Guard and Reserve Pay and Benefits

The National Guard and Reserve components of the military offer outstanding opportunities for pilots like you and me to serve our country. While they provide many opportunities for a pilot to do full-time work, most Guard/Reserve pilots serve on a part-time basis. I have long argued that the Guard and Reserve offer the ideal career path for current military pilots. For those just getting started on a professional aviation career, the Guard and Reserves offer the ultimate career opportunity!

I recently wrote about the pay and benefits a military pilot earns through Active Duty service. I want to outline the same thing here for Guard and Reserve pilots. Some of this post will repeat what I already wrote because in many cases the benefits are similar or identical whether you’re full or part-time. For starters, it’s easiest to say that any pilot (Guard, Reserve, or Active Duty) serving on orders for at least 30 days of continuous service gets the same pay and benefits. For a detailed breakdown, please reference my post about Active Duty Pay and Benefits.

After we break down the basics on Guard and Reserve pay and benefits, we’ll look at how taking time from a full-time civilian flying job affects your overall pay. (We’ll use airline pilot pay for those comparisons.)

Table of Contents

  1. Guard/Reserve Pilot Pay and Allowances
  2. Guard/Reserve Pilot Pay Examples
  3. Taxes on Guard/Reserve Pilot Pay
  4. Guard/Reserve Pilot Benefits
  5. Part-Time Military Service Impact on Airline Pay
  6. Conclusion

Guard/Reserve Pilot Pay and Allowances

Base Pay

Base pay is just what it sounds like–it’s the fundamental part of your monthly paycheck. You can find the tables for that pay on the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) website.

If you’re on full-time orders (30+ consecutive days) you’ll receive the full monthly base pay. For a brand-new Second Lieutenant or Ensign, this equates to $3,188.40. However, while you’re serving in a part-time status, you only get paid for the days you work. You get credit for one “pay period” for every four hours of work you put in. You receive 1/30th of your monthly base pay per pay period that you work. For our new pilot, this would be $3,188.40 ÷ 30 days = $106.28 per pay period.

Unless there’s a very good reason for you to only work a half-day, you should always get credit for 2 pay periods for every day that you spend working as a Guard/Reserve pilot. (Yes, this means that it’s theoretically possible to get paid for more than 30 pay periods in one month. Sometimes you may be able to use this to your advantage. However, if your unit needs you to work this much they’ll probably put you on full-time orders and you’ll just get a regular month of pay. There are many ways to skin this cat, and people in your squadron will be more than happy to help you learn them once you’ve earned your spot on the team.)

If you join a unit without prior service as an Active Duty pilot, they will put you on full-time orders for approximately two years to complete UPT and to get qualified in your Major Weapon System (e.g. F-15, E-3, C-17, etc). After this, they will give you at least a few more months of full-time orders for “seasoning” — an opportunity to front-load as much valuable flying experience as possible. (In certain types of units, such as fighters, you could get up to two years of seasoning. Others may be as little as a few months.) It would be realistic to plan on 2-3 years of full-time pay when you first join a squadron. After that, more full-time orders may be available, but you would be wise to plan for most of your military career to involve 3-6 days per month as a part-time basis. (You should also plan on periodic deployments throughout that time as well.)

Flight Pay

Aircrew members also receive flight pay, known as Aviation Career Incentive Pay (ACIP). It starts out at the low, low sum of just $150 per month; however, it can reach as high as $1,000 per month.

If you’re on full-time orders you’ll receive full monthly flight pay. If not, you’ll receive 1/30th of this value per pay period, just like base pay.

BAS and BAH

The government gives Active Duty military members a Basic Allowance for Sustenance (BAS) and a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). Full-time Guard/Reserve pilots are considered to be in an active status, so you will receive these tax-free allowances when you are on orders for more than 30 days. Unfortunately, in cases, you don’t get either of these benefits while you’re on a part-time status.

Retirement Funds

Retirement funds are so important that they’ll get their own BogiDope article shortly. For now it’s important to know that the US Government will match your contributions to a retirement account, called the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), up to 5% of your base pay each month. (There is some fine print on how this contribution matching works. Take a look at this handout from the TSP website for the details.) You get this benefit no matter whether you’re full or part-time.

The TSP is equivalent to a 401(k) plan for a civilian. Unless you don’t like money, you absolutely must contribute at least enough to your TSP each month to receive the government’s 5% match!

Beyond the TSP, the military is one of the few jobs in the US that still offers a pension. For Active Duty pilots, the pension is equivalent to 40% of base pay during the three highest-paid years of your career. A pilot becomes vested in (earns) this pension after serving for 20 full years. The Guard/Reserve also offers a pension, but they have a very different system for calculating your pay-out. Again, we’ll save the details for another article.

Retention Bonuses

The military makes huge investments in its pilots and it wants to keep them for as long as possible. This applies to the Guard and Reserve, as well as Active Duty. At certain points in a pilot’s career, they will try to incentivize this by offering you a retention bonus. Depending on how long you’re willing to sign up for, and whether you’re willing to take full-time orders for a few years, this retention bonus could be as high as $35,000 per year right now.

Back to Contents

Guard/Reserve Pilot Pay Examples

So, what does all this look like? Let’s run some pay calculations for a Guard/Reserve pilot. We’ll assume that this pilot received full-time pay for his or her first three years during pilot training and seasoning. (See our article on Active Duty Pay and Benefits to help run those calculations.) Our part-time military pilot is now an O-2 with 3 total years of service. We’ll assume he or she works five days (10 pay periods) per month.

Guard/Reserve Part-Time O-2 Pay Example

Rank: O-2Single Drill PeriodMonthly (10 DPs)Annual
Base Pay$133.73$1,337.30$16,047.60
Flight Pay$8.33$83.33$1,000
Gov TSP Match$6.69$66.87$802.38
Retention Bonus$0.00$0.00$0.00
Total$148.75$1,487.50$17,849.88

This may not seem like much, but it’s pretty decent income for what essentially amounts to a side-hustle. A Guard/Reserve pilot should have enough hours after 3 years of full-time service to qualify for a Restricted Airline Transport Pilot certificate, meaning he or she can take a full-time job at a regional airline. An extra $17K can go a long way toward making the $55K+ starting pay of most regional airlines palatable.

While Guard/Reserve pay will never match major airline pilot pay, the numbers do improve as time goes on. Here’s what things might look like for an O-5 approaching 20 years of total Guard/Reserve service:

Guard/Reserve Part-Time O-5 Pay Example

Rank: O-5Single Drill PeriodMonthly (10 DPs)Annual
Base Pay$299.95$2,999.50$35,994.00
Flight Pay$33.33$333.33$4,000.00
Gov TSP Match$15.00$149.98$1,799.70
Retention Bonus$0.00$0.00$0.00
Total$348.28$3,482.81
$41,793.70

I left the retention bonus off here because most Guard/Reserve pilots wouldn’t be eligible for or wouldn’t take it this late in their career. Also, we’re looking at this in the context of doing part-time military flying and the bonuses are usually only offered to pilots on full-time orders. However, this path offers a lot of flexibility. I’ve flown with a major airline captain who had taken some full-time orders to serve as an Air National Guard Wing Commander. He flew F-16s for 27 years and commanded the combined airpower of an entire state. Thanks to the job protection guaranteed by a Federal law called USERRA, he was able to do all this while accumulating seniority at a major airline. Even without a retention bonus, this can be a fantastic career path.

Back to Contents

Taxes on Guard/Reserve Pilot Pay

We covered this topic in detail in the Active Duty version of this post. The basic principles still apply. By contributing as much as possible to your TSP, you can reduce your taxable income…and therefore reduce the amount of money you have to give to Uncle Sam each year.

As a part-time military pilot, you may also have access to a 401(k) plan with your civilian employer. The IRS sets limits on how much a person can contribute to a 401(k) plan (or the TSP) each year. It’s important to note though that those limits are specific to each plan at each job. You could theoretically contribute the maximum to both a civilian 401(k) plan and your TSP each year, doubling your tax-advantaged investment contributions! (Always talk to a finance/investment/tax professional before implementing any retirement investment strategy.)

Back to Contents

Guard/Reserve Pilot Benefits

As great as the money may seem, there are many other benefits to military service. Thankfully, Guard and Reserve pilots get many of the same benefits as their Active Duty counterparts. We’ll discuss a few here, but you should reference my Active Duty Benefits post for the rest.

Healthcare

You don’t get unlimited free healthcare as a Guard/Reserve pilot, but you get something pretty close. You’ll be eligible for a program called Tricare Reserve Select. A single pilot’s monthly premium is $42.83, and the premium for a family is only $218.01. Prescription medications are free unless you want them delivered to your home. You may have to pay a deductible for treatment, but there is an annual catastrophic cap of $1028. If you’re not familiar with the costs of healthcare in the US, just know this: these costs are absurdly low. You will likely never find a better deal, aside from full-time Active Duty service.

If you have a family member with significant, long-term health issues, part-time service in the Guard or Reserve could literally be a lifesaver.

Paid Vacation Time

When you’re on part-time status you don’t accrue any paid vacation. (Your military flying is your vacation from the boring life of a mere mortal!) However, when you’re on full-time orders, you accrue 2.5 days of paid leave per month, just like your Active Duty counterparts. How you can use this paid leave to your advantage is a topic for another day. For now, just know that it’s extra money for you.

Post-9/11 G.I. Bill

The G.I. Bill is such a great educational benefit that it’s almost too good to be true. It will cover most of the costs for 4 academic years (36 calendar months) at any college in your state, or an equivalent cost at a private school. (Each state handles this a little differently, but each one is a variation on this benefit.) You can also use the G.I. Bill for technical courses, trade school, flight training, and more. Perhaps the best part of this benefit is that you can transfer part or all of it to your spouse and children (with many caveats and restrictions. Go to the official G.I. Bill website for all the details.)

You earn this benefit by serving in the military for a specified number of years. Some pilots mistakenly think that only Active Duty service qualifies you for this benefit, but don’t listen to them! Part-time Guard and Reserve service also earn you credit toward the G.I. Bill.

Back to Contents

Part-Time Military Service Impact on Airline Pay

We looked at how much a Guard or Reserve pilot could make for working about 5 days (10 pay periods) per month. I like to joke that part-time military service is like a side hustle, and most of the time when we talk about side-hustles we think of something you fit into “extra” time while you’re not working at your day job. While Guard or Reserve service can potentially work like this, it’s a lot to ask for on top of a full-time airline job. A full-time airline schedule will usually run 15-18 days per month. Adding 5-7 days of military duty on top of that would only give you a few days each month free from work. I believe this is more than any human being should do, and it’s certainly not a recipe for success for a pilot with a family.

The alternative here is to apply USERRA to drop one week of airline flying each month to make room for military duty. This can potentially limit your total number of working days to something reasonable, but it comes at a cost. Up to a certain point, Guard and Reserve pay are good enough to compensate you for the loss of that week of airline pay. However, after that point, every day you spend on military duty costs your family a lot of money. Don’t just take my word for it though. Let’s look at some numbers!

We’re going to consider a few potential situations where a military pilot might combine part-time Guard or Reserve service with an airline job. We’ll look at:

  • A young pilot who just finished qualification and seasoning and has started flying as an FO at a regional airline.
  • An experienced military pilot who separated after 12 years and started flying for an airline. We’ll see how these numbers look if this pilot goes directly to a major airline, and how they look if he or she starts with a regional airline touch & go.
  • Once we consider these entry-level cases, we’ll find the point at which military service breaks even with airline pay.
  • Finally, we’ll look a few years past break-even to the point where military service starts costing a lot.

Case #1 – New Military Pilot + Regional Airline FO

Here we’ll consider the case of a pilot who just started as a CRJ700/900 FO at GoJet after completing 3 years of full-time military service for qualification training and seasoning. We’ll assume that a full airline schedule is 75 hours per month and that a reduced schedule to make room for military service is 56 hours of airline flying per month.

Guard/Reserve + Year 1 GoJet FO

GoJet CRJ700/900 FOHourly RateMonthly Pay (75 hrs)Annual Pay (75 Hrs)Monthly Pay (56 Hrs)Annual Pay (56 Hrs)
Flight Pay$37$2,775$33,300$2,072$24,864
Company 401k Contribution4%$111$1,332$83$24,864
Profit-SharingN/A$0$0$0$0
Per Diem$1.85$500$6,000$375$4,500
Bonus$26,000$26,000
GoJet Subtotal$3,386$66,632$2,530$56,359
Military Subtotal$0$0$1,487$17,850
Grand Total$3,386$66,632$4,017$74,209

In this example, military flying actually results in this pilot making more money than he or she would with a full-time airline schedule on its own. The difference is roughly $600 per month, or $10,000 per year. While an extra $10K is nothing to sneeze at, it’s well short of the $17,850 we calculated earlier. This illustrates the trade-off of part-time military service, even early in a career.

Case #2 – Experienced Military Pilot + New Airline FO

In this case, we’ll consider an O-4 (Major or LCDR) with 12 years of military service. We’ll consider both starting pay at a GoJet, and starting pay at Delta. We’ll assume these are Pilot #2’s part-time military earnings for the year:

Guard/Reserve Part-Time O-4 Pay Example

Rank: O-4Single Drill PeriodMonthly (10 DPs)Annual
Base Pay$246.79$2,467.90$29,614.80
Flight Pay$33.33$333.33$4,000
Gov TSP Match$12.34$123.40$1,480.74
Retention Bonus$0.00$0.00$0.00
Total$292.46$2,924.63
$35,095.54

When we add those numbers to a partial first-year salary at GoJet we get:

Guard/Reserve O-4 + Year 1 GoJet FO

GoJet CRJ700/900 FOHourly RateMonthly Pay (75 hrs)Annual Pay (75 Hrs)Monthly Pay (56 Hrs)Annual Pay (56 Hrs)
Flight Pay$37$2,775$33,300$2,072$24,864
Company 401k Contribution4%$111$1,332$83$24,864
Profit-SharingN/A$0$0$0$0
Per Diem$1.85$500$6,000$375$4,500
Bonus$26,000$26,000
GoJet Subtotal$3,386$66,632$2,530$56,359
Military Subtotal$0$0$2,924$35,095
Grand Total$3,386$66,632$5,455$91,454

In this case, trading a week of regional airline work for part-time military service makes a huge difference for this pilot–more than $2,000 per month and nearly $25,000 per year. That extra money could cover mortgage payments, college for a child, or just buy a new boat. This pilot’s total compensation isn’t that much less than what his or her military peers earned by remaining on Active Duty for this year.

Next, let’s consider what things look like if this pilot were able to go directly to Delta. We’ll assume 10% profit sharing, which is 30-50% less than it’s been for the last few years.

Guard/Reserve O-4 + Year 1 Delta B717 FO

Delta B717 FOHourly RateMonthly Pay (75 hrs)Annual Pay (75 Hrs)Monthly Pay (56 Hrs)Annual Pay (56 Hrs)
Flight Pay$92$6,900$82,000$5,152$61,824
Company 401k Contribution16%$1,104$13,248$824$9,892
Profit-Sharing10%$690$8,200$515$6,182
Per Diem$500$6,000$375$4,500
BonusN/A$0$0$0$0
Delta Subtotal$9,194$110,328$6,867$82,398
Military Subtotal$0$0$2,924$35,095
Grand Total$9,194$110,328$9,791$117,494

The difference here isn’t as great, though sacrificing a week a month of Delta pay for military service is still worth about $7,000 over the course of the year. This pilot probably made more than his or her Active Duty military peers this year.

We’re close to the break-even point where giving up a week of airline work for part-time military service pays just as much as if our pilot elected to not continue military service at all. Our next example looks one year into the future.

Case #3 – The Break-Even Point

This point is actually difficult to calculate. At major airlines, there is a significant difference between the first and second-year pay. (Second-year pay was a 43% raise for me!) Assuming second year B717 FO pay, we get the following results:

Guard/Reserve O-4 + Year 2 Delta B717 FO

Delta B717 FO (Year 2)Hourly RateMonthly Pay (75 hrs)Annual Pay (75 Hrs)Monthly Pay (56 Hrs)Annual Pay (56 Hrs)
Flight Pay$126$9,484$113,805$7,081$84,974
Company 401k Contribution16%$1,517$18,209$1,133$13,596
Profit Sharing10%$948$11,318$708$8,497
Per Diem$500$6,000$375$4,500
BonusN/A$0$0$0$0
Delta Subtotal$12,450$149,394$9,297$111,568
Military Subtotal$0$0$2,924$35,095
Grand Total$12,450$149,394$12,222$146,663

This is about as close as we can get to the actual break-even point. By giving up one week a month of airline work for military service, this pilot sacrifices nearly $3,000 during the second year at his or her airline.

Case #4 – Senior Military Pilot and Airline Captain


The final example we’ll use for our comparisons here is a more senior officer close to earning a military retirement. We’ll look at an O-5 (Lt Col or CDR) with 18 years of military service. If we assume this is the same pilot from Case #3, he or she has now been at Delta for 6 years. This pilot has more than enough airline seniority to hold a Captain’s seat in a variety of narrowbody aircraft. We’ll use numbers for Delta’s A220-100, because that’s the airplane I fly and I love it.

Here is our officer’s military pay:

Guard/Reserve Part-Time O-5 (18 Year) Pay Example

Rank: O-4Single Drill PeriodMonthly (10 DPs)Annual
Base Pay$292.35$2,923.50$35,082.00
Flight Pay$33.33$333.33$4,000.00
Gov TSP Match$14.62$146.18$17,54.10
Retention Bonus$0.00$0.00$0.00
Total$340.30$3,403.01$40,836.10

And here is the comparison with Year 6 A220 pay at Delta:

Guard/Reserve O-5 + Year 6 Delta A220 CA

Delta B717 FO (Year 6)Hourly RateMonthly Pay (75 hrs)Annual Pay (75 Hrs)Monthly Pay (56 Hrs)Annual Pay (56 Hrs)
Flight Pay$248$18,600$223,200$13,888$166,656
Company 401k Contribution16%$2,976$35,712$2,222$26,665
Profit-Sharing10%$1,860$22,320$1,389$16,666
Per Diem$500$6,000$375$4,500
BonusN/A$0$0$0$0
Delta Subtotal$23,936$287,232$17,874$214,487
Military Subtotal$0$0$3,403$40,836
Grand Total$23,936$287,232$21,277$255,323

Are you impressed by this difference yet? A week a month for military service costs this pilot nearly $32,000 per year in total compensation! Do you value your military flying enough to give up 12 weeks with your family and all that money to do it? If this pilot flies 250 hours per year in the Guard or Reserve, he or she is essentially paying $128 per hour for that flight time.

Back to Contents

Discussion

From a purely financial point of view, part-time military service has some interesting effects on a pilot’s total annual compensation. For a pilot starting out at a regional airline, or even a pilot on first-year major airline pay, trading one week per month of airline for military flying will help make ends meet. However, by second-year major airline pay, you’re already somewhere around the break-even point where military flying starts to cost you money. The further you go in your airline career, the more military flying costs you and your family.

Of course, this is all situation-dependent. This doesn’t include any time spent deployed on full-time orders. It also doesn’t include doing extra days at a local Guard or Reserve unit when you couldn’t have been flying for your airline anyway. It’s also worth noting that most airline pilots fly above the 75 hours per month that I used in these calculations. However, for the sake of simplicity, I think the cases we showed here represent the range of impacts that part-time military service can have on total compensation.

In theory, you could also bid reserve for your airline, and collect a full 75 hours per month of airline pay while going in to work at your military job almost every day. Unfortunately, this is strictly forbidden at some airlines (like mine). I know pilots who are allowed to work on side hustles like: collegiate lacrosse coach, deputy sheriff, heavy machinery sales, school board president, and much more, while sitting reserve. Why shouldn’t a pilot be able to do some desk work or even go for a local flight serving his or her country while sitting reserve? We hope to get that policy overturned. In the meantime, check your company’s policies carefully and make sure you’re allowed to do military duty while on airline reserve before you try it for real. If your airline does allow this, and your Guard or Reserve unit is local, this could be a great way to make extra money on days that you wouldn’t be doing any airline flying anyway.

While this is a post about pay and benefits, it’s worth noting that money isn’t everything. If your family has someone with ongoing major health problems, maintaining access to military health care may be critical. There’s also something to be said for the fulfillment that can come from being a member of a flying squadron, flying a fun aircraft, and taking part in a meaningful real-world mission. Those major benefits of military service are difficult to quantify, but it’s important to consider them.

Once you reach a point where you’re earning $250,000 per year or more as a major airline Captain, the difference in pay that your military service costs you isn’t all that significant. If you continue earning that much money without foolishly spending it all, you’ll find yourself on the path to creating generational wealth for your descendants. Since you won’t even live long enough to enjoy all that money, why not sacrifice a few dollars here and there to continue giving fun and meaningful service to your country?

Back to Contents

Conclusion

Guard and Reserve pilots earn some very valuable pay and benefits, especially considering the fact that they’re only working part-time. This compensation doesn’t keep pace with major airline pay, but it might still be a valuable trade-off for choosing to continue your military service.

We didn’t address the pension that a Guard or Reserve pilot can earn with at least 20 years of service. I assert that it still doesn’t balance out the money you could make by just doing more airline work, but there’s something to be said for having a government-backed income stream for the rest of your life. This topic is complex enough that we’ll cover it in a separate article another time. Stay tuned!

Back to Content

Leave a Reply