VA sends notice to veterans, canceling all tuition payments for flight schools

A student trains at Jacksonville University flight school, which received a $10,000 grant from the Jaguars Foundation for veterans in 2014. (Jacksonville University)

The GI Bill is now poised to encourage ex-servicemembers to reach for the sky- so long as doing so doesn’t involve any flight training.

The result of apparent abuse by flight schools across the country, some veteran students are finding their benefits for flight school coming to an end as legislators put an end to funding flight training for veterans currently enrolled in both fixed and rotary-wing programs.

Since reports surfaced in 2015 of helicopter schools taking advantage of a “capless” tuition program with the VA’s education division, politicians and VA reps alike scrambled to take action against a perceived “loophole” in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, one which failed to place a limit on veterans pursuing degrees at public colleges and universities.

According to some flight school instructors, the scandal is widespread and has been going on for years.

“Because there was no cap, we started to one-up each other,” said Sean Reid of Upper Limit Aviation, a Utah-based flight school. “You kind of end up with an arms race.”

Records from Upper Limit Aviation showed that 12 veterans investigated at the time had cost the US taxpayer more than $500,000 each when it came to expenses and accruing flight time.

However, while the private flight schools occasionally posed an issue- the source of contention seemed to stem mostly from public universities that charged outrageous fees for pilot training programs, getting away with it by exploiting unforeseen pitfalls in the VA’s education system.

In the resulting fallout, the VA made the most arbitrary move possible- they cut funding to all flight schools, not just the ones abusing the system.

Now, over one year later, veterans enrolled in flight schools are feeling the hit as many of them are being forced to bail out on their now-stalled dreams of being a pilot.

“I’m frustrated, upset [and] angry,” said Leland Kearns, who attends Oklahoma University’s flight school.

An Air Force veteran, Kearns has been attending flight school for about a year at the OU-Norman location.

“Since I have been flying, this has been one of the funnest things I’ve ever done,” Kearns said.

Marine Corps veteran Jared McGowan is definitely feeling the pressure as he works towards a commercial pilot’s license.

“Just tuition alone is expensive, then you tack on $60,000 for flight expenses so, right now, I’ve been looking at some hefty student loans unfortunately,” McGowan told KFOR.

While OU is helping student veterans find alternative funding routes for the flight programs, some veterans feel that it should never have come to this point in the first place.

“When we joined the military, there was a contract that we signed. That contract said, for a certain amount of years, we will be there 24-7 night or day for the United States. And, at the end, one of the things they were going to do for us was help us go back to school,” said Daniel Hall, who says being a pilot has been his lifelong dream.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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