By Kyle Arnold, Tulsa World
TULSA — Cherie Baugh loved boarding airplanes as a girl and rocketing through the air.
And being a pilot was her childhood fantasy, the way some might dream of being a superhero or a princess.
Then she realized that people are actually paid to fly airplanes.
"It just hit me one day that someone does this for a living," said the 27-year-old Tulsa Community College flight school student. "And I can do this."
By the end of this year, Baugh hopes to have her certified flight instructor certificate and, maybe within another year or two, enough hours to qualify to fly for a regional airline.
She may have plenty of opportunities to pilot a commercial jetliner at 35,000 feet if she can work her way through an arduous and expensive process.
The demand for airline pilots is expected to take off in the coming years, with the need for as many as 85,700 additional pilots in North America by 2032, according to a 2013 report from The Boeing Co. based on projected aircraft sales.
Worldwide there will be a need for about a half million additional pilots, with the bulk in fast-growing airline industries in Asia.
And in a variety of ways, it has never been a more turbulent time for recruiting new pilots.
Baby boomers comprise the majority of pilots flying commercial jetliners, and airlines must reload with younger pilots if they hope to keep planes in the air. Federal law allows pilots to fly commercial passenger jets only until age 65, a threshold that was raised in 2012 from age 60.
New rules from the Federal Aviation Administration also require pilots to get more training and give airlines stricter guidelines for rest requirements for staff.
"The major airlines and regionals are going to need more pilots," said Capt. Tom Hoban, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. "Right now, it's pretty much driven by retirement and attrition, and you will have to add some add additional crew members for FAA changes to pilot rest requirements."
Hoban said the average age of a pilot at his union, which represents pilots at American Airlines, is about 53.
"No airline will experience future attrition in the numbers we're going to see due to retirements," he said. "If you're a young new hire pilot at a major airline, you are going to be riding the golden goose for the rest of your career."
The flow of trained pilots from the military has significantly slowed since the Cold War era, meaning most new pilots need to come through flight schools.
Between new rest rules, retirements and a shorter supply, the demand for pilots is growing, the Tulsa World reported (http://bit.ly/1bXPXT5 ).
Already some regional airlines are offering bonuses of $10,000 or more to attract new candidates with an Airline Transport Pilot license.
With a median pay of $94,410 in 2012, it's no wonder that work as an airline or commercial pilot is a highly sought after career.
Getting anywhere near that salary is a tough path. An entry-level first officer at American Eagle makes about $24,000 a year.
Students often spend upwards of $100,000 to go through flight school, including 1,500 hours of flight time that costs $200 or more an hour.
With Tulsa Community College and Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, Tulsa has two major flight schools turning out certified pilots each year.
Evan Trammel, 19, started flight school at Tulsa Community College in the fall, working his way toward an associate degree with hopes of earning a bachelor's degree at Oklahoma State University.
The FAA reduces flight time requirements to 1,000 hours for students who earn a bachelor's degree in the aviation industry. Those pilots are given a restricted license until they hit their 1,500 hour threshold.
"I really like to travel, and that's a perk of the job being able to see the world and getting able to get paid while doing it," Trammel said.
Trammel has no illusions that a degree in aviation isn't an expensive process, but he said he hopes that with the help of his parents he will finish with only $20,000 to $30,000 in student loan debt by the time he's finished.
Baugh, on the other hand, said she has already sunk thousands into her education and hopes to get a job as a certified flight instructor soon, where she can earn flight time free of charge.
Tony Neely left a 13-year job as a regional pilot in Wisconsin this year to take a position at the vice president of flight operations at Spartan College at the beginning of this year.
He said the school is trying to prepare students for the anticipated shortage of pilots, getting students required flight hours and adjusting to ever-changing rules from flight authorities.
"You have to look at the career earnings," Neely said. "I was making more than six figures when I left the regionals. You'll get the biggest pay raise of your life when you go from first officer to pilot."
Often pilots start their early years flying short-hop regional flights between smaller cities. Pilots are often away from home days at a time, shuttling between mid-sized cities.
The goal for many is to move into commercial piloting, flying for corporations on a more reliable schedule, or to move to mainline carriers with better routes, such as international destinations.
In November, American Airlines announced intentions to hire 1,500 pilots, its first hiring in years. The company received more than 10,000 applications for fewer than 500 immediately available positions.
"The biggest challenge is going to be on the regional airline side," said Scott Hansen, director of flight administration for American Airlines and in charge of recruiting.
Hansen said about half of American's new pilots come from its regional carrier, American Eagle/Envoy.
While the mainline airlines pay better than regionals, Hansen said American doesn't want to hurt American Eagle/Envoy by picking off all of its pilots.
For pilots at airlines, the wage structure is often dictated by unions, which gives high priority to experience.
And the best money for pilots is at mainline airlines, such as American Airlines. American recently made a deal with American Eagle/Envoy pilots to help funnel pilots from its regional airline into the mainline fleet, where the money and routes are better.
Not only do potential pilots need hundreds of hours of experience in a plane, but they also need to have a comprehensive knowledge of aircraft operation and mechanics, navigation, flight planning, meteorology, aviation law, physics, and more.
That's in addition to the basic skills needed to fly a complicated jet machine for hours on end.
"You really have to have a passion for all things flying to become an airline pilot," Neely said.
Spartan has shorter programs that take a year for students to obtain a professional pilot license, an associate track degree and a three-year bachelor's of science aviation technology management.
One advantage to the bachelor's degree track, Neely said, is that students can work as certified flight instructors while they earn their flight hours.
Tuition at Spartan for an associate degree is about $66,000, and a three-year bachelor's program costs about an additional $25,000 a year. With books and other fees, the total cost for the three-year bachelor's program is about $104,000.