WACO, Texas (KWTX) Baylor University junior Natalie Verhoog is taking advantage of a partnership between Baylor and Texas State Technical College aimed at meeting a growing demand for commercial pilots.
She started as a pre-med student, but after her freshman year, her focus changed.
"I took one flight lesson over this summer and absolutely fell in love with it. I immediately knew that this is what I wanted to do."
A few days before the start of her sophomore year she found out about that Texas State Technical College's Aircraft Pilot Training Technology program and the Baylor University's Aviation Sciences department have a partnership to help train pilots for planes and helicopters.
Baylor students who take part in the program earn dual credit.
They can take ground classes on either campus, but actual flight hours mainly come from TSTC.
While earning hours at TSTC she continues to work on her Bachelor of Science degree at Baylor.
She's also getting more experience and hours in the air to meet the requirements to become a commercial pilot.
Carson Pearce, Aerospace Division director at TSTC said students like Verhoog are almost guaranteed a job once they complete their studies.
"A lot of the airline companies that are on our flight boards are telling us that they're laying off aircraft because they don't have enough pilots to fly it."
Pearce said a pilot shortage is what's driving airlines to grab trained pilots where they can find them.
Globally, commercial airlines expect to need 600,000 pilots.
In the U.S. alone, an estimated 114,000 will be needed by 2026.
To fill those spots airlines offer tens of thousands of dollars in signing bonuses.
Pearce said even the government is willing to pay veteran pilots to stay.
"The U.S. Air Force just announced that in critical fighter jet areas like in the F-15 and the F-35, you sign up with them again for another tour of duty, it's a $455,000 cash signing bonus. That's to keep them from hemorrhaging that talent out to the airlines because they need it so great."
Experts said the shortage is driven by a number of factors including action by Congress to raise the minimum flight training hours from 250 to 1,500 for first officers on commercial flights, the retirement of veteran pilots, and the growth of the airline industry.
If those spots don't get filled, experts said that leads to canceled flights at some airports and canceled service at others.
The money is attractive, but Verghoog says that’s not her primary motivation.
"With flying I would do it for free quite honestly. I love it so much so it's pretty great that they're going to pay me and pay me well to do it. It's definitely encouraging and exciting to hear that there are jobs opening that after I get my four-year degree I won't be jobless."
According to TSTC, the program takes an average of 140 students.
It currently has 142 enrolled and there is a waiting list.
The college also said, 93 per cent of its graduates go on to get jobs in the industry.
"When they graduate from this, they now no longer are just getting a great paying job for themselves, they're meeting a critical infrastructure need for the American economy and commerce,” Pearce said.