Most of us who fly came to the decision organically.
Nobody forced us to fly. We wanted to. We yearned for the opportunity. We flew in our dreams and looked up to the heavens whenever the sound of an engine passed overhead. The decision was ours and we pursued it, each in our own way.
The limiting factor for many of us was money. It can be expensive to fly. There is nothing about leaving the ground that comes for free. Somebody, somewhere, has to pay the bill. In most cases, that somebody is a student pilot who has real drive, but limited financial resources.
Like most of the pilots I know, my early attempts at flying were self-financed.
For some time it seemed a sizable chunk of my paycheck was transferred directly to the local FBO. This went on for months, in two states, at different FBOs, where I received something that approximated flight instruction in at least three different types of aircraft.
A little ignorance can go a long way when you’re trying to learn to fly. Throw in limited access to capital and the combination can be the death knell of a dream.
Of my original ground school class, taught in a non-descript office building in Sunnyside, Queens, New York, I was the only student to actually make my way out to the airport for the next phase of training.
With my written test done, I was ready. I was also almost completely in the dark.
While I’d grown up in an aviation family and had many contacts who were pilots, I didn’t know a single person who had earned their pilot certificate outside the military. With no guide other than the CFI who provided my initial flight lesson in Special VFR conditions, I was pretty much doomed to failure.
Yet, I didn’t fail. I persevered. I transitioned to a somewhat better FBO flight school. I flew with an instructor who actually cared enough to help me make progress.
But I’d spent a lot of money. A lot. And it was starting to really hurt.
In the end I took out a loan for $28,000 at 8% interest, enrolled in full-time flight training at a reputable school, and got to work. A year later I was a working flight instructor, building hours and experience while looking down the barrel of some good-sized student loan payments.
That’s when I got lucky. My banker was my dad. Our relationship, while strained by a number of factors, was never completely broken. It was my dad who offered the loan when he realized I was serious about learning to fly and making aviation my career. He had a lawyer draft the contract and I signed it. A couple weeks later I was in flight school.
The payments didn’t intimidate me nearly as much as the idea of spending the rest of my life ground bound in a career I had no interest in. So I went to school, I studied hard, made great friends, and became a commercial pilot.
This is where things get a little weird. While visiting my parents one day, I found an envelope with my name on it. Inside was the contract for my loan, torn to bits.
My dad never said a word, but my success and ultimate employment as a pilot moved him to transition my contract from a loan document to a scholarship application. I was financially out from under, I was flying, and I was earning a living doing it.
My story is not entirely unique, although I will readily admit to having an extraordinarily bizarre scholarship experience.
To those who come behind me I say this: Educate yourself. There are oodles of scholarship programs for want-to-be-pilots, pilots adding ratings, mechanics, and everything else you can think of.
Here in Polk County, Florida the James C. Ray Scholarship is open to any high school student in the county. And this county is nearly twice the size of Rhode Island.
It’s a serious resource for a large group of potential applicants. More than one family has actually relocated to take advantage of it.
The FAA includes multiple pages on its website devoted to scholarships and grants. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), Boeing, and Women in Aviation scholarships are just a few examples.
Aviation advocate and commercial carrier pilot Carl Valeri has researched and published an entire book on the topic of aerospace scholarships. The 2017 edition has just recently been released.
The point is, there is help out there for anyone who wants to get involved, or deepen their involvement in aviation. Whether you’re just dreaming of it, or you’re stalled in your progress due to finances, you’re not all on your own deep in the woods as the sun sets and the evening chill sets in. It may feel like that at times, but there are resources you can turn to for help. Good resources. You just have to find them.
For those of us who are involved in this industry, we often take interested individuals up for a quick turn around the local area. We share our passion and offer advice. Perhaps we can add the availability of scholarships to our list of helpful tidbits of information to share.
If nothing else, recommend that curious future pilot type “Learn to Fly Scholarship” into their favorite search engine. You and they will be surprised by the volume of options available.
It has been said that time and tide wait for no one. If a lack of financing is what’s holding new pilot aspirants back, perhaps that’s not quite as insurmountable an issue as it once was.
Seek and you shall find. There are training dollars sitting in an account, waiting for someone to raise their hand and say, “Please, could you help me learn to fly?”
Yes. Yes, they can.
Good luck, one and all.