Let me start first by qualifying myself to even make the following comments. I am a US Army Veteran, I served honorably in combat, and my honorable discharge reflects that. I carry a VA service connected disability rating of 20% (getting blown up and shot at a lot will do that to a guy – it’s mostly hearing related), and I am one of the many helicopter pilots currently working in the industry that earned not only my ratings as a pilot – but my degree – through the Post 9/11 GI Bill. On March 15th LA Times reporter Alan Zarembo published an article that sparked an online wildfire of judgments against Helicopter flight schools, vets, the VA, and what was mischaracterized as a “loophole” in the VA program – The Post 9/11 GI Bill. In the weeks, and months that have followed two schools have seen new enrollments stopped (albeit one was voluntarily), and now Congress is talking about pulling flight funding for the GI Bill, and all because one article, poorly researched, led people down a path of misinformation. With all due respect to Alan Zarembo and the LA Times, you’re messing with the wrong group – and your reporting on this issue was half-baked at best – though I appreciate you bringing light to the issue and hope that your reporting will help us solve this problem, I feel as though you set your sights on the wrong “big picture”. Allow me to not only fill in some holes for you, but also give you the solution to the problem. Vets represent some of the most capable and intelligent members of American society – this is a well known fact – we not only saw the problem coming, we know exactly how to solve it.
The Original LA Times Article can be found here: U.S. taxpayers stuck with the tab as helicopter flight schools exploit GI Bill loophole
The Post 9/11 GI Bill is not something that is given for free to Veterans, you must earn it. And you don’t just get it for joining, you have to serve a certain amount of time just to qualify, and then more time beyond that to even qualify for 100% of the benefit. If you go to combat, you’re covered 100% and should be. The Post 9/11 GI Bill took an aging benefit (The Montgomery GI Bill) and modernized to represent our current educational environment, the needs of employers, and the needs of modern day veterans who are arguably the next “greatest generation” of Americans. The bill covers a lot of expenses, and makes education an affordable option for a Veteran who nobly gives up years of their lives to serve the Nations best interests. Otherwise the bare bones salary paid to service men and women would make pursuing an education financially crushing. Especially because during their time in service Veterans stop being those fresh faced 18 year olds out of high school and turn into adults, with families and car payments, and a house, and expenses that fresh faced kids don’t know exist when they go off to college – the financial support the Post 9/11 GI Bill provides in covering education costs is invaluable to us, and more importantly to our families.
Helicopter pilot training is expensive, but no more expensive than a medical degree, or a law degree, and can provide a Veteran with a career that is equally as fulfilling and rewarding and provide an income that will allow them to continue to support their families. When flight schools partnered with Colleges to provide a degree in addition to training it wasn’t to exploit a loophole, it was to provide Veterans with an even more robust resume of qualifications to make them far more employable. Now, inevitably, in every group there are a few bad seeds that would challenge the limits of this benefit. What the LA Times did was paint with a broad brush over all helicopter programs as if they were all bad, all abusing the system, and all charging crazy fees. Come on Alan Zarembo, you and your publisher know better than to generalize and create a panic where there shouldn’t be one. It’s a rating grab, and you’ve grabbed a lot of attention with this.
Your average cost of flight training seems to be around $130,000 and $150,000 depending on the course work, the amount of time it takes for the student to learn to fly and master those skills that are life saving – and that includes the community college 2-year degree. According to the College Board, the average cost of a 4 year degree is around $100,000 – so we’re not far off from the national average cost of an education, and we come out ahead of those college graduates. Because we have a degree too, but mostly because we have a skill, a trade that can be put to use right away.
So what about your article, that cites “at one school” it can cost up to $500,000 per student? You’re right, at one school. That school. That. One. School. They are literally the most expensive school in the system, blatantly violating a trust that was made between the VA and the colleges and the Veterans. It was opportunistic, it was railroad Capitalism at its worst – and Veterans have long been saying that it was the actions of an organization like that one which would endanger and all but put an end to our benefits. And that is not the solution. The owner of that school is quoted as saying that the loophole created a “cold war” between flight schools – that sounds more like an attempt at “If I’m going down, everyone else is coming with me…” – because it simply isn’t the truth.
If you had done your research, LA Times, you would have found that there are FAA Part 141 approved schools operating all around the country as partners with local community colleges offering a combination of a degree with pilots ratings – and doing so responsibly and fairly priced. Veterans are earning, learning, and contributing right away with their education and new skills.
So let me point out some problems with your chart of training costs by helicopter.
Instructors don’t make $55 an hour, that would be nice but isn’t the way it works. In fact at $25 per hour I was one of the highest paid flight instructors in my group of peers, the average is around $15 per hour of flight instruction. We can’t charge for ground instruction, we have to do that for free because the college program has a “ground school” which the Veteran is already paying for – so it would be a double dip. Not allowed, so we don’t do it.
The Robinson R-22 can cost up to $352 p/hour, typically this is in the far reaches of Alaska where fuel is bought by the year-load and parts cost a dog sled team a weeks worth of travel to get to the operation. The R-22 is one of the lowest cost to operate helicopters in the industry and I’ve seen prices between $200 and $300 per hour. That price however is wet (with fuel) and includes the instructor (so -$25) so it isn’t a dry blank slate rate at all. The R-44 shouldn’t cost anyone more that $550 max (in the remote reaches of the frozen North) to operate. It has an excellent safety record, has great correlation between models of aircraft students will transition to once their flying commercially, and again – that rate includes fuel and an instructor.
The ASTAR and the Bell 205 are not training helicopters, and shouldn’t be used as such. You’ll find, when you get around to actually doing the research, that the biggest helicopter responsible flight schools are using, or even should be using, is the Bell 206 JetRanger. This helicopter operates for around $800-$1100 per hour, including fuel and instructor, and that’s your top end. Look into it, LA Times, and you’ll find that I’m telling you hard truths.
There was no cold war except between a few (you mentioned 2, I can think of a 3rd) operators that saw an opportunity to exploit the VA and Veterans program funding. But, in their defense, they did provide a unique training opportunity for some Vets that will translate (WAY DOWN THE ROAD) into hirable skills.
No flight school needs to train a student in a Bell 205 Huey, or an ASTAR. Really they don’t need to offer turbine transitions, long line courses, NVG courses, or any of those extra courses. The first job 90% of graduates are going to have in the pilot industry (airplane or Helicopter) is going to be as a flight instructor in the small, piston, light aircraft that are so common in flight schools. The turbine skills, long line skills, all of that will come when the student gets hired by their next “big” company – this tends to happen around 1000 hours of flight experience, and the company that hires them will provide that training to them, for free, because they want their employees trained up to their stricter standards. What did you uncover here? You found a couple of bad seeds, that financially may have been operating opportunistically – but were providing world class education and career enhancing skills to their students. Again – skills that wont matter one rep until after they’ve done 1000 hours of small helicopter flying – but good skills to have in the long run.
Earlier I told you Veterans not only recognized the problem early on, but came up with a solution. In 2010 a group of Vets, angry and concerned about prices of training at a flight program in Prescott, AZ sat down in a University auditorium for a Q&A with the owner of the helicopter operator providing the contract training. The vets came armed with average cost of training numbers from around the nation, and presented them to the University and to the helicopter company owner – expressing concerns that overcharging would threaten our hard fought and earned, and deserved, benefits. I told you that I knew the answer to this problem: This is it.
1. The Department of Veterans Affairs must generate a national survey of flight training operations approved under the Post 9/11 GI Bill
2. The Department of Veterans Affairs will, based on the results of the national survey, publish an approved training rates guide for operators – revised annually.
It’s really that easy. Our contracts as operators are renewed annually, so that we can adjust our costs for rising or falling fuel prices, insurance changes, etc. There is a surcharge programmed in just in case fuel prices skyrocket to help protect operators, there are caps programmed in to protect the Vets and their benefits. The solution has never been, and will never be, the broad sweeping of a benefits program that has proven to be so invaluable to the men and women of honor, that fought, bled, and sacrificed to earn.
I’ll close with this final statement. Anyone that feels I’m wrong here – I welcome your input, this will be an OPEN response to the LA Times, to Congress, to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, and I will update it and amend it to reflect the input of my peers. I only ask that you qualify yourself as I did at the start of this. I will defend to my last breath the benefits and rights of Veterans, I will testify on Capitol Hill, I will go on TV and radio, I will defend my beliefs and the rights of my brothers and sisters, without waiver or pause. The LA Times pointed the nation down the wrong path, and painted a great program in a terrible light – it has been long past due that a response cast that ugly light back on them. Look to the real problems, solve those, keep a program in place that is better for Veterans than most. Helicopter Pilots work hard, and in time earn wages well above the national average income level. They serve in rolls familiar to Veterans, like Law enforcement, EMS (Saving lives), and Fire Fighting. Becoming a helicopter pilot gives Veterans a career that allows them to continue to be exceptional members of the American Community.
Note about the author: Nicholas Henderson served on active duty as a Combat Infantryman with the United States Army from 2004-2007 during which time he deployed with the 4th Infantry Division to Iraq in 2005 and 2006. He is awarded two Army Achievement Medals, The Army Commendation Medal, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and received an honorable discharge in 2007. As a civilian Nicholas Henderson pursued multiple ventures, including working as Legislative Staff for Rep. Munoz (R-AK) and a Special Advisor to the Joint Caucus on Veterans Affairs for Sen. Huggins (R-AK). Henderson was appointed by Gov. Sarah Palin to serve as a Commissioner for SERVE ALASKA. Henderson began using his Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits in 2010 at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona and finished his flight training and degree with Big Bend Community College and Inland Helicopters, Inc in 2012. Henderson has worked as a commercial pilot for the past 3 years in multiple rolls, including flight instruction, agriculture, construction, transportation, and most recently in Air Tours.