GEORGETOWN, Texas (Nexstar) — Within the next 10 years, experts said major airlines were expecting 75 percent of their pilots to retire.

Texas is among the top three places for pilot school, but it’s more expensive than college. Janae Smith had just started at the AeroGuard Flight School in Georgetown a few weeks ago.

“You look good back there, girl!,” her relative said as Smith prepared for a training flight.

With a flattered laugh, Smith responded with “thanks!”

Smith had a check-list, she was focused and ready to fly. But once she came down from up high, reality grounded her: Flight School costed $85,000. She was paying for it out of pocket, with some family support, but that wouldn’t be enough.

Janae Smith during a training flight. (KXAN Photos/Jake Sykes)

“I’m depleting my life savings, and am fundraising right now,” Smith said.

Her GoFundMe, created back in August 2022, had only raised $60, as of October 9. Smith said she also started working side jobs to make extra cash.

“We have students like Janae, who are working their tail off,” said Joel Davidson, CEO of AeroGuard Flight Training.

AeroGuard students don’t have access to federal funding. There is private funding that students can apply for, but Smith said it’s rare to receive it.

“The federal government does not consider independent flight training schools to be accredited educational institutions,” Davidson said. “So therefore, students who attend our flight school and other flight schools are not eligible for the financial aid programs or loan programs that you would get in normal university.”

An Equity Gap

Davidson said the high cost of flight school caused the pilot shortage and led to an equity gap, creating a lack of diversity in the industry. According to pilot advocacy group Sisters of the Skies, less than one percent of pilots were Black women.

Davidson was on the Flight School Association of North America’s (FSANA) board of directors, serving as the organization’s treasurer. According to him, FSANA was working to get accreditation for the flight school industry from the U.S. Department of Education, and he hoped that effort would lead to funding.

For Smith, becoming a pilot is bigger than just her, so she’ll do whatever it takes.

“I’m not going to let anything stop me,” Smith said. “I’m really looking forward to future flights…and having young black children see representation.”