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81-year-old veteran earns master’s degree in aviation from Liberty

Ret. Air Force Lt. Col. Nicholas Schillen stands outside Thomas Road Baptist Church, site of Thursday morning’s Military Graduate Recognition Ceremony. (Photo by KJ Jugar)

At 81, Nicholas Schillen, a U.S. Air Force veteran who completed his M.S. in Aeronautics through Liberty University Online Programs in December, is the oldest graduate among the 29,000-plus students in the Class of 2024.

He and his wife drove from their home near Miami to Lynchburg, Va., so he could see the university for the first time, attend Liberty’s Military Graduate Recognition Ceremony on Thursday morning, and walk the stage at Thursday afternoon’s School of Aeronautics degree presentation ceremony.

In the early 1960s, Schillen studied marine biology at colleges in Texas and Indiana before following an alternate flight plan.

“I had to make a career decision,” he said. “Do I go into the air or into the water? My dad said, ‘No more school for you. Get a job.’ So I went into the Air Force.”

Schillen, who was born in Venezuela, and his wife, Maria, who was born in Chile, both grew up in Havana, Cuba. They met while serving in the U.S. Air Force on the same base at the Panama Canal.

Schillen (top left) trained Vietnamese pilots during the military conflict in the late 1960s. (Submitted photo)

Schillen’s military career stretched from 1963-87, and he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Starting as a radar navigator and bombardier in B-52s during the Cold War, he received his pilot’s wings and flew special operations missions aboard C-47 Skytrains in Vietnam in the late 1960s before working with the Defense Intelligence Agency and being assigned as an aviation military advisor to several posts in Central America.

“That was kind of interesting and pretty rewarding, working on operations in Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala,” Schillen said. “Invariably, I was involved in assignments with other U.S. service members in special forces and Navy SEALS, as well as host country military units. I was in the Air Force side of those activities.”

In civilian life, he started as an instructor at Eastern Air Lines and subsequently taught in the Air Force Junior ROTC program for 10 years before starting his own flight school and serving as a chief pilot for NS Aviation Training, Inc., from 2000-18. A year later, he became the chief instructor for Atlantis Aviation Flight Academy, an FAA-approved Part 141 flight school that trained international students in Pembroke Pines, Fla., from 2019-21.

Schillen’s specialties include commercial certification and instrument-rated single and multiengine flight instruction. He also specializes in preparing commercial pilots to become flight instructors. To promote his instructional expertise, Schillen launched MN Aviation Consultants, Inc., in 2018. As its owner and CEO, he provides one-on-one flight instruction to recreational pilots and those seeking professional certification. Additionally, he has provided consulting services in quality control and standardization of training procedures to several South Florida flight schools.

Schillen trains in a Lear jet with Raul Montano, who he certified as a flight instructor before he earned his commercial pilot’s license.

Schillen said he heard about Liberty through associations in his flight school and felt an immediate connection due to Liberty’s nationally recognized military friendliness.

“I felt welcome, you know?” he said.

Pursuing his master’s degree gave Schillen a whole new perspective on general aviation and the flight training industry in particular.

“If you do something in your skill and your area of expertise after a while, you think you know it all, at least I did, but that’s not true,” he said. “I broadened my view of aviation. I’ve been a very hands-on, operational type of pilot, and I wasn’t familiar with many of the topics covered, aviation law, for example. Of course, I’m a history buff, so that aspect of the courses was of great interest to me.”

It had been more than 50 years since he had enrolled in college coursework, and Schillen quickly discovered that the road to a master’s degree wasn’t going to be easy.

“Well, if anybody thinks it’s going to be a cakewalk, I tell them, ‘Don’t even try it,’” Schillen said. “It’s work, and you’ve got to put in the time and effort. If you follow the process, the way Liberty does it, and you dedicate your mind to it, it will pay off.”

He said the process was extremely rewarding.

“People ask me, ‘Why would you get a master’s at this point in your career?’” Schillen said. “Completing it was a big measure of honor in and of itself. I graduated with distinction, which I never thought I could or would. But I just did my best. If I made a mistake, the instructor let me know. Their feedback was always excellent, and so were their words of encouragement.”

As the owner and operator of NS Aviation for 20 years, Schillen (fourth from right) trained more than 150 student pilots who are now flying as airline and corporate captains and first officers.

For his capstone project, he designed a course to teach pilots who want to become FAA-certified flight instructors. Schillen’s professor was Jim Molloy, a former dean of the School of Aeronautics, and a fellow Air Force veteran now serving with Samaritan’s Air in North Africa.

“He had also served in the Defense Intelligence Agency and had done a lot of the same work that I used to do when I was in the military, so we had something in common,” Schillen said. “I felt that there was a degree of familiarity. I struggled with the research, and he kept pushing me.”

Schillen, who said he has always lived by the Golden Rule, especially with regards to the way he has operated his flight school, said the main benefit he received from his online studies through Liberty was the strengthening of his faith.

“I’ve always been spiritual,” said Schillen, who was baptized into the Catholic faith but has been influenced by friends who were Protestant believers throughout his military and civilian career. “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but I never took my faith too seriously until I started taking master’s level courses. The concept of writing a paper about aviation leaders in military history or flight safety through a biblical lens was new to me. So that approach was very significant to me. It made me more knowledgeable and gave me the confidence to speak and to train from a spiritual perspective.”

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