Jacob Mitchell will never forget the thrill he felt the first time he saw an airplane take off. He was 4 and having lunch with his mom at a restaurant overlooking an airport.
From that day forward, Mitchell said, all he ever wanted to play with as a kid were toy airplanes. And as a teen, all he ever wanted to become was a pilot.
In May, the 21-year-old from Foxfield, Colo., graduated from Kansas State University's aviation program and landed a job as a pilot with Republic Airline. This summer, Mitchell is working on K-State's Polytechnic Campus in Salina as a senior flight instructor and ambassador. He's recruiting students to flight school for his new employer, which, like other regional airlines these days, is desperately looking to hire new pilots.
There's a pilot shortage in this country, and several airlines are combating the problem by partnering with K-State to guarantee jobs to graduates like Mitchell.
Regional airlines are urgently trying to fill a huge number of pilot vacancies created by two main factors: Since 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration has required more time for pilots to get certified. And it mandates that commercial pilots, a good number of them aging baby boomers, retire at 65.
The number of active pilots in the U.S. declined by about 30,000 from 2008 to 2016.
Some industry experts forecast 30 percent of the pilot workforce will retire over the next eight years. Others go as high as 42 percent. Airlines are challenged facing growing air service demand when fewer pilots are entering the career than retiring out of it.
Small airports in rural areas are most at risk of losing service.
Last summer, Horizon Air — the regional affiliate of Alaska Air — was forced to cancel more than 318 flights because it didn’t have enough pilots on the short connector flights in the Pacific Northwest.
Great Lakes Airlines, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., once employed 1,600 people but stopped flying in March because it couldn’t hire enough pilots.
Large commercial airlines feel the impact if regional airlines can't get customers to hub cities such as Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and New York City.
"Regional airlines provide the only source of air service to most U.S. airports," says a recent report by the Regional Airline Association. "Industry contraction is a national crisis."
On top of that, limited flights drive up ticket costs.
This spring, K-State signed partnerships with Piedmont Airlines, PSA Airlines (the American Airlines subsidiary), Republic and Mesa Airlines. They pay students, train them and give them pilot jobs as soon as they graduate and have 1,000 flight hours.
K-State's Pilot Cadet Program also provides financial assistance, mentorship and a direct flow of cadets to major commercial airlines, including American, the world's largest.
Though K-State operates the only such program in the state, it is part of a growing trend of four-year colleges partnering with airlines. The University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg offers a similar partnership, as do schools in Florida, California, New Jersey, Delaware and Georgia.
Mitchell said he chose K-State because "it is one of the top schools around for flight school and the most affordable in the area." Little did he know four years ago that he would benefit from the new partnerships with airlines.
Maddie Perry had been flying as a passenger with her father — a private pilot — since fifth grade.
"I used to go flying with my dad all the time, and I got hooked. But I always wanted to be at the controls," said Perry, who starts her senior year in professional pilot school at K-state in the fall.
This spring, Perry, who grew up in Wichita, landed a position as a cadet in Republic Airline's Aviation Career Pipeline Interview Program and expects to work for the airline right after graduation. In two years, she'll be looking to make captain.
"It's a good pathway to get to an airline," she said. She hopes to eventually land a job flying for United Airlines. "It's the kind of job you have to love," Perry said. "But they are offering good quality of life, good pay."
As recently as two or three years ago, "the average regional pilot was making about $20,000 a year," said Ben Jaffee, senior assistant chief flight instructor at K-State. "The pay has come up significantly. Airlines realized they really needed to start paying a living wage" if they wanted more pilots.
Especially since it costs substantially more to attend four years of college with flight school. K-State's tuition and fees are usually about $39,000 for four years. Flight school piles another $45,000 on top of that. And that doesn't include the expensive pilot gear, such as flight uniform and basic headset, that students have to buy.
The expense is worth it, said Mitchell, who signed to fly as a first officer with Republic, earning an annual salary of $58,000 to $64,000. The median yearly wage for commercial pilots was $78,740 in May 2017.
"I'm tickled pink," he said. "It's what I've always wanted. I remember all my high school teachers would get on me for always staring out the window, and now I've got a career where I'm paid to look out the window."