AIKEN - On clear Saturday afternoons, Matthew Bell can be found in the left seat of a Cessna 152 at Aiken Municipal Airport going over his flight checklist before takeoff.
A junior at South Aiken High School, Matthew, 17, is already looking forward to getting a college degree in aviation management or science and taking off into the working world as a pilot.
"I hope to get a job flying out of college as a corporate pilot or a business jet pilot," Matthew said.
Despite the nose dive airlines have taken since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a result of fewer passengers and increased security hassles, there is hope for Matthew's dreams. Pilots from the baby boom generation, many of them combat veterans who won their wings during the Vietnam War, are nearing the mandatory retirement age of 60.
The number of pilots leaving the flight line has been increasing steadily for the past 10 years and is expected to peak in 2007. About 1,400 pilots have retired this year, said Kit Darby, the president of Air, Inc., a company in Atlanta that tracks airline hiring and growth trends.
"Some of the major airlines are actually growing, like Southwest and America West. FedEx and UPS are holding their own," Mr. Darby said.
However, there is a dramatic shift in the source of new captains and co-pilots. Instead of accounting for 80 percent of the nation's airline pilots, the U.S. military now provides less than 50 percent and manages to retain a higher percentage of its veteran aviators, Mr. Darby said.
New pilots are getting their flight training through the general aviation route, getting training at aeronautical colleges such as Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla., or flight schools such as Aiken Air Service at the Aiken Municipal Airport.
"General aviation has become the primary training ground for airline pilots," said Chris Dancy, a communications representative for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "The number of new students has been increasing, which does increase the pool of pilots available for airlines."
The need to replace retiring airline pilots will be 173 percent greater in the next five years than it was from 1993 through 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Last year, U.S. air carriers hired about 6,000 new pilots, Mr. Darby said. But in 2000, before the Sept. 11 attacks, there were 19,000 openings, an all-time high.
Don Barnes, a flight instructor at Aiken Air Service, has trained a lot of people to fly during his 40 years in aviation. Two of his students, Matthew Bell and Mitchell Eubanks, an 18-year-old who has had a private pilot's license for about two years, are on track to become commercial pilots.
"Airlines want you to have a college degree, all of your ratings and a couple thousand hours of flight time," Mr. Barnes said. "Airlines really don't want pilots over 40. You've got to get started on it as a teenager to get it all done."
Despite setbacks in the airline industry, new jobs are opening up because of retirement and the growth of some carriers.
AIRLINE PILOTS RETIRING THIS YEAR: 1,400
PREDICTED FOR 2007: 2,350
PILOT POSITIONS OPEN IN 2000: 19,000
IN 2002: 6,000
Source: Air Inc., an aviation consulting firm based in Atlanta
Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395.