Keeping all those alphas and bravos straight might pose challenges early on for young Charlie Rusco and his aviator classmates at Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus.
In the very early stages of college, they're adjusting to higher learning as text books stack up in their dormitory digs.
It's crazy busy these days on the west Salina campus, not just for rookies enrolled in the professional pilot program - the most since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, school officials said - but also for the instructors, professors and staff.
Nobody's complaining. Quite the contrary.
"It's exciting that we're so extremely busy," said Bill Gross, chief flight instructor in his 32nd year at K-State. He has taught and-or worked as a professional pilot at Salina's Airport Industrial Center since 1973.
The school is not allowed to release specific enrollment figures until 20 days after the semester starts, said K-State spokeswoman Heather Wagoner, but others have said it's evident that numbers are up.
Rusco, a Topeka teenager, is stoked as the budding professional pilot is just days into pursuing a promising career, where demand is higher than he's flown so far.
Like most of the other 90 or more frosh enrolled in the pro-pilot program, Rusco, 18, is committed to four or more years of learning how to fly, completing a college education, and snaring careers in the cockpit.
Choices right now are pleasantly daunting.
"It's great," said the curly-headed graduate of Washburn Rural High School, who has already amassed nearly 10 of the required 35 flight hours to land a private pilot's license at K-State Polytechnic. He'll need 1,000 hours to fly for a commercial airline, not to mention achieving a number of flight ratings.
"We're learning all the basics and you go flying with your instructor," Rusco said.
It wouldn't surprise Prof. Troy Brockway, professional pilot option coordinator, if some of the freshmen bow out and choose other paths, but "so far, so good," he said in early September.
"They all seem to be pretty eager to be learning. I think (professional pilot) will be a good fit for some of them," Brockway said. "These young people seem to be excited about the process and the job. They're starting to learn to fly and learn about their classes.
"These are freshman, their first time away from home. They all seem pretty happy to be here."
The novices may feel swamped at times adjusting to the college experience, but it's no different this year for their upper-class aviation colleagues.
"It seems like we've been steadily getting busier and busier," said Caleb Strahm, 21, a senior pro pilot student from Sabetha. He is instructing six student pilots, one of them Rusco, and may add a seventh.
Student flight instructors are in short supply given the glut of freshman pilot pupils, Prof. Gross said, and other reasons.
Aviation department leaders put a halt to signing up more students in early August.
"This is the first time ever that we've asked enrollment (staff) to stop enrolling people," he said. "The airlines are hiring flight instructors so fast, we don't have enough."
It's a delicate balance, said Alysia Starkey, PhD, the Salina campus's interim CEO and dean.
"It's so sensitive to maintain quality in your practices. You've got to make sure you have the numbers of instructors," she said.
Well into retirement age, Gross said, the pilot educator shortage played a role in extending his career.
"I hate to leave all my K-State kids," he said. "We're so short on help."
The university is responding, Starkey said, thanks to some help from higher up.
"We're kind of in a growth stage," she said.
The 2018 Kansas Legislature bumped K-State Poly's budget by $520,000, making it possible to hire more flight instructors.
The campus has a position open for aviation director, three assistant chief instructors and four advanced flight instructors, Starkey said.
"(Lawmakers) recognize the tremendous need in the industry for manned aviation," she said.
"This year, our focus is to make sure our system is prepared for even more growth."
The rise in aviation enrollment is a result, at least in part, to steep demand. "... the U.S. needs to train a staggering number of 87 new airline pilots every day for the next 20 years in order to meet growing demand,"aviationvoice.com
reported in June, quoting "Federal Aviation Administration calculations." That's a good problem for aviation academia.
"We could expand to triple or more (pilot students) and still not have enough. The airlines could hire all available graduates from every flight school and still not have enough," Brockway said. "Every student that we graduate will have a job if they are any quality at all, and in aviation, they have to be quality. This is not just a job, but a really good career."
On track to graduate in December, instructor/student Strahm is geared to enter the workforce. He has targeted regional airlines, where the starting pay has ballooned in recent years.
"We used to see pilots going to regional airlines, getting paid $20,000 a year. Now it's double that," Strahm said. "It's that much better. Plus, there are signing bonuses. We're pretty blessed."
Pay potential can climb up to $300,000 a year for major airline pilots, Brockway said.
With so much knowledge to absorb, and flying to master, Rusco is in no hurry to decide on his future, saying he will take it "semester by semester," do some research and decide whether to enter commercial aviation, fly corporate, or earn his wings in another area of the industry.
"It feels like I can do anything I want. It's a good feeling," Rusco said, "but with all the job opportunities, that's the least thing on my mind."
As a recipient of a $48,000 Vanier Bluemont Scholarship, he said financial woes are lessened for him and his mom, Roxie Rusco, of Topeka.
There are no guarantees of what the job market will be when Charlie graduates, but Dean and CEO Starkey figures chances for lucrative futures will linger.
"Aviation typically has hills and valleys every 10 years, but with the pending retirements from the Baby Boomer generation, that could change," she said.
"There is also interest in aircraft maintenance."
That's thanks locally to the opening of 1 Vision Aviation, a large aircraft repair and upgrade firm, at Big Bertha, a.k.a. Hangar 959, aiming to bring up to 450 workers to Salina.
Additional pilot students will push up flight traffic for Salina Regional Airport, Starkey said, and provide "tremendous energy to campus."
Aviation Voice reported that roughly half of the pilots flying today "are about to retire," (as they reach the federally required retirement age of 65 for airline captains, Brockway said, or they can take a demotion in rank and continue). Flight hour limitations are also an issue, the online story reads.
"We're really being challenged by all of our industry partners to produce graduates much more efficiently," Starkey said. "As long as we can keep pace with what's needed, it's a great challenge to have."