November 10, 2011
By Sarah Brown
Marine Sgt. Michael "Bulldog" Blair tore through his sport pilot training in AOPA's 2010 Fun to Fly Sweepstakes Remos GX, and now he's set his sights even higher—much higher. The Iraq war veteran started Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's aerospace engineering program in August with a goal of making his imprint on the spacecraft of the future.
Blair, who was seriously wounded in an improvised explosive device attack during his second tour in Iraq, considered his options for a career after retiring from the Corps: He had the job skills to start work right away, but lacked one thing—education, he said. So he made a characteristically "Bulldog" decision.
"I decided to do the hardest thing I possibly could and become an engineer," he said. He moved to Prescott, Ariz., with his wife and daughter in February, retired in March, and spent the summer fixing up the family's new house and flying. Now he's hunkered down focusing on his studies, earning A's in all his classes, he said.
It didn't start out that way, he added. But Blair has never been one to let a setback get the best of him: Chronic pain and scores of surgeries didn't prevent the wounded Marine from earning his advanced open water Scuba qualification, competing in marathons, spearheading kayaking trips for other wounded veterans, and earning his pilot certificate. Engineering is next on the list.
"I've always been the kind of person, I want to know how stuff works," he said. "And I'm also the kind of person that wants to make stuff better."
Blair started training for his private pilot certificate with support from the nonprofit Warrior Aviation, but flight training is now taking a back seat to his studies, he said. The 36-year-old is keeping busy at home, too: He and wife Delissa had their second daughter in March.
Nearly eight months into civilian life, Blair is involved in several veterans programs. He said the student veterans organization on campus offers outings such as cookouts and camping trips "to promote the camaraderie that we're used to." The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill and Embry-Riddle's Yellow Ribbon program offer financial assistance to veterans, and Blair has made friends across the country—and joined Aaron Tippin on the Commemorative Air Force Red, White, and Loud tour— through his involvement in the Veterans Airlift Command. (VAC founder Walt Fricke recommended Blair to AOPA for his sport pilot training in 2010, and Blair has spoken at several VAC events.)
Over the summer, he and daughter Bella went to Oshkosh, Wis., for their first AirVenture fly-in. Bella, now 6, is thriving at the family's new home in Arizona, he said. She's always adapted well and made friends easily, he added—like her father.
A touch of history, affordable flying, unique sightseeing, a good meal, and a community of pilots: Isn’t that what general aviation is all about?
Getting the job done on the local and national levels requires long-term planning, a hands-on approach, and keeping the effort moving, said Sean Collins, AOPA’s Eastern regional manager.
Deep in the dense, moss-draped, oak forest of Amelia Island is a luxurious plantation resort. Check out this Florida destination while you are in the Southeast for AOPA's St. Simons, Georgia, Fly-In on Nov. 8.
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