Rocker – Paratrooper – Helicopter Pilot
by James Lee, CFI-I
The Aviation bug caught me early in life, I was a part time Army brat and spent my summers along with my older brother on the drop zones of Ft. Benning Georgia watching my Father jump out of C-130’s with the 75th Ranger Regiment. I loved the aircraft I was able to see, especially the helicopters flying just above the tree line. “Top Gun” was my favorite movie and I wanted to be a fighter pilot when I grew up. The dream of flying faded as I grew older, after high school I followed my love of music and began working in the music industry in New York City and eventually Los Angeles. I was living my dream of playing in a band and working with rock stars. Like so many others, my life changed after 9/11 and my priorities began to change as well.
Military Service Brings Confidence
The dream that I was living was no longer what I wanted from life. In 2005 I joined the family business and enlisted in the U.S. Army and becoming a paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division. The Army was a shock to my system but it was a good fit. I loved the structure and loved what I was doing. I was jumping out of those same airplanes and flying in the helicopters I watched as a kid. As I began to move through the ranks and took on more responsibility, I could feel my confidence growing in what I did and who I was.
Kiowas Bring Back the Aviation Bug
In 2010 I was on my second deployment to Afghanistan in a beautiful area just outside Kandahar known as the Arghandab River Valley. It was a lush valley filled with pomegranate orchards, grapevines and improvised explosive devices. Our infantry company was being supported by a squadron of OH-58D Kiowa helicopters and the aviation bug was starting to bite me again. Maybe it was the fact that they were up there having fun while I was on the ground, dirty and tired but I decided in that valley that I wanted to fly helicopters.
Land Mine Brings Opportunity
My life and priorities changed again on March 30th 2010 when I found a land mine the hard way. Two days later I was laid up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with a shattered heel and a doctor telling me that my career as a paratrooper was over. I was lucky to still have the leg and my wife and I decided to look at it as an opportunity. She asked me, “If you could do anything outside of the army, what would it be?” My only reply was, “Fly helicopters.” For the next two years, finding a way to make that possible became our top priority.
A Flight Program Designed for Veterans
The search was for a flight school was more difficult than I had anticipated. The way the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill seemed to work did not allow me to use my VA benefits to pursue my goals. I went to a number of flight schools who all told me that I had to have my private pilot’s license before my benefits would cover any of the cost. I even applied to and was accepted to a major university’s aviation program only to find that the flight costs would not be covered by the G.I. bill. I was beginning to think my dream of flying was a lost cause. I began looking into scholarships and trying to find a way to cover the flight training expenses. While searching the internet for G.I. Bill housing allowance rates, I came upon a link for Guidance Aviation. Their website claimed that all flight training as well as an associates degree in aviation technology through their collegiate partner program could be covered by the G.I. Bill. It seemed too good to be true, in my experience; you rarely find exactly what you are looking for through an internet search. I immediately called Guidance’s student services and learned that the program was designed for veterans like me who wanted to be professional helicopter pilots. I began to put my application packet together the same day. I had just a few months left in the military and for the first time I was excited about my future after the Army.
Adjusting to Student Life
I was a bit nervous starting classes my first semester, I hadn’t been in school in about fifteen years and didn’t know if I would be able to adjust to the class room. Within the first week I began talking to some of the other guys in the program and found we had a lot in common and even knew a few of the same people from our time in the military. It was easy to make friends within the program and that made it easier to adjust to college life. At the end of the first week, Guidance put on a new student bbq to welcome new students and to recognize milestones passed by students further into the program. That was when I first began to understand a feel apart of the Guidance culture. It didn’t feel like a mix of students, instructors and faculty, but a group of people all working together and celebrating their accomplishments. Like most students, I had just moved to a new town and didn’t know anyone outside of the school but Guidance helped make us feel like we belonged.
Seeking Challenge and Getting It
Since that first barbecue I have had many late nights studying airspace or aerodynamics, many early mornings flying across northern Arizona and many check rides I thought I could never pass. I knew when I left the Army that I wanted something as challenging and fulfilling as my time in the military and Guidance provided that challenge. Like most students I had setbacks, trying to become proficient as a pilot while taking a full load of general education classes required a bit of juggling and even a bit of luck. Every time I passed a milestone, something even more difficult followed but I knew from the first time I was given the controls of a helicopter that this was where I wanted to be.
A New World of Possibilities
Two years ago I was a veteran with a lot of life experience and a G.E.D. Now I am a Certified Flight Instructor-Instruments, with a college degree with a future that is wide open. My experiences at Guidance have opened a new world of possibilities for me and given me a glimpse of the aviation industry I hope to find my place in.
Student Blogs are written by students and alumni of Guidance Aviation, providing insight to the lives and experiences of those pursuing a career in helicopter aviation.