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How much does an Air Force One pilot make?

The Making of Air Force One

Of course you realize nothing like this could ever happen.

Here’s the concept: Some terrorists have a gripe with the United States. Terrorists are in the business of hijacking airliners, and as any terrorist worth his Semtex knows, there is one airliner without equal: Air Force One. And as along as you are going to hijack Air Force One, you may as well do it while the president and the first family are aboard.

In the action movie Air Force One , Harrison Ford is cast as the president of the United States and Glenn Close as the vice president, but the surprise star of this movie may well turn out to be an airplane: the Boeing 747-146 that plays the part of Air Force One, one of two modified 747-200s operated by the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. To create a kind of stunt double for the presidential aircraft, the producers of Air Force One rented a standard production 747 from American International Airways, a charter cargo carrier based in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and founded by former drag-racing champion Conrad “Connie” Kalitta. The Boeing wide body, registered in the United States as N703CK, was the 54th built and the third to enter the Japan Air Lines fleet after it rolled off the production line in June 1970. All the other military aircraft in the film appear as themselves, with the services’ costs paid for by Columbia Tristar Pictures.

The director of Air Force One is Wolfgang Petersen, whose film Das Boot , a gritty tale of life aboard a World War II German submarine, established his penchant for exhaustive research and painstaking accuracy.

To get everything right, Petersen relied on researcher Brian McNulty, who recruited experts from the Secret Service and the military. McNulty also scheduled the military aircraft, a nailbiter of an experience: “I find it to be quite exciting when you order up a dozen aircraft, and your first day of shooting is on a certain day at 1500 hours, and I’m standing there on the tarmac, and at 1500 hours they start to roll in.” McNulty acknowledges that there’s a price for such a high level of cooperation. The Air Force got script approval and the assurance of a positive depiction of the service and its people.

To obtain seamless realism in the flying scenes, which combine actual flying with shots of models as well as special effects created on computers, Petersen relied on McNulty’s experts and David Paris, the man responsible for the planning and coordination of every flying sequence. Paris, a helicopter pilot who learned his craft during eight years in the British Royal Navy, has an eclectic roster of motion pictures to his credit, from Ishtar to Mission Impossible .

Piloting the 747 was Paul Bishop, an AIA captain with more than 25,000 hours, 4,000 of them in 747s. The film involved two primary flying sequences, one shot near the Channel Islands off the California coast and another at Rickenbacker International Airport near Columbus, Ohio. In the latter sequence, Paris had to have the big Boeing veer off the runway, out of control, then take off and barely clear a parked C-141 transport. In the story, the crew members lock themselves into the flight deck after hearing gunfire aboard. They plan to deviate to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where special ground units can storm the airplane and overwhelm the terrorists.

While the AIA 747 was off getting a $300,000 paint job to replicate the Air Force One color scheme, Paul Bishop was busy at meetings to map out how the sequence would be shot. “David [Paris] had a storyboard, like a comic book, where each scene is drawn out,” Bishop recalls. To shoot the portion in which the 747 goes out of control and veers 45 degrees off the runway toward a near-collision, cameraman David Nowell planned to reduce the risk by using a time-honored trick and slow the camera down to half speed: 12 frames per second. “The sequence begins with us [stopped] on the runway, then we accelerate to pass camera center at 60 knots,” Bishop says.

The film crew prepared for the shoot by using the aircraft performance manuals to calculate the acceleration and braking distances for the 747’s weight and the air density at the airport to establish a maximum speed. Then Bishop assigned flight engineer Harvey Sigmon to observe the speed readout on the inertial navigation system while he and copilot Robert Earl “Jet Man” Jeter handled the power and the steering. When the final takes were projected at the normal 24 frames per second, the 60 knots looked like a speedier 120.

Bishop repeated this and other action sequences through 10 takes and 60 hours on the 747’s clock, which were stretched over many days by the limits of moviemaking and of the airplane itself. The landing at Ramstein is supposed to take place at night, but in order to get the light they wanted the camera crews could shoot only within a 15-minute window after sunset or before sunrise. And, like any star, the 747 had its own special needs. The 16 sets of brakes (only the nosewheels are not braked) have to be cooled down after each run. And it wouldn’t have been moviemaking without the glitches: In one instance a “doghouse” sheltering a ground-level camera was blown over by the jet blast from the number two engine; the moviemakers rebuilt it and anchored it securely. Then early one morning, with a front moving in and ground traffic sending the crew on long detours around the taxiways of Rickenbacker, they rolled the dice to perform a final take. And the gamble came up snake eyes.

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“We ‘thermalled’ the tires,” Bishop says, “and the boss was not happy with that.” What happened was actually a built-in safeguard doing its job: To prevent explosive failure of the tires and rims from heat buildup, the braked wheels on the 747 have metallic plugs that melt on overheating to release all the air in the tire. Even taxiing creates tire heat, and the 747-146 is limited to slightly less than seven miles on the roll before it has to stop and cool its wheels. Somehow, in the course of braking hard and taxiing back for another take, the tires had built up enough heat to melt the plugs. “It happened at 6 a.m., and by 6 p.m. it was ready [to fly again].” Bishop says, crediting his crew for the rapid turnaround.

The shoot planned for the area near California’s Channel Islands involved a sequence wherein commandos extend a line from a Fulton Winch mounted in an MC-130 Combat Talon to an entry hatch on Air Force One. The commandos are supposed to slide down the line to get aboard the airplane, then reverse the process to get off.

This time, weather was the problem. To establish that the airplanes are over the ocean during this sequence, the cameras needed a view of the water. “What we got was crud from 4,000 feet down to sea level,” Bishop says. “And it was persistent. We were out there for almost two weeks…and we would take off every morning two hours before sunrise and look for a hole until the envelope for filming expired.”

Eventually, they got a break in the weather than enabled them to join up with the MC-130 and with the modified North American B-25 Mitchell camera plane. Flying at about 200 mph, well below the 747’s speed when it is slowing to approach an airport, Bishop flew with the flaps extended 10 degrees throughout the sequence. The formation join-up involving three “dissimilar airplanes,” as Bishop understates the problem, was ticklish. The 747 cruises at more than 600 mph, C-130s are comfy at 350 mph, and on a good day, the B-25 can handled maybe 230, tops.

The MC-130 flew with a cable trailing behind it; the special effects wizards completed the linkup by connecting the cable end to the 747 with their computers. “They also add the people,” Bishop says, though there was one exception when the moviemakers tried to put a human figure on the cable. “They did trail a dummy—they called him Felix, dressed in a suit and tie, out of the Talon. But [the 747’s] bow wave was moving him around, and first his tie comes off, and then his coat comes off, and I’m hoping it doesn’t enter our number two engine.” They decided to ditch Felix.

Bishop had to fly in tight formation with the turboprop MC-130, responding to direction from the camera crew aboard the B-25. Using hand signals, they told him how they wanted him to adjust his position. Bishop established a visual reference somewhere on the MC-130, sometimes lining up a wingtip light with a spot on the smaller airplane’s fuselage or lining up one of its antennas with a spot on his own windshield. Throughout this series, Bishop’s cockpit was only a few feet away from the Talon’s wingtip, and the other aircraft’s tail was about the same distance from his number two engine on the 747’s left wing. “I never thought I’d reach the age of 57 and have an experience like this,” he says.

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Although the 747 featured in Air Force One lacks the bulge in the nose of aerial refueling equipment and a few of the antennas found on the fuselage of the real Air Force One, the accuracy of its paint and studio-supplied decal markings fooled a lot of people on the ramp at Los Angeles International Airport, who believed the president was in town. The ensuing uproar was easy to allay compared to the excitement of the young fliers aboard a pair of F/A-18s who were scrambled to intercept some unexplained radar targets. “They came up and saw what looked like Air Force One full of bullet holes [simulated by decals],” Bishop recalls. “Once they ID’ed it, [Los Angeles Center] told them who we were and they broke off and went home. But I can just imagine what was going through their minds,” Bishop says, chuckling.

Whether real or replicated, Air Force One is more than just an airplane. “What attracted us to the project is the idea that Air Force One is the flying White House…. [As a symbol] it’s as if the president is bringing the crown jewels,” says McNulty. Air Force Once has long embodied presidential prestige and global influence. Now, with Hollywood’s help, add action-movie star power to that list.

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George C. Larson | READ MORE

George C. Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot’s license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

You know Air Force One? Meet Two, Three, Four, Five.

Col. James Wolcott, operations group commander for the 89th Airlift Wing, sta

You’ve probably heard of or seen Air Force One-even if only in a movie or on TV-and know that it carries the President of the U.S. and his staff. But did you know that the Air Force also operates 15 other business jets that are used to transport high-profile government officials, including members of Congress?

In addition to the pair of Boeing 747s that take turns serving as Air Force One (the aircraft bears the sobriquet only when the President is aboard), the fleet includes five Gulfstream IIIs, four GVs, two 737s and four 757s. All have been modified to incorporate such things as specialized communications and flight equipment and VIP staterooms. Government agencies reimburse the Air Force for use of the fleet at hourly rates ranging from $5,262 for the GIIIs to $18,338 for the 737s.

The 89th Airlift Wing, based at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Md., is responsible for running the military’s largest executive flight department. The fleet carries out more than 6,500 missions and logs nearly 12,000 flight hours each year. All aircraft, including the two that serve as Air Force One, are housed and maintained at Andrews, just 10 miles southeast of the White House.

The wing employs 80 pilots and 89 flight attendants who are handpicked for this mission from the greater Air Force pool. Pilots with fewer than 2,500 hours of flight time won’t even be considered, and most have several thousand hours of experience flying fighter jets or other military aircraft. Though their tailored blue business suits and uniforms might suggest otherwise, these people are all battle-ready, field-trained and prepared to defend their aircraft and passengers on a moment’s notice.

While the thought of government-sponsored high-end business jets might make some taxpayers cringe, 89th Airlift Wing spokesman Capt. Herbert W. McConnell said the service is necessary because the aircraft offer security equipment that a public charter operator couldn’t provide. «There are more requirements since September 11,» he said. «We fly the Speaker of the House, whereas before we did not. There are more reasons to fly with us now.»

The 89th Airlift Wing receives its orders from the Pentagon, which assigns aircraft based on customer requirements and aircraft availability, with the larger jets generally reserved for overseas missions. In February 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the subject of some controversy over her use of one of the wing’s GVs to travel between Washington and her home in California. Her predecessor had used the smaller and less expensive GIII. McConnell wouldn’t comment on Pelosi’s use of the GV, but said sometimes weather or other operational concerns justify the use of larger aircraft.

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Pilots and flight attendants assigned to the business jet fleet undergo regular recurrent training, just like their civilian peers. Gulfstream pilots complete their simulator training at what’s called the Executive Airlift Training Center at Andrews Air Force Base. Flight attendants working on the same airplanes train with FlightSafety International in Savannah, Ga., while the Boeing crews train with Delta Airlines. Everyone, however, must endure the same military survival training that all Air Force pilots and other crew members do.

«It’s basically two weeks out in the field [to prepare you for a crash] behind enemy lines,» said Chief Master Sgt. Brian Smith, who manages the flight attendants in the 89th Airlift Wing and is a former Air Force One flight attendant. «The water-survival training was pretty intense. I remember the fire hose of ice-cold water on me. That was a memorable experience.»

Unlike most of their civilian peers, military flight attendants in the 89th Airlift Wing prepare, cook and serve all the meals that are consumed onboard their aircraft, which Smith said greatly reduces the possibility of contamination or sabotage.

«Part of our job is safety and sanitation,» he explained. «It’s not that we don’t trust anybody, but our goal is to prepare all the food. Either we prep it at our kitchen and freeze it for later use or we prepare it on the plane. We don’t use food purveyors.»
A few days prior to a flight, Smith’s staff is notified of the requirements and sets about preparing a menu for passengers and crew. While Smith admitted the meals might not compare in creativity or quality with what an expensive caterer could provide, flight attendants do receive culinary training and are able to put together respectable in-flight meals.

«Omelets for 50 are manageable, but eggs to order might not work,» Smith said. «We’re real flexible. On the small jets, they are very creative.»

The Gulfstreams typically carry only one flight attendant, but the Boeings fly with as many as six. «We’re also serving the crew, and we bring security, flight engineers-many more crewmembers than on a private flight,» Smith said. «The business of the federal government is 24/7. When you’re out flying with [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice, it’s nonstop. They’re working speeches; they’re working the phones, on the Internet sending messages back and forth. They don’t seem to have much time to watch in-flight movies. We try to coordinate the meals, but on the big jets, we have the media on board, so there are media conferences. We just try to keep beverages coming out. When they hit the deck, they need to get going. Our goal is to ensure they get first-class service from the nose to the tail.»

Col. James S. Wolcott, operations group commander for the 89th Airlift Wing, said the military’s business case for using the jets is similar to that of many large corporations. «Some of the advantages that you find in corporate aircraft you find in transporting our nation’s leaders,» Wolcott said. «It saves their time versus flying on the airlines. Security is obviously a factor and has become more of a factor in the last few years.

«Our mission has evolved here from just getting a VIP from point A to B safely and on time,» Wolcott added. «We have a lot of communications equipment on these aircraft that allows [passengers] to work. As they transition from their office to the airplane, it’s invisible. A well-executed diplomatic mission can save fighting missions down the road.»

How Much Does an Air Force Pilot Make?

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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.

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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:

Base Pay$3,385.80$40,629.60

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:

Base Pay$4,442.70$53,312.40
Flight Pay$150$1,800
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!

Base Pay$4,442.70$53,312.40
Flight Pay$150$1,800
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):

Base Pay$7,684.20$92,210.40
Flight Pay$700$8,400
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:

Base Pay$7,684.20$92,210.40
Flight Pay$700$8,400
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!

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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.

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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.


Do Air Force pilots get paid more?

Yes, Aviation Incentive Pay rates for the USAF vary from an extra $150 to $1,000 per month.

What is the salary of an Air Force pilot?

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.

How much will I be gone as an Air Force pilot?

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.

Do Air Force pilots get flight pay?

Yes! Aviation Incentive Pay rates for the USAF vary from an extra $150 to $1,000 per month.

What are Gate Months in the Air Force?

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.

How does Air Force pay work for a mil-to-mil couple?

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.

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