Today’s blog will highlight a peculiar snippet of time in my life that has left me feeling like I’ve been beaten, robbed and left in a ditch to fend for myself. Commercial flight school. This might be boring for my usual readers so feel free to skip to the next. This will be tagged for aviation prospects as well as some of the text shared on aviation forums for flight school reviews.
It was a random phone call that was made to an airport back east that referred me to Big Bend Community College. It was one of the few schools in the country that the GI Bill would pay 100% of. After selling my restaurant and trying to pull out from a downward spiral in life, I pulled the trigger. I only told a few people that I was going and it wouldn’t be until a month before leaving that I tell my boss that I was quitting to go to school. I’ll try to leave out sideline stories about this experience as much as possible, but this is my un-official review of my decision to learn how to fly… And why I’m deciding to stray from pursuing aviation as a career.
Settled into the ‘oasis of Washington’, Big Bend was a fairly small campus with promise. Being right on Grant County International was one of the best aspects of training at this school. The campus was clean overall and the dorms were quite honestly worse than some of the military barracks I lived in while active duty. Black mold, clogged sinks and a horrible stench that decreased my odds of meeting anyone outside the school that had any respect for their sense of smell.
The flight training building was awesome. Almost brand new construction and ample classroom area made planning and learning quite enjoyable. I actually felt like there would be inherit professionalism throughout the program. Just as tides rise and fall, my opinion would sway drastically through to the end of my time here. Before getting into that, I will say that the school at least has good intentions and had some excellent attributes. The fleet was very well maintained and the overall process from day one to the end was very well organized. On paper at least.
The parent school, Big Bend was fairly well put together. As with any institution of this caliber, there is bound to be issues but overall they treated me well. The VA counselor was a savior and I couldn’t have asked for better assistance throughout. Kudos to Rita! My opinion of the curriculum and outcome of the general studies degree from the school will be fodder for another blog post. I will however say that the planning and coordination between the academic side and the aviation side is about as horrible as it gets. Throw in the factor of a VA student with transfer credits and it’s enough to make someone rip their hair out. I think a lot of these problems however, has to do with the fact that this program was made to cater to kids coming straight out of high school with no prior experience or obligations in their life. Sigh…
My initial impression of the junior instructors (recent program graduates) was very good. My first instructor though very cocky, exhibited an air of professionalism that made me feel warm and fuzzy about my decision to do this. Coming from a military background, outright professionalism in my opinion is one of the most important factors in any industry, especially aviation. My opinion about the juniors would quickly change. After a handful of flights I was asking my instructor about some good places to go out in town. I was 31 at the time and figured I’d get a mature opinion about what to do in this one horse town. His response impressed me at first. ‘We like to keep the relationship between instructors and students separate so I can’t really go out of my way to suggest what you do in your free time.’ Though frustrated with the response, I know that just like in the military, keeping Cadre relations separate from students was paramount in maintaining integrity through an organization. Little did I know, this guy was actually full of crap.
The senior instructors were quite a bit different. The knowledge and professionalism was quite a breath of fresh air, even to the very end. There was no bull from any of them and being that I was well beyond my roaring twenties, I felt I could relate to and understand them way more than most of the junior instructors. If there was one single thing I would have to say is the best thing about this flight school, it would be the seniors. If only they weren’t so busy taking up the slack that the juniors should have been able to handle.
Back to the juniors, who anyone considering this school will most likely have to deal with on a regular basis. When I caught wind of other students hanging with the instructors after hours, I became a little more attentive to what was going on. The partying, drinking and even smoking put me quite a few steps back. I did make a conscious effort to immerse myself in this environment so I took most of this with a grain of salt. I was here to get my commercial pilot license and that was it. A sideline benefit was to experience a social scene that I never got when I was younger. Anyways, the juniors need some work. The best one I had did time in the Navy and though a lot of the other kids in the program didn’t like him for his personality, I appreciated his maturity and candidness of what he was doing there. I became immune to the antics I witnessed on a regular basis and decided time and time again that what they do with their life is none of my business unless safety is compromised. Oh how I had to bite my tongue more times than I can count. To sum up my opinion of the juniors, any prospective student should learn how to take things at face value and not rely on perceived wisdom from experience. Flying a plane and reciting knowledge and procedure isn’t actually all that difficult.
The training program itself was very well put together. Most of this can be attributed to the fact that the FAA has a tight grip on these kinds of programs. Lesson plans were very well structured and the overall road-map to the end was very very clear. As long as one puts a little extra effort into it, there is a plethora of knowledge to be absorbed and put to good use. Sans the above-mentioned quirks about the faculty this school has rights to claim itself as a top choice for flight schools. Being that this is going to be shared through aviation channels I’ll leave out the administrative stuff for prospective students. It’s a 141 school with no frills. You come out with a degree and a commercial license. A CFI, CFII, Multi, Float, Tailwheel is also well within reach without too much red tape. Unless of course you’re VA, which requires careful coordination.
After battling with weather, financial aid, poor scheduling (at times) and a painfully small town, I was relieved to pass the stage seven check ride. The moment when the check pilot turned to me and shook my hand with a congratulation is the moment my life would start over… again.
I toyed with ideas of employment throughout the two years on training. Maybe go work for a regional airline, maybe become an instructor, maybe this, maybe that. The possibilities are endless really. The only real reason I went to this school was because I would finally be able to use my GI Bill to get at least a private pilot license. The fact that I got through to a commercial and instrument rating was an extra perk that I couldn’t pass up. Truth be told, I couldn’t stand the pompous culture I found myself in anymore. In this environment it seems that reciting rote knowledge is what really gets you ahead; not actual ingenuity and intelligence. I’m reminded of a student that three quarters of the way through the program didn’t know what Vx and Vy was. A handful of months later he earned his commercial license. For the non-aviation folk, Vx and Vy is about as simple of a concept as downshifting a car to go up a steep hill. I’m not that ignorant to believe that he was the only one to slip through the cracks. Back from that tangent, I’ve come to the conclusion that this industry (employment wise) isn’t quite for me. Not because of the nimwits that make it through on BS, but because I want to fly for fun, not because I have to pay the bills.
I’m ramping up to move to Southern California with the help of a less than glamorous job. Driving semi-trucks. The pay is actually quite impressive for what I do. On the low side I’ll be pulling in about $800-$900 a week. Not bad for sitting on your arse eleven hours a day. Being that there are truck driving jobs everywhere and they are in very high demand, this will be my ticket. (funny caveat, the safety manager at the trucking company I’m working for is a retired airline pilot) When I get settled into California I’m going to use the VA to pay for my Multi Engine rating and maybe even my CFI. Because I like to fly… My income will come from other avenues while I satisfy my love for flying on the side. And no, I’m not planning on driving trucks for my career. It’s just a stepping stone to get moved and settled in. I’ve got a few things in the works right now that could quite possibly make my life extraordinarily comfortable. I don’t want to jinx it however by trying to explain about it in this forum.
In conclusion, I’m really happy I did this whole flight school thing. My bucket list is happy as well. Now it’s on to the next adventure. Complacency and conformity is not my thing and dreaming is what I do best. There is a huge soft spot in my heart for aviation and I will support everything about it until the day I die. I applaud and encourage those who want to work in the industry as well as the ones who simply want to fly because it is truly one of the most liberating experiences ever. I could have tried a bit harder in flight school and come out with a little more confidence in my knowledge and capabilities but I chose what’s best for me. I wish I was able to say that I have respect for more of the other students, but I simply don’t. The attitudes and behavior is not unique to this school, town or even aviation but when it comes to what I want to do in my own life I have to be careful who I associate with. I knew this before and attending this school in the weird little town of Moses Lake simply revived knowledge of the social condition we are living in. (Insert all those quotable quotes from Pinterest or Facebook about the influence of other people in your life).