How much do fighter pilots actually earn? Ask some, and their response might be, 'Considering my three ground jobs? Hardly enough to keep me in after fulfilling my minimum service requirement.' Yet, for others, the sentiment may be starkly different: 'Compensation aside, this is the best job in the world! Wait… we’re supposed to be getting paid?’.
Flying fighters is the dream of many young kids so it’s no wonder that most of us didn’t get into this line of work for the money. That being said, Zyn ain’t cheap so having a stable income is nothing to complain about.
There are many factors that go into determine the salary of a fighter pilot but for the sake of accuracy I will use my current situation as an example in order to shed some light on the earning potential of a fighter pilot in the US Navy. I think the results may surprise you!
The Basics of Fighter Pilot Salaries
Generally, military compensation is standardized across all branches and jobs, with rank and length of service being the key factors that determine variations in pay. Meaning pilots in the Air Force get paid the same as pilots in the Navy but a LtCol in the Marine Corps (rank of O5 with approximately 15 years in service) would get paid more than an LTJG in the Navy (O2 with approximately 2 years). Actually, exactly 60% more… but who’s counting.
So now for an example based on something similar to my current situation: 26 years old, 3-4 years out of college, living in the Texas area. Based on military.defense.gov, a fighter pilot in this situation could expect to receive a total compensation of about $95,000 USD, before taxes. That amount would increase slightly with every single year in service and substantially with each promotion in rank. Breakdown below:
|Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH)
|Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS)
And what’s really cool about military pay scale is that you only get taxed on your Basic Pay. Meaning, the $24,000 from BAH and BAS are tax free and your overall tax bracket in this case would go from 24% to only 22% for 2023, effectively saving you almost $19,000 USD in taxes.
Additional Earnings and Bonuses
There are, of course, exceptions and variances in all cases that would affect final pay. One of these would be flight pay—adding anywhere from an extra $150 to $800 per month depending on how senior you are.
Other factors that the military considers is if you’re single or have dependents (spouse, children, etc… note: your three cats don’t count here), where you live since the cost of living in San Diego is significantly higher than the backwoods of Mississippi, and tax relief scenarios if you deploy to a combat zone.
Comparing Salaries: Navy vs. Other Military Branches
Like I touched on earlier, military salaries don’t vary between branches. The only exception here would be something like BAH where the Navy (being a maritime branch) might have more bases located on the coast, which are typically higher COA areas so your BAH would reflect this.
However, it wouldn't be surprising if Air Force pilots earned a higher salary than their counterparts in other branches to accommodate their frequent tee times at the exquisite golf courses for which the Air Force is renowned.
And I could also see Army pilots making more to pay for all the beer that’s required in order to live somewhere as awful as Fort Still.
Benefits Beyond the Paycheck
Finally, it’s worth considering the benefits military aviators receive outside of just the monetary compensation: healthcare, education, and retirement plans to name a few.
TRICARE is the name of the health insurance every service member is entitled to and although I haven’t had to use it for any serious reason, I have heard mostly great things.
The GI Bill is the name of the benefit that grants military members (or their family) educational opportunities after completing some amount of service. This is free money that can be used for anything from vocational school to flight school to college. A great perk for sure.
Finally, the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is a vehicle service members can use to maximize their savings for the future. With up to a 5% match, that’s additional tax-free money that can help set you up for a fantastic retirement.
These are all fantastic reasons to consider becoming a fighter pilot. However, I would advise against taking any such path for purely monetary motivations. With this incredible career comes a lot of sacrifice and at the end of the day, money, as important as it is to provide for yourself and family, is only one small factor that you should consider. And if you just want to get rich quick: doing embarrassing dances on TikTok is probably a much simpler way to achieve that.