Back to the Future

Putting today’s GI Bill to work for aviation

February 1, 2011

GI bill

In a major victory for veterans and the general aviation industry, Congress voted overwhelmingly in December to enhance the GI Bill of Rights by including new flight and vocational training benefits. The move is a golden opportunity to increase the number of GA pilots and A&P mechanics in the future—both vitally important goals for general aviation and AOPA. Rally GA

“This is great news across several fronts,” said AOPA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Lorraine Howerton. “It is highly supportive of general aviation businesses, such as flight schools and aircraft manufacturers of training fleets, supports AOPA’s flight training initiative, and is a big win for members who are veterans. For disabled veterans, it opens up opportunities to fly light sport aircraft—good news across the board.”

U.S. Marine Capt. Gabriel Glinsky taught private pilot ground school to fellow Marines deployed to Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Capt. Gabriel Glinsky, a V–22 Osprey pilot who received AOPA’s Let’s Go Flying Award in 2010 for volunteering to teach a private pilot ground school for fellow Marines while deployed in Afghanistan, said many members of the military are extremely interested in learning to fly.

“There’s huge interest in learning to fly—but the barrier has always been the cost,” Glinsky said. “The fact that that barrier is being taken away is extremely welcome news. Veterans make great GA pilots, and flight schools near military bases should get ready for what I’m sure will be a big influx of new students.”

The World War II-era GI Bill of Rights was updated in 2008 to allow veterans who had served at least three years of active duty since September 11, 2001, to receive up to 100 percent of their costs while seeking four-year undergraduate degrees. The new legislation, known as S.3447, extends those benefits to cover job training and vocational programs, including flight and A&P training. S.3447 passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 409 to three and the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent.

Qualified veterans seeking flight training at FAA-approved schools could receive up to $10,000 a year beginning in August 2011. Those funds can be used to cover private and sport pilot training as well as advanced ratings. The Congressional Budget Office estimates paying for the additional benefits will cost about $13 million, and Congress will have to authorize the funding annually.

The biggest surge in the U.S. pilot population came immediately after World War II, when tens of thousands of returning veterans used the GI Bill to learn to fly. But the Veterans Administration soon cut back on flight training benefits because the government had trained hundreds of thousands of pilots during the war—more than enough to fill the existing airline and corporate flying positions at that time.

Since 1958, veterans seeking to become civilian pilots have had to pay all their costs for private pilot certificates, and they were eligible for up to 90 percent for advanced ratings.

As flight training became more expensive over the years, however, the private pilot certificate became a progressively bigger obstacle. At the same time, military flying clubs at bases around the country went out of business or closed their doors, leaving veterans with fewer options for getting into the air.

Today, the employment landscape for pilots and A&P mechanics is far different than it was decades ago when GI flight training benefits for private pilot flight training were eliminated. Instead of having a surplus of trained and experienced pilots ready to step into airline cockpits, the industry is forecasting a looming and potentially crippling shortage. And unlike the days when trained aviation mechanics were plentiful, today many more are needed.

The sport pilot certificate didn’t exist in the years immediately following World War II when so many veterans learned to fly. But it, too, is an option for today’s veterans. And whether they decide to fly recreationally or professionally, flight schools with Light Sport aircraft offer veterans a way to get their wings more quickly than ever. U.S. Marine Sgt. Michael Blair earned his sport pilot certificate by training with AOPA in its 2010 sweepstakes aircraft.

U.S. Marine Sgt. Michael Blair, a combat-wounded Iraq veteran who earned a sport pilot certificate in 2010 flying the AOPA Fun to Fly Sweepstakes Remos GX, said the lack of VA benefits was a significant barrier to pursuing additional ratings. Blair logged more than 30 hours flying the Remos at no charge while it was owned by AOPA, but without the recent changes to the GI Bill, he would have had to pay all the costs of obtaining a private pilot certificate. Now, eligible veterans won’t have those financial concerns.

The prospect of bringing in significant numbers of new pilots through the GI Bill will strengthen the industry and allow pilots’ voices to be heard on Capitol Hill. There are about 625,000 active U.S. pilots today, down from a high of more than 825,000 in the early 1980s. Funding for S.3447 isn’t yet certain—but AOPA will work hard to make sure that eligible veterans get the flight and vocational training they have been promised.

And Glinsky, the V–22 pilot (and Cherokee 180 owner) who has worked with his fellows to get them flying, says he’s sure today’s veterans will make fantastic GA pilots in the future.

“They’re smart, motivated, and they know how to learn,” he said. “They’re inquisitive, they ask good questions—and they just don’t get rattled. That’s probably not a surprise considering what many of them have been through already… Once you take away the financial obstacles, there’s no doubt in my mind that these people will be successful in flight training, and they’ll make great GA pilots.”

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.