The first time she steered a plane, Vanessa Baker was hooked.
It was that moment, on an introductory discovery flight, that she knew piloting was the career for her.
“The second you do it, you fall in love,” Baker said. “It was kind of like an addiction after, like you do it and once you’re like, ‘This is awesome! I want to do this again!’”
Baker, 24, is the first — and currently the only— female pilot student at Pasco-Hernando State College to have earned a private pilot’s license, through the school’s professional pilot technology program.
Baker’s interest in flying piqued after her father showed her a magazine about the PHSC’s new aviation department at the East Campus in Dade City.
A self-proclaimed “wild child,” Baker figured she’d give it a shot. She’s had fun ever since.
“Literally, every day I’m there, I have the best time,” she said of learning to fly.
Baker began taking classes in January and earned her first wings in July.
“I do feel a sense of accomplishment, like, ‘Hey, I was the first female to do this. If I can do it, you can definitely do it,’” she said.
Along with the designation at PHSC, Baker joins rare company nationwide.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports about 7 percent of all pilots are females, equating to about 42,000 total.
Even fewer are commercial pilots, which Baker wants to become someday.
Said Baker: “I definitely do think it’s interesting that it’s mostly a male-dominated field. I think that’s very weird. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all, and I think it would be really cool if that changed.”
Mark Aragon, PHSC professional pilot director, said other female students are enrolled in the PHSC aviation program, but have yet to get their private pilot’s license.
He also noted just 10 percent of all pilot students across each state college end up earning their wings, making Baker part of an “elite group.”
Aragon taught Baker her aviation ground school classes.
The instructor admits Baker struggled early on, but her effort and dedication has won out in a pilot technology program, which he said “is like drinking from a fire hose.”
“She’s going to be very successful,” Aragon said. “She has that stick-to-itiveness, that drive and desire that like, ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I want to be. I’m not going to let anything slow me down.’”
Private pilot license in hand, Baker is still seeking her instrument pilot rating, multi-engine pilot rating and commercial pilot license — all through the two-year professional pilot technology associates of science degree program.
She’s racked up more than 100 flying hours at the American Aviation Flight Academy at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. She needed about 40 hours to earn her private license.
At the academy, Baker trains in a Cessna 172, a four-seat, single-engine, high wing, fixed-wing aircraft that cruises at 140 mph and reaches more than 180 mph.
She’s flown throughout Florida, passing over Naples, St. Augustine, Crystal River, Gainesville, Ocala and Crystal River, and even going as far north as Valdosta, Georgia.
The thrill of flying still hasn’t worn off, Baker said.
“You definitely feel alive,” she said. “I still look out the window when I’m flying, and I’m just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I get to do this!’”
In between her busy class and flight schedule, Baker works as a phlebotomist at Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, not leaving much room for free time.
“It’s a lot of work, but totally worth it,” Baker said. “I think this is probably the best decision I’ve ever made — definitely the hardest decision I’ve ever made.”
The state college launched its aviation department last August.
It began offering two Associate of Science degrees in professional pilot technology and aviation administration. This fall, it began offering A.S. degrees in aviation maintenance administration and unmanned vehicles systems operations.
The two–year programs are designed for students interested in becoming private and commercial pilots or airport managers.
Other possible career opportunities include flight dispatchers, transportation security officers, various Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) occupations, aviation safety and aircraft manufacturing.
Pilot students, who receive more than 200 flying hours during the entire degree program, also train on the FAA-approved Advanced Flight Simulator Laboratory, located at PHSC’s East Campus. The simulators can be reconfigured to emulate all types of aircraft in any environment or weather condition, providing a realistic experience.
Besides flight training, other classroom topics cover meteorology, flight safety and security, flight theory, and aviation regulations, among others.
Baker and other PHSC aviation students seem to be entering the aviation industry at an ideal time.
A 2017 report by Boeing estimates airlines in North America are going to need 117,000 new pilots and more than 200,000 aviation mechanics in the next 20 years, as passenger and cargo airlines worldwide are expected to buy 41,000 new airliners through 2036.
And, retirements at U.S. airlines will start to rise precipitously starting in 2021 as the current crop of pilots turn 65, the mandated age of retirement. More than 42 percent of active U.S. airline pilots at the biggest carriers will retire over the next 20 years, according to a 2017 report by Cowen & Company.
In Florida, meanwhile, employment as a professional pilot is expected to grow by about 13.5 percent between 2016 and 2024, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO).
Pilots in Pasco and Hernando counties typically earn entry level salaries of about $30,000 for a private pilot, and up to $104,000 for a commercial pilot, the FDEO says.
“The risk is worth the reward,” Baker said. “I think it’s a great thing to get into, and I don’t know why more people don’t do it.”
Published August 29, 2018