Other Voices: Release VA Funding for Primary Flight Training

 - March 8, 2017, 12:14 AM

U.S. military veterans have a desire to learn to fly, and the money they would spend doing so could be directly responsible for injecting $462 million into the U.S. general aviation training market. This much needed revenue boost depends on changing the policy that prevents veterans from using VA education benefits to earn their private pilot certificate at any flight training school rather than just at aviation colleges or universities. This obstacle must be removed to increase the flow of revenue to every state, FAA-approved flight school and airport and be the catalyst that will reinvigorate U.S. general aviation and support the Trump administration’s plan to invest in aviation infrastructure.

My fight to remove this obstacle is personal and professional. As a 20-year USAF veteran, I have always been drawn to aviation. I spent my first eight years in the military as an F-15 Eagle avionics technician and the last 12 years calling in airstrikes in support of U.S. Army operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. After years of juggling work, deployments, family and college, I finally earned my bachelor’s degree and decided it was time to follow my dream and learn to fly, but what I found standing in my way was shocking and disheartening.

An Obvious Pipeline

I had tens of thousands of dollars in Montgomery GI Bill benefits but I couldn't use a single penny to pay for initial flight training outside an aviation degree earning school. Driven by the premise that I am not the only veteran who wanted to learn to fly, I polled my fellow airmen and recorded some surprising results. Thirty-four percent said they were interested in learning to fly, 33 percent said they would use their veteran education benefits to pay for flight training, and 34 percent said they would apply their private pilot certification toward an aviation degree. If the percentages remained the same throughout the entire 1.4 million active-duty population, this suggests there's a tremendous number of service members who are interested in learning to fly.

If only 10 percent of veterans who are interested in learning to fly actually earn a private pilot certificate, the private pilot community will grow by 46,200. Assuming the cost of initial flight training is $10,000, $462 million would flow into the general aviation flight training market by doing nothing more than allowing veterans to use an education benefit from a program they paid into and earned through military service. Practical flight experience would have helped me out immensely as I transitioned from the service to civilian life.

My lack of practical flight experience cost me good job after good job. Twenty years in the USAF, a bachelor's degree, two associate's degrees, Army and USAF Commendation medals and two Bronze Star medals for actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I couldn’t secure a part-time job parking cars.

Even though my entire background is aviation, without flight experience I'm not competitive in the job market. Removing this VA funding obstacle will make tens of thousands of retiring and separating veterans, like me, competitive in the commercial job market as they leave the military. And with the FAA’s recent regulation on commercial drone usage, creating a potential $82 billion market and 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years, practical flight experience will differentiate potential job candidates.

Manned flight experience isn’t currently required to fly small drones, but the drone market is in its infancy. As the commercial drone market evolves from small to medium to large drones— as Amazon, FedEx and UPS envision—it is inevitable that the FAA will make manned flight experience a future requirement to fly drones. This is the future, but right now there is a more pressing problem.

The airlines are experiencing a pilot shortage and the U.S. military is experiencing its own fighter and UAV pilot shortages. Expanding the private pilot pool by tens of thousands of potential new commercial pilots via the highly efficient use of veterans benefits to pay for flight training while stimulating general aviation revenue and reducing veteran unemployment is just plain brilliant. 

The most efficient and effective strategy to solve the commercial and military pilot shortages is to create more private pilots. Private pilot certification is the first step to more advanced pilot training. Veterans want to learn to fly and they have education benefits to pay for flight training. It is my mission to make paying for flight training less restrictive so that flight training is more accessible to veterans, but I need help from others who think it's a great idea to reduce veteran unemployment, expand the private pilot population by 46,200 and inject $462 million into U.S. general aviation.