Getting creative with the GI Bill — How I get paid thousands per month to learn how to fly planes
Sort of out of nowhere, I decided this summer that I wanted to become a pilot, and began compulsively researching what it would take to start training the next day. Similar urges have occurred many times throughout my life, and has led to me riding motorcycles and owning a parrot, among other things. My research began under only one condition, that I didn’t want to spend a dime out-of-pocket on any of this.
I want to share how I used my Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits to not only take flight lessons for free, but to get paid doing it, all while keeping my full-time job. This is the first few months of my journey to become an expert pilot, going from low-key aviation geek to pilot in command.
It’s my hope that you find this article on your own path to cruising altitude, and dispel some rumors and myths you may have heard along the way.
When I joined the Marines in 2006, I didn’t really consider college as an option. This was great news for my recruiter, who told me I wasn’t alone, and that a military career could open many doors that may have been shut. I can’t remember all the promises this man made to me, but I do remember being told I could use education benefits to pay for flight school, which is an easy way to sell it to someone who clearly doesn’t care about school. The GI Bill is something that comes up often during and after your military career, something like, “You’d be stupid not to use these benefits. You earned it!”
It took me 5 years after my EAS (end of active service) to look into using my education benefits. As someone who broke into the tech industry with self-taught software engineering skills, I’ve often been the one trying to convince my friends to avoid going back to school, as blasphemous and privileged as that sounds. For years, I believed higher education was the enemy, a “cruel joke on the poor,” to quote Peter Gregory, leaving its victims with years of debt and false hope for prosperity, all while there are many career paths to take which don’t require it as a baseline for entrance. But after only a few days of research, I realized I needed to make my enemy my friend. So far, this was a rare scenario in my life where almost nobody was standing in my way—except me, I realized.
After all, the law says I can’t pass this benefit on to my children. So unless I had a change of heart, this amazing benefit would have otherwise died with me. The most marvelous punchline of the “cruel joke” would be that some of us can afford it solely on the taxpayers’ dime, but choose not to.
It turns out my recruiter didn’t lie necessarily about the GI Bill paying for flight training. I don’t blame him for missing one critical detail, that the U.S. government doesn’t want to pay for your piloting hobby, but rather your next career in aviation. In practice, this means under both the Montgomery and Post 9/11 GI Bill, you can’t use your benefits to pay for a Private Pilot-Airplane certificate from a vocational flight school. Having a Private Pilot certificate, which can cost anywhere from $9-25k, depending on how luxurious the school, is a prerequisite to using the GI Bill to pay for follow-on flight training. For many of us, this is an insurmountable hurdle and deal breaker. This could change, more on that later.
For the uninitiated, it’s important to note some basic rules of the sky. When you go to a flight school, your goal is to obtain any number of pilot certificates and ratings, which allow you certain privileges such as carrying passengers, flying in inclement weather, or making money as a pilot. The first certificate most people get is the coveted Private Pilot certificate.
- Private Pilot
Or more specifically, Private Pilot-Airplane, Single-Engine Land, allows you to fly as pilot-in-command of a single-engine airplane with passengers under VFR (visual flight rules) conditions, which essentially means you must steer clear of clouds and use the ground and horizon as reference for navigation and attitude at all times. Going the helicopter route, the equivalent certificate is the Private Pilot-Rotorcraft (helicopter and gyroplane).
- Instrument Rating
Commonly the first rating pilots earn after Private Pilot, this rating allows you to fly under IFR (instrument flight rules) conditions, which means flying solely by reference to cockpit instruments with no visibility outside, a whole other way of flying! The captain of your last commercial flight is an expert at this, and can land an enormous plane with less than 500-ft. visibility.
- Commercial Pilot — Allows you to be compensated to fly others around. Requires many hours of training and higher level of airmanship.
- Other endorsements and ratings: Multi-engine rating, seaplane rating, high-altitude endorsement, complex aircraft endorsement, ratings specific to aircraft, such as for a Boeing 737 Max
- Other certificates: Flight Instructor (CFI), Ground Instructor, Airline Transport Pilot (required by commercial airlines)
Though the Private Pilot certificate is highly coveted, it’s often thought of by professional pilots as one of the easiest hurdles of your piloting career. You could stop at Private Pilot and have an enviable life as a weekend warrior, you’re Harrison Ford flying to Denali on holiday, completing daring search-and-rescue operations, or flying your friends to Jamaica for fun! But this is exactly what the current law is meant to exclude, which makes a little sense. We want our veterans to have a great shot at a new career as a pilot, not help fund their next dream vacation.
This was a tough pill to swallow, as it meant I would have to pay out of pocket for a Private Pilot certificate, which even with all my determination, I could not justify funding. Not ready to give up, I kept searching and found a way around this critical barrier to entry.
As an aside, there is legislation recently approved by congress that would essentially allow veterans to use their GI Bill to pay for a Private Pilot certificate with some limitations. Many thanks to the office of Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) for keeping me up to date with these changes.
Despite the clearly written laws regarding the use of GI Bill benefits for flight training, there exists a way to pay for your Private Pilot certificate, as long as you are a full-time student enrolled an accredited degree program where the flight training is a requirement for graduation. This is an important distinction. Until this discovery, I thought the only way to learn how to fly was through a vocational flight school, wrong! There exists several aviation-focused universities both private and public that train pilots from Private Pilot all the way up to restricted ATP (Airline Transport Pilot, the crème de la crème). The best part? Unlike most of your fellow students whose parents are shelling out tens of thousands in tuition, you get the full monty of GI Bill benefits, including a monthly housing allowance—you get paid to fly!
Note: A Private Pilot certificate from a Part 141 school is the same certificate you get from a Part 61 school. There are no shortcuts taken! I’m in no way knocking Part 61 schools.
As luck would have it, one of these Part 141 universities is located just an hour outside Chicago in Romeoville, Ill. That the GI Bill could be used to pay for my initial flight training was a myth until it wasn’t. Lewis University is a Yellow Ribbon-participating school that really gives a shit about its veterans and wants them to fly. Elated at this discovery just a week after beginning my research, I knew I had nothing standing between me and my aviation dreams (well, sort of).
“I’ll tell you, I’ll do anything to get you in here. It could be the day before classes start and I will make sure you get in. When can you come by?”
That’s what I was told by Scott Inskeep, the Director of Veterans Affairs and Recruitment at Lewis, during my first phone call. Within days, both the Office of Veterans Affairs and Aviation Department at Lewis worked together to help me register for classes, claim benefits and more importantly register for a flight block, a designated time with a CFI (certified flight instructor) at the school’s on-campus airport up to three hours per week, a hot commodity among students in the aviation program.
If you ever start taking classes, I hope you experience as little friction as I did by going to Lewis. I could not have asked for or expected a more efficient system for admission. These are people who understand and welcome both veterans and adult learners. You’re treated as a first-class citizen the entire time. I know this is not the case for many schools my friends have attended, so I recognize my privilege.
Faster than you can say ATOMATOFLAMES, I was enrolled for the 2019 Fall Semester at Lewis, officially pursuing a B.S. in Aviation Administration under the legendary Bill Brogan. Lewis offers a B.S. in Aviation Flight Management, which can take you from Private Pilot to Certified Flight Instructor-Multi-Engine Land (CFI-MEL), about $80,000 worth of training in certificates alone virtually free for GI Bill students. Unfortunately, this particular program requires a minimum GPA for transfer students that I (ah-hem) didn’t seem to have. Having finished my first semester, I’m now eligible to declare this major. Though, I’m told it’s a miracle I showed up in August and obtained a flight block as a transfer student with a below-average GPA. Like I’ve said, Lewis really loves its veterans.
There were a few items I needed to take care of before I started, but it’s the same with any flight school.
Class I or II medical certificate
A medical certificate is required to exercise any pilot privileges, but in order to use GI Bill benefits, students must obtain at least a Class II medical certificate. A medical certificate used to double as your Student Pilot certificate, but that’s no longer the case. I opted for a First Class medical because I’m lucky to be healthy and had $120. First, you’ll need to sign up for an account and complete an application on the FAA MedXPress website. Be sure to take note of your confirmation number. Your AME (aviation medical examiner) will need it during your exam. You can use the FAA Aviation Medical Examiner locater to find an examiner near you.
I can only speak about the exam for a First Class certificate. I was asked a series of questions about my medical history, including if I had ever been diagnosed with PTSD, depression or ADHD. This led to an interesting conversation about how veterans as especially at risk for being medically disqualified from a career in aviation due to PTSD or by having a high disability rating (a First Class certificate is required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate), which sounds very discriminatory, especially in a pilot crisis, and is another problem worth solving.
I’m not here to tell you what you can or can’t do, but this is one example of how veterans gaming the system could lead to consequences down the road. I personally know at least one fellow veteran who fought the VA (Department of Veteran Affairs) for a year for his 60% disability rating due to a respiratory illness and a shoulder injury, even though I’ve seen this man do 10 pull-ups and go on a 3-mile run within the same year. He and his family will receive healthcare benefits and more than $1,000 per month in compensation for life, which is a major victory for someone who really needs it. On paper, it may also be hard for this person to convince an AME that it’s no issue.
After the conversation, I had each of my tattoos noted, and was asked to perform a few basic physical tests, such as a vision test, a test for color-blindness, test for a lazy eye and show that I could maintain my balance. This took about 20 minutes, no duck walks, no sweat! You walk out of the office with your signed medical certificate.
Student Pilot certificate
You’re starting to get the naming convention down. Before you’re a Private Pilot, you’re a Student Pilot. The final step requires a CFI, but you can and should get the process started by signing up at the FAA’s IACRA website. The process involves a not-so intense Department of Homeland Security vetting process administered by the TSA. Legally, you need both your Student Pilot certificate and medical certificate on your person in order to fly. Expect an e-mail notification from the IACRA website that you can print your provisional Student Pilot certificate while you wait for the plastic one to arrive in the mail.
Pilot headset, logbook and aeronautical charts
Any flight school will require you to purchase these items, but the good news is these purchases are reimbursed through the GI Bill annual book stipend. Couple these items with a current copy of the FAR/AIM, and you’re looking at about $400 of supplies.
Of course, I ended up spending more than this amount in textbooks as a full-time university student, but I feel my compensation was more than fair. I’m sure if I did the math, I would be in violation of my not-a-damn-dime policy, but at this point (at the checkout form on Chegg.com), I felt I was in too deep to start drawing lines in the sand.
Not quitting my job
One of my last tasks before takeoff was to let leadership at my job know my intentions. This is one step where your own mileage may vary greatly, one that could result in a deal breaker in most cases, an unfortunate truth. Even at this company, I believe asking to completely re-arrange my regular 9-5 M-F schedule to allow myself the time to be a full-time student, which involves being out-of-office two mornings during the week, is a huge ask, an unreal level of accommodation for a not-so senior member.
But leadership at this company are nothing short of fanatics, known to be fiercely accommodating not just to their veterans, but to all their employees. It’s a win-win. They’re out to change the meaning of flexibility in workplaces forever. I’m proud to be on the front lines with them, because without support from The Mom Project, none of this would be possible. How long I can keep this going is hard to say without being able to predict the future, but one semester is already done. And for me, it’s enough to change my life, and is a fantastic story to tell.
Attending a Part 141 University
While I can’t offer you a breakdown of the day-to-day differences between a Part 141 pilot school vs the university experience, my guess is it’s exactly the same subject matter where the university:
- Is not on your schedule
- Spreads out flight training over a much longer time period
- Digs way deeper into the subject matter
One of the differentiating factors I’ve learned from my military career was the line between training and education. Anyone can be trained to perform a tracheostomy, assemble a rocket, or land a plane. Once you know, you get better from intuition and experience. Great training can be rehearsed to near perfection. An education may involve training and provide a glimpse at the bigger picture. It could provide more variables for analysis in a given scenario. It proves you are not only trained, but can be further trained.
In my first semester at Lewis, I attended a course on Safety Management Systems, a hot topic not only in aviation, but in transportation. It opened my eyes to another industry and introduced me to a world of new-to-me problems worth solving. We followed a tumultuous year for Boeing as they address issues regarding the dangerously problematic 737 Max aircraft. We dissected the breakdowns in communication that led to the famous Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing, MH370. Next, I’ll be taking multiple classes in meteorology, aircraft accident investigation and aerodynamics. You don’t get these classes outside a university. While I’m not excited about the timeline, as an information tourist, I’m extremely excited about the subject matter.
From discovery flight to first solo
I was shocked at first to find out how regimented flight training can be. Each lesson down to the hour is approved by the FAA, the same periods of instruction whether in Chicago or Honolulu, which can be reassuring, but also scary. How are new safety issues incorporated? How are new technologies evaluated under such a large regulatory body?
The truth is, when it comes to straight-and-level flight, many things will remain constant as long as the laws of physics stay the same, or until a new form of propulsion comes along. After more than 116 years of aviation, we’ve figured it out, and can teach a monkey to fly! My first few months as a student pilot involved focusing on the fundamentals.
Whether it’s because they truly believe in it or because the class size is increasing exponentially, Lewis employs an instructional method called dual flight instruction, which means you fly with a partner and your CFI. This allows you to double your time in the air, only half of which goes toward your logbook. There are clear benefits.
You get to watch closely as your buddy makes the same mistakes either before or after you do in a tiny four-seater Cessna 172-R. Given the limited time you have to fly, every moment is critical, even ones when you’re simply observing. Your instructor has twice the amount of time to explain and demonstrate a maneuver or repeat a choreographed emergency response procedure, such as an engine failure.
On sunny days, we took to the skies. In rain and snow, we did ground, a required component of any pilot certification that focuses on aeronautical topics such as navigation, air spaces, regulations, airports, ATC communication and flight planning, just to name a few.
If you are on track, you can perform your first solo within a few months. After my first logbook entry Aug 27, I performed my first solo flight on Halloween. It was as many said it would be, one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. As corny as it sounds, I felt like a little bird, as if I was always meant to fly.
Somehow, after weeks of bouncing down the runway at Morris Municipal (C09) or Bult Field (C56), I performed a near perfect landing, greased it in, as they say. Everything that was complicated about flying went away for the first time when as pilot in command, I was ultimately responsible for the outcome of the flight. Granted, I did a single lap in what’s called “the pattern,” a rectangular course of flight around the airport which helps organize departing and arriving traffic. But as I taxied back to the ramp, I pulled back to the runway, took off and did it all over again, because I find victory laps extremely satisfying.