It’s easy to feel trapped as an Active Duty Air Force pilot. With years to go before your Active Duty Service Commitment is up, your family may worry that you’ll never get to leave the ongoing cycle of long workdays broken up by multi-month deployments. For some families, that end can’t come soon enough. Thankfully, the USAF has both an officially-sanctioned shortcut, and a companion that smooths the transition for an on-time separation from Active Duty, codified in their own Air Force Instruction. These programs, called Palace Chase and Palace Front, are perhaps some of the most important policies in the US Air Force. Today we’ll explore what they are and how to employ them to your benefit.
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What are Palace Chase and Palace Front?
There are two ways to make a clean break from Active Duty service in the US Air Force: separation and retirement. An Active Duty retirement is a good deal, and separation makes sense for many non-rated officers who have the option to get out after just 5 years.
However, most of us pilots have given at least 11 years of Active Duty service by the time we’re eligible to consider separating. This is enough of an investment that most of us will at least consider following the Ideal Military Pilot Career Path, if we aren’t already on the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path. Palace Chase and Palace Front are two official Air Force programs for making the transition from Active Duty to the Air National Guard (ANG) or Air Force Reserve.
Of these two programs, Palace Front (PF) is the simplest and most obvious option. It’s just a way of formalizing the process that switches you from Active Duty to the Guard or Reserve on the day of your separation from Active Duty. The process is straightforward enough that it only occupies a little over 3 of the 45 pages of the regulation that governs these programs (AFI 36-3205). Although PF is technically an “approval” process, there are very few reasons why a PF request would not be granted.
Although PF is a good option for a pilot planning to separate at the end of his or her Active Duty Service Commitment (ADSC), Palace Chase (PC) may be a better deal. This program provides a framework for an officer to leave Active Duty early to join the Guard or Reserve even though he or she still owes time on an ADSC.
Getting out early may sound great, but there’s a catch. The Palace Chase program takes your remaining ADSC and triples it for your Guard or Reserve service (e.g. If PC gets you out of Active Duty 6 months early, you now owe the Guard/Reserve 18 months). I remember thinking that this sounded like a lot when I was a young pilot on Active Duty, but if you’re going through the PC process, that means you want to continue to serve in the Guard/Reserve anyway. The extra commitment may be inconsequential.
I’m not afraid to assert that there is almost nothing an Air Force pilot can do on Active Duty that he or she can’t also get in the Guard or Reserve. Based on that, I believe that every single Active Duty USAF pilot should consider applying for Palace Chase. Leaving Active Duty early comes with many benefits:
- The most important thing that PC does is give you the ability to get hired with a major airline months or even years sooner than you otherwise could. This will affect your family’s Quality of Life for years to come. I cannot emphasize enough the fact that Seniority is Everything!
- Unlike an officer who simply separates and walks away, continuing to serve part-time in the Guard or Reserve (full-time orders are readily available as well) allows you to continue earning military retirement and the associated pension and health care benefits. If you’ve already invested 11 years and if you can enjoy part-time military service, you might as well reap some financial reward from it as well.
- Another big benefit of both PC and PF is that these processes include a step that keeps your security clearance active. If you want to be an airline pilot this isn’t a big deal. However, if you want to do any type of job (flying or non-flying) that involves working for the government, your security clearance is priceless. (Consider, for example, this job as an L-159 pilot for adversary air company Draken International. If nothing else, wouldn’t that be a fun side-hustle?)
- Although it may not occur to pilots mired in the everyday grind of Active Duty service, PC and PF are also important because they prevent you from having a “break in service” during the transition from AD to Guard/Reserve status. Having a break in service will cause problems with your pay, retirement, promotion, and even retention in the Guard or Reserve. You don’t need to add all that stress in your life as you work to make an already stressful transition.
The ability to make your transition from Active Duty seamless is a huge advantage. If you’re going to continue serving after you get out, there’s no reason not to apply. At the very least, Palace Front should be an easy answer. However, before we get carried away, let’s cover some of the things you need to watch out for during this process.
The Air Force couldn’t make Palace Chase and Palace Front the good deals they are without adding some caveats that could ruin your day. Although you should read the full Air Force Instruction before applying to the program, here are some of the major restrictions that you have to meet before you apply:
- You must have completed at least ⅔ of your current ADSC. For a 10-year UPT commitment, this means the earliest you could consider applying would be around the 7th year after earning your wings.
- As we mentioned, your commitment to the Guard or Reserve will be triple any portion of your ADSC that gets waived by this program.
- You must be medically worldwide qualified. (This rule makes an exception for pregnant women.) This is a very important point that could cause you a lot of headaches. If you have a medical issue, you should always talk with your doctor about it ASAP. However, if you’re dealing with something that can wait until after you’ve left Active Duty service, you might talk to your Flight Surgeon about waiting to document certain things until after you’ve made your transition. (All the more reason to use Guard or Reserve service to preserve your access to Tricare!)
- You must also be satisfactory on your physical fitness test. This doesn’t seem like it should be such a big deal, but it gets a ridiculous amount of emphasis with the USAF these days. If you think you might want to PC in the near future, make sure you’re working out and passing your annual PT test!
- If you’re overseas and you want your PC/PF date to be the same as your DEROS (Date Estimated to Return from Overseas) then you must submit your application at least 6 months out. Don’t mess around with this one! The PC process tends to get drawn out and the last thing you want to do when pursuing PC is incur a fresh 2- or 3-year ADSC due to accepting a new assignment when you return from overseas.
- You cannot PC if you are in any type of “official” trouble. (The AFI lists a variety of ways you can be in trouble, but if you have a current Unfavorable Information File, or UIF, you’re probably ineligible.) Like the Dos Gringos say, “don’t shake your baby while you drink and drive!”
- This program gets your Active Duty Service Commitment exchanged for a commitment to the Guard or Reserve on the assumption that you will actually find a Guard or Reserve job to do. It’s okay to spend some time in the Participating Irregular Ready Reserve, but unless you find a permanent PIRR job you’ll need to figure out something else. (PIRR is a status where you do unpaid service for points toward retirement. The most common version of this is being an Admission Liaison Officer for the USAF Academy.) The Palace Chase AFI has a whole section on how the USAF will force you back on to Active Duty service if you fail to find a Guard or Reserve job. Luckily, BogiDope exists for the sole purpose of helping you find and land that dream job.
- If your PC application is denied, you have to wait 120 days to reapply, unless your rejection was caused by paperwork/administrative errors. This can complicate the timing of your departure from Active Duty.
- It’s possible to get Palace Chase if you’re still serving out an obligation related to a bonus, scholarship, tuition assistance, or similar program. However, you’ll have to pay back any unearned portion of that money.
Also, the Guard and Reserve sometimes have signing or pilot retention bonuses. When you use Palace Chase and transfer ADSC to the Guard or Reserve, it will probably make you ineligible for any bonuses. Be sure to talk to both a Reserve Recruiter and the pilots at your gaining unit to help sort that out. It’s possible that you’ll be able to sign a pilot retention bonus after you’ve served out your remaining time.
If you are dead-set on getting that bonus, you should plan to serve out your ADSC and just use Palace Front to transfer to the Guard or Reserve, instead of using Palace Chase to leave Active Duty early.
I assert that this last point should not be a major consideration if you intend on ending up at a major airline. We’ve looked at major airline pay, and it’s fantastic. If you honestly run the math, I suspect you’ll find that even a $25K-$35K per year pilot bonus in the Guard or Reserve is chump change compared to the end of career airline pilot pay you’d be giving up by delaying your departure from Active Duty.
As long as you can account for these restrictions, the next step in the process is strategizing how and when to submit your application. Sadly, this warrants careful consideration.
Submitting an application for Palace Chase or Palace Front sends a very clear signal to your chain of command. It says: “I’m leaving.” We frequently refer to this as “showing your cards.”
In an ideal world filled with rational people, this wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, the Air Force and its people don’t always fit those descriptions. It’s likely that once you show your cards, you will be removed from any upgrade training you may have been slated for on your aircraft. I’ve even heard of cases where pilots were grounded for the remainder of their Active Duty career.
The worst type of grounding comes in the form of a non-flying 179- or even 365-day deployment to BFE. While the Palace Chase regulation adds some paperwork requirements if this happens, it doesn’t do anything to prevent it. If your commander has to send someone and the choice comes down to a pilot who owes the Air Force a few more years and someone who has just shown his or her cards, the PC applicant is going to lose every time.
Unfortunately, this mentality plays into your performance reports and promotion recommendations too. When considering who to push forward with a “Definitely Promote” or rank as the #1/250 pilots in the Wing, the PC applicant probably isn’t going to win. Don’t be too angry…your chain of command isn’t necessarily discriminating on you because they don’t like you. They’ll just see it as more useful to themselves overall if they favor those people who will definitely be working for them for longer.
It’s also important to consider the timing of your application. Although the regulation allows for a pilot to apply with more than three years remaining on his or her UPT ADSC, it’s extremely rare for AFPC to approve requests that far out. Air Force policy on this aspect of timing actually varies a lot. I’ve heard stories of pilots getting Palace Chase with more than a year of commitment remaining, and I’ve heard stories of it being denied with just a few months left. When deciding how far in advance of your ADSC to apply, it’s important to ask around to get a feel for what’s being approved. It’s probably safe to make a call directly to the Palace Chase POC at AFPC; however, I’d consider asking around somewhere like The Pilot Network first.
It’s also important to note that Palace Chase is never a last-minute deal. The AFI says that a Palace Chase application should get an answer within 7-8 weeks of arriving at HQ AFPC. Unfortunately, that timeline isn’t always realistic, and it doesn’t account for your application getting through the links in your chain of command short of AFPC. This means a request to Palace Chase with 6 months of ADSC remaining needs to be submitted at least 9 months before that ADSC expires.
Another timing consideration is job availability. The Palace Chase instruction implies that you submit your PC application before you apply for a Guard or Reserve job. It specifically allows your future unit to hold a job for you for 45 days, but let’s be realistic. Anyone who thinks that a PC application could get completely processed within 45 days is living in a dream world. Practically, this means you need to start cultivating job opportunities before you even show your cards and submit your application.
You should start shopping around for Guard and Reserve jobs at least 6-12 months before the date on which you’d consider submitting your PC application. Ideally, you’ll have friends at one or two units where you might want to end up who can tell you if and when spots might be opening up. You can and should peruse BogiDope’s Job Postings on a regular basis. Also, be sure to the MilRecruiter map that displays both Guard/Reserve units and airline domiciles. It’s a fantastic resource and you should do everything in your power to avoid commuting for your job.
It might not hurt to rush a Guard or Reserve unit you’re interested in to get a feel for your compatibility before you even submit your PC application. If you have contacts at and/or a good relationship with a particular unit, they may be able to commit to hiring you pending PC approval.
Another important consideration here is that one of the biggest obstacles to joining the Guard or Reserve is “getting on the scroll.” Essentially this nightmare resulting from outdated bureaucratic policies is nothing more than getting your name added to the list of people (formerly written on a scroll of papyrus?) of people eligible to serve in the Guard or Reserve. Getting on the scroll can easily take 6-9 months all by itself. You shouldn’t submit your PC application too early because of this; however, it’s just another reason to ask for as much time as you think AFPC will approve.
One final consideration on timing is the 120-day block on re-applying if your application is denied. Let’s say at the very least you’d like to leave Active Duty six months early. In order to give that application time to process, you need to apply at least nine months before the day you want to leave Active Duty. If you were to submit an application a year out, and that application was denied, the 120-day block would prevent you from re-applying with enough time to get a six-month exception approved.
In order to give yourself time for a second application in time for a six-month exception, you’d need to submit your first application at least 15 months out!
6 months ADSC forgiveness + 3 months processing 2nd application + 120-day block + 3 months processing 1st application = 15 months.
If I were planning to Palace Chase no matter what, I’d consider submitting my first request to get out with a full year remaining on my ADSC. I’d then make my second request to get out with six months of ADSC remaining if the first application got denied.
Fifteen months is very early to show your cards, which means that it’s important to consider how you even bring up the topic of Palace Chase or Palace Front with your commander.
First and foremost, your commander will be more likely to support your decision if he or she regards you as a valuable asset. This is counter-intuitive on some levels. If a commander values me, wouldn’t he or she want to keep me around? The answer is “Yes,” but a decent leader will want to do what’s best for you on an individual level, as long as he or she values you. This means you need to work hard and actually produce good results. You need to earn as many qualifications and certifications in your aircraft as you can. You need to employ those skills for the squadron’s benefit in everyday training and on deployment as often as possible. You need to be good in your aircraft, but you also need to be effective in your office job(s).
Part of the key here is that even the worst Air Force commanders are realistic. They know very well that the Air Force is terrible at retaining pilots right now. Although your commander would rather keep you on Active Duty, he or she realizes that the country is better off overall if you at least continue serving in the Guard or Reserve in some capacity. The better pilot and officer you are on Active Duty, the more value your commander will see in you continuing to serve in the Guard or Reserve.
In light of this, your conversations about Palace Chase with your commander need to focus on the benefits of that continued service. These conversations are not a time to complain or vent frustrations. Your language in these discussions should feature themes like:
- “I’m not finished with my Air Force service.”
- “This will allow me to continue serving while doing what’s right with my family.”
- “I’m really excited about the mission at (insert future unit here).”
Don’t quote these phrases directly because you’ll sound like a tool. However, everything you say needs to be positively focused on the service you’ll be giving, rather than bemoaning the negative aspects of life on Active Duty.
Approaching conversations with your commander in this way will have two important effects. First, it will prompt him or her to support your PC application. This could result in it being expedited through your Wing’s chain of command, which is very important in the timing discussed above. Your squadron commander also has considerable influence with your Group and Wing commander, and potentially even with buddies at AFPC who have the power to approve or deny your application. If you can get your squadron commander excited about the service you’ll be giving in the Guard or Reserve, your application has a much better chance of being approved.
The other side of this is that your Quality of Life will be much better during your remaining active duty service if your squadron commander is on board with your plan. I wasn’t being hyperbolic when I suggested that a commander might cancel upgrades, ground you, and/or reduce your ratings on performance reports and promotion recommendations after seeing your Palace Chase or Palace Front application. However, this doesn’t have to be the case.
If your commander truly values you, values your past service, and believes that you’ll continue providing very valuable service to our country in the Guard or Reserve, he or she will continue to reward you with the opportunities and ratings you seek. The end of my Active Duty service looked like this:
I decided to separate while I was deployed in Afghanistan flying the E-11A BACN. I returned to my job as a T-6 UPT IP at Laughlin AFB, TX, with just a couple months before my separation date. If I’d been a mediocre officer, or I’d had a mediocre commander, they would have shunted me to a desk job and never let me fly the T-6 again. Thankfully, I had a great relationship with my leadership. I’d done very well for them and they valued my abilities as an Instructor and Evaluator Pilot. My commander chose to send me through an in-house requalification course and let me spend my last month on Active Duty teaching students. My last instructional flight as a T-6 IP was a pre-solo ride, after which I sent my student on his first solo sortie in the Air Force.
None of this happened in a vacuum. Not only had I served diligently before I decided to separate, but I also communicated with my commander about my desires for future assignments. He knew that I wanted to be assigned to the same base as my wife (also a USAF officer) and that we were at a point in our lives where it didn’t make sense for our family to spend more time apart. I’d worked with him to find opportunities to make that work with the honest intent of accepting another assignment if it met those criteria. He wasn’t entirely surprised when I sent him my separation paperwork because he knew that the assignment I’d been offered couldn’t meet my family’s needs.
The moral of this story is that you should communicate with your boss about what you want and need. This isn’t an entitled “gimmie!” mentality, and it isn’t whining about how you’ve been screwed in the past. However, you should have open and honest discussions about the types of opportunities you’re seeking to maximize both your family’s Quality of Life and your military service. If Palace Chase or Palace Front are part of the options you’re considering, then your commander should know ahead of time. As long as your service deserves his or her respect, showing your cards shouldn’t be an issue.
Palace Chase and Palace Front aren’t cosmic. They’re just established processes for moving from Active Duty to the Guard or Reserve. In my opinion, every Air Force pilot should consider using one of these programs to transition to part-time military service as soon as it makes sense.
If you’re considering PC or PF, you need to make sure that you qualify. Read the chart of restrictions in AFI 36-3205 to make sure you’re good to go.
Put some thought into your timing when deciding when to submit your application. I recommend requesting to leave as soon as it makes sense to maximize the benefits of leaving Active Duty, but you shouldn’t submit so early that showing your cards will cause you problems. You’ll want to make sure you’ve established a history of diligent, effective service, and good communication with your commander. Make sure that your discussions with him or her focus on the positive aspects of your future Guard or Reserve service.
If you’re at all in doubt about your ability to get this done, let us know! BogiDope specializes in helping pilots transition from Active Duty to the Guard or Reserve. We’d love to practice communication with your current commander as part of our transition and interview consulting services. We’re confident that with the right attitude and good communication, you can make the jump to the job (or jobs) of your dreams by moving from Active Duty to the Guard or Reserve.
The feature image of C-17s by TSgt Gregory Brook is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5813578/317th-air-lift-squadron-flight
The L-159 photo is a Czech Air Force aircraft flying during Operation Adriatic Strike in 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Visual Information Specialist Massimo Bovo) https://www.dvidshub.net/image/3551910/adriatic-strike-17
The PT test photo by A1C Charles Welty is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5673682/ots-godzilla-class-pt-test. (Sorry for the trauma for those who are PT test averse.)
The Thunderbirds’ knife-edge pass shot was taken by Mauricio Campino. https://www.dvidshub.net/image/3708708/170825-f-da916-1059
Col Mott’s AC-130J hero shot was taken by SSgt Jeff Parkinson and can be found here: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/3420198/1st-sog-commander-hero-shot
I took the photo of my last T-6 student, of course. You’re welcome to download it if you like pictures of dirty airplanes.