Imagine doing your very first preflight walkaround as a student pilot on an Army C-23 Sherpa aircraft, incoming mortars and rockets disrupting your private pilot ground school, or scheduling your knowledge test around deployment times.
That’s business as usual for soldiers deployed to Iraq. Some troops used what little free time they had to take a private pilot ground school class and even complete the written while overseas.
Military officials stationed at the Kuwait Naval Base; Joint Base Balad in Iraq; and Kirkuk, Iraq, taught private pilot ground school courses for the troops. Some went as far as becoming test administrators so that the troops could take their exams while still deployed.
Lt. j.g. Greg Skyles and Capt. Chris Kleinhenz of the Air Force created a private pilot ground school class at Joint Base Balad for 25 Air Force, Army, and Navy personnel.
“Many students had been dreaming of becoming a private pilot but never had the time to take lessons,” Kleinhenz recently wrote to AOPA while deployed. “Without the daily distractions of life back home, they could focus on their jobs here and learning how to become a private pilot. Plus, they just couldn’t beat the cost—free!”
The two-hour classes, which took place each Tuesday and Saturday night from Aug. 26 through Nov. 1, weren’t like the typical private pilot ground school, even though Kleinhenz, who is a pilot for SkyWest Airlines and a Gold Seal flight instructor, created the syllabus from lessons and presentations he used when he owned a small flight school.
“For most pilots, taking the class was a great way to keep their minds engaged and also to provide something unique to study away from their daily jobs/missions,” Kleinhenz wrote. “However, we are at combat and occasionally the base would receive incoming mortars or rockets while the class was being held—quite a unique experience!”
Combat distractions aside, the class was still structured uniquely for the troops.
They learned about aerodynamics from a fighter pilot, radio communications from a vice wing commander, and weather theory and products from a weather officer. And the class toured the airfield’s ATC tower and radar approach control.
At the end of the course, those who passed a 60-question exam based on the FAA written test question bank were given an endorsement to take the knowledge test when they returned to the United States.
But students in ground schools in Kirkuk and the Kuwait Naval Base were able to take their written tests while still deployed.
Soldier passes his knowledge test at the FAA CATS Testing Center in Kirkuk, Iraq.
Knowledge test provider CATS worked with the FAA and military leaders in Kirkuk and Kuwait to establish special test administrator CATS sites overseas that would allow the soldiers to take their knowledge test while deployed.
After receiving permission to establish the first site in Kirkuk in February, Ed Herrera with CATS testing sent a kit with the needed testing supplies, including test supplements, software, an embosser, stamps, and the CATS Operation Handbook. He also trained the local instructors to administer the knowledge exams.
But Herrera’s involvement didn’t end there. He had to get FAA approval for each test and test date.
“Considering the location and the adversities on hand, testing dates were sometimes difficult,” Herrera told AOPA. “Therefore, rescheduling was needed numerous times. One time, I had to work with [a major] on a Saturday at 3 a.m. PT in assisting with administering a knowledge exam.”
Thanks to help from the staff at CATS, 17 exams were given between February and September, bringing the troops one step closer to accomplishing their aviation dreams.