The GI Bill “Loophole” – A Veterans Response

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.

SPC Nicholas Henderson
SPC Nicholas Henderson

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. 

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4 Replies to “The GI Bill “Loophole” – A Veterans Response”

  1. What legal actions can the Vets take against the LA Times for losing benefits of the GI Bill? Will the GI Bill continue to cover education leading to a degree (ex. Aviation related career)?

  2. Nick, your thoughts and some of your points are honorable but the truth is that based on extensive research I’ve conducted, the vast majority of flight schools have been conducting wartime profiteering at its best. As a 28 year veteran, this wartime profiteering WILL end and it should. Given some simple statistics; with the 85/15 rule in place, wouldn’t it make sense that 85% of the instructors at most schools be veterans? Do some research and the facts will be contrary. Why, many reasons but in my experience, the fact is that schools market a much more rosy picture than what it really takes to get into this industry. With that my research shows that only 10-20% at best actually go into industry like yourself. I love the helicopter industry but in this particular case, the flight training industry should be ashamed for milking the veteran benefits. They say they are veteran friendly…OK….do some research and see how many of the schools donated time, resources, and energy helping veterans groups prior to the Post 911 GI Bill. This is not about the minority of schools out there who have been reasonable, the facts clearly indicate that most have jumped on the wartime profiteering bandwagon and WHEN this program goes south, greed is the one and only reason. Nick, your a smart guy. I saw this coming in 2009 when this nonsense started. Even the VFW had endorsed stopping this madness. I have had numerous stellar veteran students tell their real story to this reporter so I’m certain you might be missing some details in you argument. Love ya man but there us much more to this investigative report that you may be aware of.

    Cheers!
    B

  3. Apologies to the previous poster, but as a veteran and someone who worked in almost every area of the aviation industry, in airplanes and helicopters, and who spent over 21 years as an FAA Inspector with oversight responsibility spanning several states and 80-plus aviation entities, including FAR Part 141 schools, I can tell you for a FACT that Nick’s article is dead on. It is accurate, timely, and provides practical solutions rather than the typical overreaching government response that ends up hurting more people than helping.

    Does anyone have any issues about the exorbitant costs of college tuitions these days? They should, since those costs have skyrocketed at a substantially higher rate than inflation. But when it comes to flight training, being an aviation enterprise, it’s damn expensive. Always has been. But still cheaper here than anywhere else in the world, which is why our country is flooded with foreign students. Simply wiping out these programs will hurt the colleges as well as the flight schools and slam the door in the faces of many veterans who could potentially be some of the best pilots of the next generation of civilian pilots. Another note on this. Military training is great. It is also mission specific. And the aviation industry can’t rely on retired military aviators to fill the growing needs of the civil industry.

    As to the comments about hiring of helicopter pilots, the industry is more vital now than it has been in years. I know of several schools that had over 90% of graduates go into the industry. If the 10-20% number you cited is based on a well known (in the industry) school that required contracts for training and subsequently stole those funds from thousands of students when it’s owned absconded with all their money, that’s old news (over 12 years ago), and it was one notorious school with 29 locations, and had NOTHING to do with any VA program.

    Lastly, people have mentioned dropout rates as a reason to curtail VA training, which unfortunately do cost the taxpayer in cases of VA students. That is not as much a function of the flight school as it is the individual student. National average dropout rates in four year institutions are over 60%, while community colleges report about a 40% rate. VA student dropout rates are between 30-40%, less than non-VA students.

    What we need to do is to get all of our veterans in aviation training, and the schools that are responsibly managing costs, to provide the information in Nick’s article to their local media outlets, senators, and congressmen, as well as local, regional and national VA representatives before the government takes a ridiculous sweeping action that will cause more harm than good. I know. I’ve been there. It’s a one size fits all, all or nothing mentality, and it will hurt a lot of colleges and flight schools that are trying to do the right thing.

    Nick, your article is dead on, bullseye, hit the nail on the head, accurate. Your numbers are totally valid, and your understanding of the industry tells me you know your stuff, probably from experience and having your head on straight in the first place. Your solutions are both simple and easily attainable, while being painless. God bless you, brother. And thanks for caring about your fellow veterans, the aviation industry, and the truth.

  4. It is very sad that a few Helicopter Schools apparently took advantage of the opportunity to make a lot more profit than was reasonable by utilizing helicopters that are turbine powered and very expensive to operate, thus charging a lot more. Obviously the profit margin per hour in a 3500 dollar an hour BH-205 Huey is far greater than in a 400 an hour Robinson R-44. But the bottom line is that just because there are, or possibly are (not guilty until proven innocent, right?), some operations that have taken advantage of the VA and the GI Bill, it would be a travesty to simply cancel the program, and deny these new Veterans, who have served with honor and dedication, the opportunity to learn a new skill, and prepare for a new career as helicopter pilots. I wish my Brother Veterans the very best, and qualify my statements as a fellow combat veteran from a prior war, and a 21,000 hour Military trained airplane and helicopter pilot. I did not get any ratings via the VA, but wish that all Veterans have the opportunity to further their education.

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