When he was 8 years old, Solomon Nader looked up into the sky at his first air show. He saw jets roaring by, pulling maneuvers and tracing puffy white contrails, and he was hooked.
"I just remember they made a lot of noise," he says. "I like to make noise."
Nader's pursuit of flight took him through the Civil Air Patrol, into the Army and now to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the top flight schools in the nation, where he earned his pilot's license. After graduating in December, he submitted his packet to go back into the Army as a warrant officer, and while he waits to find out if he'll be approved, he's starting graduate school at Embry-Riddle next semester.
The sky's the limit.
Nader took full advantage of the GI Bill and tuition assistance, completing about three years' worth of credits through Embry-Riddle online while he was still serving. In order for the GI Bill to cover his flight instruction costs — often the priciest part of an aeronautical degree — he went to classes at Embry-Riddle's Florida campus for five semesters, earning six minors in the process. He still has enough benefits left to get a start on his graduate degree.
Travis Feld didn't have as much time left in his GI Bill hourglass, having already used some of his benefits before transferring to the flight program at Aims Community College in Colorado. While Embry-Riddle offers primarily four-year bachelor degrees, Feld will graduate with helicopter ratings this semester after 2½ years of flight school.
There aren't many schools in the country that offer helicopter flight ratings, and the flight hours tend to cost at least twice as much as fixed-wing aircraft, but for vets, the Post-9/11 GI Bill covers it as part of a student's regular fees.
"I always wanted to be a helicopter pilot ever since I was little," Feld says. "When the GI Bill came through, it actually made it a reality. … Helicopters just take the cake. I mean, when you're able to pick up a wounded person on top of a 10,000-foot mountain and take them to a hospital — I think that's pretty cool."
Once he has his diploma, Feld plans to work as a flight instructor while he gets a bachelor's degree, either at Metropolitan State College in Denver or through Embry-Riddle's online program, and from there he's considering becoming an air ambulance pilot. Since he's out of GI Bill benefits, he'll have to pay for his next degree out of pocket.
"Aviation programs, no matter how economically organized they may be, are expensive," acknowledges Dan Doherty, chair of the aviation program at Aims, who said many students hold off on a bachelor's to get into the workforce as quickly as possible. "There's often a considerable burden of debt that the students have with them by the time they've finished getting their ratings before they've even gotten to the full bachelor's degree."
Embry-Riddle accommodates hundreds of students who transfer in each year after getting their initial flight ratings somewhere else, says BJ Adams, the school's director of admissions. The main reason for starting somewhere smaller is cost. Including tuition, fees, room and board, Embry-Riddle charges about $40,000 per academic year, not including flight time, which ranges from $46,000 to $52,000 for the full program. For the typical Colorado resident, Aims charges closer to $10,000 per year, though total flight costs range from about $44,000 for general aviation to $106,000 for helicopters.
A backup plan
Four-year public colleges have comparable flight costs and tuition that falls somewhere in the middle for in-state students, but Ken Polovitz, assistant dean of the University of North Dakota's aerospace program, says choosing a major university can offer flight students a backup plan.
"We talk a lot about a second professional emphasis," he says. "In aviation, you're only one day away from not doing that any more if you have a medical issue. I always tell students, what happens if you put all this time, energy and money into your flight program and you walk across the stage, graduate, and half an hour later your clumsy cousin at your picnic pokes you in the eye with a hot dog stick? Now you're not going to be a professional pilot any more."
With a full-sized university at their disposal, aviation students can study something else at the same time.
Changing job market
All flight schools are wary at the moment because Federal Aviation Administration regulations requiring pilots to have more flight hours before working for national airlines are, as Polovitz put it, "up in the air." It soon could be much harder to go directly from college to flying for major airlines.
Mike Suckow, assistant head of the aviation technology department at Purdue University, said mandatory retirement ages, new regulations and demand for pilots abroad is creating a perfect storm for the flight industry. He said industry experts estimate that half the nation's 60,000 airline pilots will retire in the next 15 years, and newly graduated pilots won't have enough flight hours to replace them. At the same time, emerging economic giants such as Saudi Arabia and China are buying billions of dollars worth of aircraft but don't have the trained manpower to maintain or fly them.
In short, the job market for pilots could look very different over the coming years.
"If you're persistent, you'll get a job in the industry," Suckow says. "And if you want to be bold and explore the world, you'll definitely get a job."