The common misconception that today’s military service members are poorly compensated couldn’t be farther from the truth. The actual pay is quite adequate to raise a family on; add the benefits and the fact that certain portions of your pay have tax advantages, and you end up having a fairly substantial financial compensation package, as outlined in the following sections.

Military pay

Military pay is a complex array of both taxable and non-taxable income sources. The figures here are pay charts for the year 2013; you can expect an average increase in pay, authorized by Congress, of between 2.5 and 3 percent each year. Here are some of the income sources you encounter as an aviation officer:

  • Base pay: Base pay is essentially your flat salary; your rank and years of service determine the rate. In most cases, base pay is taxable, although pay earned in combat gets a special break.

  • Basic allowance for subsistence (BAS): BAS is a predetermined stipend for groceries. The breakdown is based on rank and marital status. BAS is tax-exempt.

  • Basic allowance for housing (BAH): BAH is a predetermined amount to provide off-base housing for service members and their families; this nontaxable rate is also determined using rank and marital status. If you decide to live on post or on base at your duty location, you forfeit your BAH.

  • Specialty pay: Depending on the conditions you serve in, you may be eligible for additional, tax-exempt monetary compensation, or specialty pay. The most common type of specialty pay is imminent danger, hazardous duty, or hostile fire pay.

  • Incentive pay: Military career fields that are highly competitive and have a high turnover rate offer extra financial compensation to keep qualified candidates in their positions. Examples of this incentive pay include special pay for medical/dental officers and aviation career incentive pay (flight pay). This pay is taxable unless earned in a combat zone.

    2013 pay scale along with BAS, BAH, and aviation career incentive pay for years of service 2 or les
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    2013 pay scale along with BAS, BAH, and aviation career incentive pay for years of service 2 or less up to over 18.
2013 pay scale along with BAS, BAH, and aviation career incentive pay for years of service over 20
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2013 pay scale along with BAS, BAH, and aviation career incentive pay for years of service over 20 to over 40.

When you’re serving overseas in a combat zone, your taxable pay receives an additional tax break: All your income is tax-exempt up to the level that the highest enlisted members receive (that would be an E-9 pay rate). This exemption means that roughly the first $92,866 of your normally taxable pay is tax-exempt.

In addition to a large portion of your income being tax-exempt, you have some other important tax incentives to consider while looking at military aviation as a career. For example, many states don’t tax your military income, and you can maintain your tax residency in one of those states relatively easily, regardless of where you’re stationed.

Educational benefits

All branches of the armed forces value and encourage education. Starting at the junior enlisted ranks and continuing to top-level military management, they urge and expect you to continue your education to progress in rank. The military backs up this expectation with tremendous education benefits that range from 75-percent to 100-percent tuition reimbursement for completing an advanced degree.

As a career military aviator, you have the opportunity to achieve advanced degrees; in some cases, you can reasonably expect an assignment of two years to pursue an advanced degree full time if you so choose (that is, going to school will be your assigned duty). Many officers elect this competitive option, while others pursue their educations online while deployed.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill is a valuable asset to both you and your family. This bill can provide you financial support as you pursue educational opportunities, and it also has the key feature of allowing you to transfer your educational benefits to your dependents in some cases. This bill has a sliding scale based on deployment experience, but it’s a great tool for families looking to pay for education.

Medical and housing benefits

Medical and on-base housing options are important considerations for many service members, especially those with families. As a uniformed service member on active duty, you receive all medical care free of charge at military medical treatment centers throughout the world. Your family can be enrolled in the TRICARE provider network and receive a very good insurance plan regardless of where you’re stationed.

Housing on military bases typically includes very nice three- to four-bedroom homes in well-maintained areas with exceptional schools. Single officers are usually placed in an apartment-type dwelling that’s convenient to different duty locations and recreation facilities.

Retirement benefits

Young aviators have a hard time thinking of retirement, especially when all they can think of is flying. Trust us, the retirement years come faster than you’d expect, but by following the path of military aviation (whether as a full-time or reserve aviator), you can develop a very nice retirement at a relatively young age.

Active duty retirement

If you decide to remain in the military after your initial obligation (approximately six years following flight school), you can receive a generous retirement. After 20 years of active federal service, you’ll be entitled to 50 percent of your base pay for the rest of your life if you retire then. Each year that you stay beyond 20 years gets you an approximately 3-percent increase in the base pay percentage (so if you retire after 21 years, you’ll get 53 percent of your base pay, and so on).

Keep in mind that this retirement is a percentage of your base pay only; it doesn’t include any of the entitlements (such as BAS — a lot of people are surprised by this fact).

Reserve duty retirement

After completing their service obligations following flight school, many aviators leave the military to pursue career opportunities in the civilian sector. The various state National Guard, Naval, Air Force, and Army Reserve corps have aviation units where you can continue to fly and serve. The advantage of this path, besides the ability to fly high-performance aircraft, is the possibility of excellent retirement benefits.

Basically, reserve duty retirement is based on a points system where you receive one point for each duty day. (A four-hour flying period or additional flight training period counts as one day, and one weekend counts as four days.) You need to earn 50 points a year to qualify for a “good” year (but you get 15 points per year for being a member).

After you reach the qualifying level of 20 “good” years, you’ll be eligible for retirement based on your total number of points and retirement rank. Typically, you don’t begin to receive a retirement paycheck in reserve retirement until age 60, but a 2009 law reduces the retirement age by 90 days for every 90 days served in a combat theater.

Enjoyment of the military life

Another benefit to consider — one that is less tangible but no less important — is the military life. When the Navy’s ads say “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,” they aren’t joking. If you decide to make military aviation your career, you are pretty much guaranteed to enjoy a career that lets you do things your civilian friends can only dream of.

Not only can you enjoy the pride that comes from putting your life on the line for your country, but you can also fly some of the most-advanced aircraft in the world. And you can develop a deep and lasting camaraderie with your fellow service members that is unequalled in any other profession. These bonds will last you a lifetime.

You really do have the chance to see the world, and your family will enjoy the benefits of living the military lifestyle along with you. Although the military life can be a hard one — combat is no picnic, and constant rotations can wear on you — the pluses far outweigh the minuses.