Education and Transition

Want to fly? Tips for using the GI Bill to train

Together, Army Reserve Sgt. Erin Helgren and Colorado Air National Guard Senior Airman Jordan Richey demonstrate one of their school's light twin-engine simulators on a mock flight from Centennial Airport in a southeastern Denver suburb to Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in the northwest.

The professional flight officer students in Metropolitan State University of Denver's Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science get to know their city's virtual airspace. They work in teams to replicate a professional environment, says retired Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Kevin Kuhlmann, a longtime professor in the department and former F-111 pilot.

Metropolitan State University of Denver professional flight officer students Army Reserve Sgt. Erin Helgren and Air National Guard Senior Airman Jordan Richey simulate a flight in a light twin-engine aircraft.

Photo Credit: Amanda Miller/Staff

The simulator is just one in a large lab housed in a sometimes-shared building on Denver's downtown Auraria higher education campus. The commuter school has close ties to industry in a worldwide hub for space and flight. Elevated to university status and renamed in 2012, it's putting its stamp on downtown with a new 142,000-square-foot Aerospace and Engineering Sciences building, more than half of which will be dedicated to specialized labs.

Many of the department's graduates go on to work in commercial aviation, but both enlisted reservists say they want to move up in the military. Veterans of overseas deployments, they're sensitive to age restrictions for new military flight officers and hope the bachelor's in aviation and aerospace science, with a professional flight officer concentration, will help them get selected.

But the degree requires more than class and simulator time.

The bachelor's calls for licensure by the Federal Aviation Administration, including the FAA commercial pilot certificate plus instrument rating. The additional training and certification come to about $75,000, says department chair Jeffrey Forrest. That's above the cost of tuition, and it must be done through an outside provider.

MSU Denver isn't among the state schools that have made flight training part of tuition — a practice raising eyebrows in Congress, where a House bill seeks to limit it.

While most of the military students in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science seem to choose the professional flight officer track, veterans are desirable industrywide, Forrest says.

"We run into one company after another that says, 'We like to hire the vets because of the experience.' "

Metropolitan State University of Denver's planned 142,000-square-foot Aerospace and Engineering Sciences Building.

Photo Credit: Anderson Mason Dale Architects

The department's 430 enrolled majors choose from concentrations in operations, air traffic, physics, systems technology and professional flight officer. The latter learn on single- and twin-engine simulators — starting with instruments only — long before getting time in the school's most advanced simulator, that of the Cessna Citation C510 Mustang business jet.

"The military students are some of the finest we get through here," Forrest says. "They've gotten their butts kicked. They've got their heads on straight."

MSU Denver is one of Military Times' 2015 Best for Vets 4-year colleges.

New GI Bill funding rules?

U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, says the intent of his proposed GI Bill change is to cap flight training fees for Post-9/11 GI Bill payouts at $20,235 a year, equal to the nationwide annual max available to private school students. The legislation has initial support from veterans advocates but has sparked anxiety among flight school students who worry it could jeopardize their education.

The measure comes in response to reports of public colleges contracting with private flight schools, allowing flight training to be factored into tuition. The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of degree programs at state-run schools.

"Some private contractors have exploited this loophole to leverage uncapped fees to charge upward of $500,000 per student," Wenstrup said in early April. "The GI Bill was never designed to cover such high costs."

He says his legislation also would bar some flight classes as nondegree electives and limit the number of times students could retake certain courses.

The proposal is still pending in the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and faces a difficult path to become law before fall-semester enrollment deadlines arrive.

Have a plan

The steep cost of flight training, coupled with the complexity of benefits, means future fliers need to plan well and work fast. Some tips from MSU Denver's student vets, faculty and staff:

'Live cheap.' That's according to Helgren, the Army Reserve sergeant. While her activated time qualifies her for the Post-9/11 GI Bill at only 60 percent, the rate does make her eligible for the program's full housing allowance calculated according to the military's Basic Allowance for Housing for an E-5 with dependents. MSU Denver's downtown ZIP code merits $1,779 a month. Since the housing rate is paid directly to the student, pocketing the surplus could equal extra cash for flight hours.

Don't mess around turning in your GI Bill paperwork. The neglected form that can really cost you, a least for a while, is your DD-214 discharge form. The Veterans Affairs Department won't pay the GI Bill's housing allowance if it thinks you're still on active duty.

Use benefits to pay for the campus part first. If you'll take college courses at the same time as outside flight training from a vocational school, apply the GI Bill toward your campus coursework so you'll qualify for the housing allowance. The MSU Denver vets are using loans to pay for their simultaneous flight training.

Heavy course loads upfront can preserve benefits for flight training. If flight training isn't already factored into your tuition, then you likely will train at what the VA considers a vocational flight school.

Navy veteran Matt Shurtleff deployed twice as an electrician's mate aboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan during his 11-year Navy career, but the closest he got to aviation was the carrier's power plant. Now he's taking as many courses as he can handle in hopes that he'll have 12 months of Post-9/11 benefits left to cover much of his additional training. The VA will reimburse up to the annual max for private schools ($20,235 a year as of Aug. 1, 2014).

Find out whether you have more GI Bill coming. Troops and veterans whose service dates would make them eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but who used up their Montgomery GI Bill benefits, are eligible for 12 months of Post-9/11 benefits. Post-9/11 beneficiaries who paid the $1,200 Montgomery GI Bill fee but elect to receive Post-9/11 benefits, and then exhaust them, receive a refund of their MGIB enrollment fee.

Get a jump on registration if you can. MSU Denver is one of a growing number of schools with priority registration for veterans receiving benefits, in this case a three-hour head start. Shurtleff, the former sailor using every strategy to maximize his GI Bill benefit, jumped at the new opportunity. Getting into the courses he needs now reduces the likelihood that he'll need to extend his time on campus.

Students train at Metropolitan State University of Denver's World Indoor Airport. Tim Carroll/Metropolitan State University of Denver
Students train at Metropolitan State University of Denver's World Indoor Airport. Tim Carroll/Metropolitan State University of Denver

Students practice motor memory at Metropolitan State University of Denver's World Indoor Airport.

Photo Credit: Tim Carroll/Metropolitan State University of Denver

Managing stress is a professional responsibility — and alcohol equals stress. Pilots must monitor their drinking carefully, and Kevin Kuhlmann drives that message home in his Human Factors and Physiology of Flight course. FAA regs say pilots can't fly within eight hours of consuming alcohol, and Kuhlmann tells his students most of the airlines are more strict. Bottom line: Drinking leads to fatigue, which leads to stress.

Take advantage of instructors who served. According to Richey, the Air Guardsman: "Pick their brains on how to apply for these spots in the military and what to do."

Staff writer Leo Shane III contributed to this story.

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