CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – The cost of obtaining a pilot’s license can be between $4,000 and $15,000, depending on the location, type of aircraft used, instructor experience, and the student’s learning pace. U.S. Army Sgt. Courtney Yerger knows all too well the financial hardships that come with becoming a civilian aviator.
A Soldier with the Virginia National Guard, Yerger is using her civilian expertise to save Soldiers hundreds of dollars by providing a free aviation curriculum during her downtime while deployed to Kosovo.
Currently based at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, as a geospatial intelligence imagery analyst with the VaARNG’s 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, for NATO’s Kosovo Force, Yerger spends her Tuesday evenings helping Soldiers pursue their interests in aviation by offering a cost-free curriculum.
Concurrently, she is also in the process of applying to become a warrant officer for the Army, with aspirations of one day becoming the Virginia National Guard’s first female UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flight instructor.
As a child, Yerger was always fascinated by the idea of space. She was determined to get as close to space as possible by exploring the skies. To meet her goal, her initial aspirations were to attend the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. But due to the demanding entry requirements, she wasn’t accepted.
However, that didn’t cause Yerger to lose faith in her aviation dreams, as she was then accepted to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she attended the School of Aeronautics.
“Not having studied aeronautics before, with zero experience or background in aviation, I showed up and had no idea what was going on,” said Yerger. “But once I started doing it, I really enjoyed it and now I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
But her path to becoming an aviator wasn’t seamless and came with many challenges.
“Sophomore year, I actually had to drop out of college due to financial reasons,” she said. “I left Liberty, went back home, and ended up enlisting in the National Guard.”
After completing Basic Combat Training, Yerger returned to Liberty University for her Junior year. Upon graduation, she received a commercial pilot’s certificate and two flight instructor certificates.
However, Yerger then faced another familiar struggle - COVID-19, which left the aviation industry in dismay.
“I ended up graduating in 2020, the year of COVID, and I needed to quickly find a job and a place to live,” she said.
It was then that because of her qualifications, Liberty University offered Yerger a position as a flight instructor.
“The funny thing is that growing up, when people would ask ‘what would you never want to do?’ I would say ‘be a teacher,’” she laughed. “Because when I thought of being a teacher, I thought of being in front of a classroom and bringing home homework to grade.”
She accepted the position anyway and began instructing. To her surprise, the job was anything but traditional.
“I was like ‘Oh! This is a lot more fun than what I thought it was,’” she said. “I quickly learned that I really enjoy one-on-one interactions and watching students understand the concepts that I explain to them.”
Yerger said that she enjoys tailoring her method of instruction to each student’s needs.
“I like finding how every student learns differently and matching my teaching style to it,” she said. “It’s really rewarding.”
She explained that since deploying to Kosovo earlier this year, dozens of Soldiers have asked her to host a class on an aviation ground course.
“When I had the interest meeting to determine if this was actually something Soldiers would be interested in doing, about forty-three people showed up,” she said. “So, I was like ‘Okay, there’s definitely interest here.’”
Many of Yerger’s students travel roughly an hour from other camps throughout Kosovo every Tuesday after the duty day to Camp Bondsteel in order to attend her class.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Benjamin Askins, a physician’s assistant assigned to Kentucky National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry Regiment, travels from Camp Novo Selo, Kosovo, to attend each week.
“This was something on my bucket list for a while, but I never had the opportunity or money to pursue it before,” Askins said. “When I found out that there was an opportunity to attend the course, combined with the free price, it was just perfect.”
One of the first requirements in obtaining a private pilot's certificate is to be endorsed by a flight instructor and take a knowledge test, which can cost upwards of $400 in the civilian sector, something Yerger provides her students for free, she said.
Soldiers who complete Yerger’s class in its entirety will receive her endorsement and will then be eligible to take the knowledge test.
“The goal of the class is that if they show up, do the work, and show me they’ve put in the effort, then I can endorse them,” she said. “Then they can take the test and have these steps done before they go to a flight school and start learning the flying portion.”
Yerger’s class benefits not only the Soldiers she teaches but also her as well by keeping her up to date with knowledge and preparing coursework.
“The students here are keeping me current with the knowledge by asking questions and being engaged,” she explained. “In a lot of ways, they teach me with their perspectives, understandings and with what they bring to the table as well.”
Yerger said that being an aviator means you never stop learning.
“There’s never a point of complacency,” she said. “Aviation is a profession where you continue to hone your skills.”
She hopes that her knowledge and understanding of aviation regulations and standard operating procedures will give her an advantage when submitting her application to become a warrant officer.
“If you’re in a fixed-wing versus in a helicopter, aerodynamic principles don’t change,” Yerger said. “If my warrant officer packet is accepted, then I’ll go to flight school for Black Hawks.”
Her goal is to pursue the instructor pilot warrant officer track, which could take upwards of two years to complete if accepted.
“I know Virginia hasn’t had any female instructor pilots yet in the Guard, so that’s something I would like to break into,” she said. “But until then, I’m planning on going back to instructing at Liberty after the deployment.”
Her favorite part of being an aviator now isn’t the incredible aerial views or being in control of an aircraft; it’s being a flight instructor and spending time with her students, whether in the air or on the ground while helping them achieve their goals.