When Neil Bateman was a little boy, all he wanted to do was fly. He dreamed of piloting airplanes, flying anywhere and everywhere.
However, when he realized he would not be able to pilot due to his poor eyesight, Bateman resigned his dreams and planned for a new career.
In 2007, Bateman started his degree studying biological sciences at Ohio University. Then, he switched to production design and technology at the end of his sophomore year. He graduated in 2011 and worked with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line for about two years.
Bateman felt that he had a greater purpose — so he spent almost a year trying to join the Marines. In 2014, he successfully became a Marine and remained one until February 2018.
It was during his time with the Marines when Bateman received Lasik eye surgery. At first, he didn’t think anything of it because he knew pilots with corrected eyes still weren’t accepted.
“But then someone looked at me and said, ‘You know they take them now, right?’” Bateman said. “And then everything just went back this way.”
Suddenly, Bateman’s dream of becoming a pilot was not so far-fetched. Now able to afford aviation school thanks to the GI Bill, an educational assistance bill provided to service members, veterans and their dependents, he returned to OU with more confidence and excitement than ever before.
“I came back here in 2018 because, well, there’s a lot of reasons,” Bateman said. “It’s my alma mater. I know where everything is, which is a big help, and they’ve had a very good reputation with veterans’ issues, so it all just kind of came together that year, and I’ve been here since.”
Bateman, 31, is now a third-year student with the aviation program in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. Bateman has his private pilot’s license and is currently working toward his instrument and commercial licenses.
On top of academic courses, aviation students have to complete actual flights at the Gordon K. Bush OU Airport. Some flights take place with an instructor, while others are solo student flights that land at other airports more than 50 miles away.
As an instructor, Jake O’Dea enjoys nothing more than assisting his students, watching them speed up in the airplane to about 55 knots and experiencing their excitement as they take off.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” O’Dea said. “There's nothing better than introducing someone to aviation, taking them through 2400 (private pilot flight) and seeing them succeed.”
Students are able to practice flying through various weather conditions and even in emergency conditions.
“One was an emergency procedure lesson,” Bateman said of his favorite flying experience. “I didn’t think we were going to do it that day, but everyone else canceled, so we had the whole airport to ourselves. My instructor didn’t tell me, either, because it’s simulating an emergency. We got up about 1,500 feet, and he looked at me and turned the engine off. He said ‘OK, the engine went out. Go back to the airport,’ which was scary but very good practice.”
For Bateman, his ideal weather for flying is a cool, overcast day with high clouds. Those tend to be smoother days, he said. Sometimes, the weather can be perfectly clear and yet so bumpy that he hits his head on the airplane ceiling while flying.
Bateman’s hard work has paid off not only through his academic prowess, but through recognition from the Russ College and Tau Beta Pi, a student chapter of engineering honorary society, awards in April 2020. Bateman received the Outstanding Senior Award from the aviation department.
“I wish I could take some credit for it,” Steve Owens, assistant professor of aviation and Bateman’s adviser, said. “He makes my job really easy, and I just enjoy watching students who take it seriously and want to be professional. I harp on attitude, demeanor and character, and that’s what aviation is all about. Because do you really want a pilot in front of your airplane who doesn’t possess those qualities?”
Bateman plans to graduate in 2022, depending on how long it takes him to complete his flight times and licenses. With his credentials, he wants to take a more unusual route and fly planes that dispense water for firefighters.
Looking back on his journey, from the little boy in glasses who wanted to fly planes to now, Bateman’s only regret is not pursuing this career path sooner. He believes if his younger self could speak to him now, he would’ve encouraged him to find as many opportunities as possible to realize his dream.
“When you give up on something at that age, you don’t think about it 10 or 15 years later unless something that obvious happens,” Bateman said. “So he’d probably say, ‘What took you so long?’”