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Green River flight students take off with pilot degree program

When David Watson's or Michael Peterson's stomachs start to growl during their classes at Green River Community College, they include Bainbridge Island, Yakima, even Portland, Ore., among the possible locales for a lunch break.

Something, the men say, within "a reasonable distance."

See, to Watson, Peterson and the other GRCC flight students in the professional pilot degree program, "reasonable distance" means something different than it does to an ordinary Joe.

A "great office view," says Watson, 26, a former Marine using the GI bill to put himself through college.

Having the Auburn Airport and Galvin Flight Services, which handle the practical flight instruction, so close to the college has made it much easier for flight school students to get air time, whereas before they had to travel up to Boeing Field in Renton for their classes.

Instructor George Comollo said there is a growing need for pilots in the industries, using Boeing Aerospace, which produces one 787 Dreamliner every three days to meet a demand for more than 1,000 planes, as an example.

"If you look at the demographics of the pilots, as George says, they're getting older," said Josh Clearman, dean of Green River technical programs.

According to Clearman, airline companies realize that a large manpower gap is coming, as many pilots approaching retirement ages find their stock portfolios recovering.

"As a wave swells, you can feel it building, and then there's that break point, so we feel like we're somewhere on the point of that wave, closer to the top than the bottom," Clearman said.

Pilots aren't limited to working for passenger services. One student may train on fixed-wing craft to work for a major airline, whereas another may train on helicopters or commercial transport planes. Peterson, who hopes to work in Alaska, is training to be a bush pilot.

GRCC offers training for the three different pilot licenses — private, commercial, and air transport — and side certifications for multi engine, instructor, and instrument ratings. And according to Comollo, the courses can't be taken lightly. New students should expect to work their tails off.

"You really need to come in and realize that you're jumping such a high level of steps in knowledge for every lesson you take," said Comollo. "You're really preparing for a world that is fairly quick. It's not like you have a slow educational process to get you to that level of knowledge and understanding."

Comollo said that the most successful pilots have a strong logical mindset that can process the methodical steps that flight schools require.

One of the hardest classes, Peterson and Watson agree, is instrument reading, and they don't expect it to get easier. Each class gets more in depth, says Peterson. For private license training, students only learn what each instrument does, but for other classes, such as the instruments course, they have to learn precisely how the instrument functions on a mechanical and physical level.

While flying can be an exciting career, prospective pilots shouldn't jump into flying for the money. According to several sources, pilots may expect to make less than $40,000 a year in their first years of flying, whereas the average cost of training runs in excess of $80,000. The ratio of wages to the program's high costs has turned many potential students away, and has contributed to the workforce shortage projected in the coming years.

Still, for the chance to have an office with a window at 35,000 feet, the risks might be worth the rewards.

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