as today’s updated figures when adjusted for 2023’s inflation, using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.

Aircraft2018 Dollars2023 Dollars
F-35A (basic)$10,167,000.00$12,271,340.00
F-35A (transition)$9,467,000.00$11,426,460.12

The above figures were obtained from The Relative Cost-Effectiveness of Retaining Versus Accessing Air Force Pilots by the Rand Corporation.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April 2023.

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.