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VA Benefits & Helicopter Training
By Heidi McBride

Having the opportunity to use our VA benefits to pay for professional helicopter flight training is, for many of us Veterans, an incomprehensible dream come true. Using the Post-9/11 GI Bill can genuinely pay for 100% of your fight training, pay for your books and supplies, and provide a reasonable housing stipend. There are, however, many crucial factors to consider before you blindly pick a flight school and jump in feet first. More than one veteran has chosen too hastily and regretted their choice of school once they became aware of all the options available to them.

Before you embark on this venture of choosing a flight school, research the type of helicopter jobs available in the industry and gain a general understanding of the type of helicopter careers you would likely pursue. Also, understand the steps you will be required to take in order to gain a helicopter pilot career. It is crucial to understand that becoming a commercial helicopter pilot is a mulit-step process. You will not be going directly from flight school into your dream firefighting or EMS job.  The helicopter pilot formation looks something like this:

(1) Go to a flight school for about two years and complete between three and five different helicopter ratings (private, instrument, commercial, CFI, CFII).
(2) Get hired at a flight school as a CFII.
(3) Fly as a flight instructor for about two years and build about 1,200 flight hours.
(4) Apply for your first turbine job—no previous turbine time required—and fly turbines for about a year and half and build another 1,500 to 2,000 flight hours.
(5) Next, fly utility, oil platform transport, logging, power line repair, etc. until you have around 3,500 flight hours.
(6) Now apply for your dream job, and expect that dream job to possibly change while you gain experience in the industry.

Once you have a decent understanding of how to achieve your goals, begin looking for flight schools that can provide the terrain, flight time, and training that would best equip you for attaining those goals. It is imperative that you determine whether your military service qualifies you to use 100% of your post-9/11 VA benefits prior to beginning flight school. This is easily determined by comparing your active duty/reserve service to the requirements outlined on the GI Bill website. Other factors also worth considering when choosing a VA-funded flight school include: whether the flight school is working with a public or private higher education facility, the type of degree associated with the flight school, the geographical location of the flight school, the type of helicopters being used for flight training, and whether you have already used a significant amount of your education benefits prior to beginning flight school.

Determine whether the flight school you are interested in is a public or a private higher education facility. If the school is a public higher education facility, your education benefits can pay up to 100% of your flight training, provide you with a housing allowance, and assist in the cost of books and supplies. If, however, it is a private school, you can only be reimbursed up to the “full cost of the training or the national maximum of $18,077 per academic year, whichever is less” (United States Department of Veterans Affairs).  I can promise you now, your flight training costs are going to far exceed this national max. Consequently, make sure you verify that your flight school of choice is paired with a public education facility. The third education factor is to decide whether you want to obtain a two-year degree or a four-year degree along with your flight training. Deciding on a two-year degree program will get you into the paid pilot market and enable you to build valuable flight time more quickly. A four-year degree program provides the bachelor’s degree that could be necessary for future advancement; however, it prolongs your entrance into the ‘getting paid to fly’ spectrum.

Geographical location is an extremely important factor to consider when deciding on a flight school. There are flight schools in Florida, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, etc. Each location has its advantages and disadvantages. Deciding on where to locate should be directly related to your goals and preferences as a future helicopter pilot. For example, selecting a flight school above 3,000 MSL and located in mountainous terrain offers advantageous high-density altitude flight time. High-density altitude flight time is considered extremely valuable flight time by the helicopter industry. Flying at an airport with a control tower can build your confidence flying in controlled airspace, following regulatory airport instructions, and becoming efficient in single pilot management skills. Flying in a location with questionable weather can teach you to make important go/no-go decisions as a pilot and teach you the importance of relying on your aircraft instruments for accuracy.

Different flight schools use different types of training helicopters. Robinson R-22 and R-44 helicopters are currently the most popular training helicopters in flight school fleets, and ranking as a close second is the Sikorsky Schweizer. Becoming a flight instructor is the most common, and one of the best ways, to build flight time. Most flight schools are using Robinson helicopters, though some are still using Schweizers. The benefit of going to a school with Robinsons is that you have experience in the aircraft most flight schools are using, consequently, if you are not hired at your training facility, you have the flight experienced needed by the majority of flight schools who would potentially hire you. There are flight schools out there that allow you to get a considerable amount of turbine time while pursing your initial flight ratings. While this may seem like an extremely beneficial option, it is important to know that this type of flight training is considerably more expensive.  VA benefits will still pay for this flight training, however, the amount of turbine time gained will in no way make you a more valuable pilot. A couple hundred hours of turbine time leaves you well outside hiring requirements and also leaves you with a couple hundred hours less of Robinson or Schweizer time. Flight schools need pilots who can fly the little guys; turbine time can turn into an expensive perk that does more to drain the VA pocketbook than to provide valuable flight time. Still, a flight school that does the vast majority of their flight training in Robinsons or Schweizers, and yet also offers a turbine transition for a short stint of long-lining or mountain flying training, could be very beneficial since it provides a platform from which you can experience utility-type flying.

A common problem a number of veterans have encountered is realizing that they qualify for VA- funded flight training only after they have already used much of their available benefits.  Getting around this difficulty can be tricky, but it is possible and it has been done. Making the most of your limited benefits will require a lot of discipline, flying around four- to five times a week, and studying during every spare moment. I also recommend seeking out financial loans and being prepared to pay out of pocket for some of your ratings, if necessary. The best course of action to take in this situation is to speak to both to the VA representative and the head of the aviation department at the college you are attending. They will know the intricate details that will help you succeed.

Becoming a helicopter pilot is a fabulous challenge, filled with adventure, excitement, and a lot of hard work. Know what the helicopter industry has to offer and formulate a desired flight path for your aviation career. This will provide guidance in choosing the flight school that best suits your career goals. Such a flight school will also be an ideal place to gain your first CFII job. Bear in mind that your flight school does not owe you the right to a CFII position; this is a highly valuable, highly sought after, and earned position. Furthermore, realize that you are now in the civilian work sector, and earning an interview at your flight school requires professionalism, hard work, honesty, and a great attitude. Finally, be immensely grateful for this opportunity that is before you! Thousands of veterans before us risked their lives for our country and were never offered such a tremendous educational opportunity. Therefore, let us use our benefits with extreme gratitude, and thoroughly enjoy the path to achieving a rewarding helicopter career.

Works Cited
United States Department of Veterans Affairs (20 August 2013) http://www.gibill.va.gov/resources/education_resources/programs/flight_training.html

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