Student pilot Melissa Andrae (left) and flight instructor Tulsi Bhattari (right) operate a Cessna 172 from Allegheny County Airport in August 2022. (Photo by Julie Bercik)

Two Women Take to Skies to Pursue Their Dreams

Every takeoff and landing get Tulsi Bhattarai and Melissa Andrae closer to making their dreams a reality.

Bhattarai is a flight instructor at Pittsburgh Flight Training Center.

“I teach people how to fly and make them a pilot,” she said.

Andrae, who is more interested in the charter side of aviation, is working on gaining her instrument rating.

“’Instrument’ is a fancy word for saying you are flying in the clouds,” she said.

Both women are licensed private pilots, but they’re aiming much higher. They still have hundreds of hours to log to earn the Airline Transport Pilot certificate necessary to become commercial pilots.

“You need that ATP to get hired by an airline, even the commuters, and you still need 1,500 hours to become a captain,” said Tom Hupp, chief ground instructor and program manager for Simulator at Community College of Beaver County.

Hupp has 51 years of experience in aviation. He retired as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Air Force, flew as a captain for US Airways and has worked as an instructor for the airlines.

It’s no secret there’s a pilot shortage. The major airlines are trying to hire thousands of pilots and there’s no overnight fix. Extensive training is required by the FAA to become an airline pilot.

“Safety is No. 1 and that experience and having that knowledge base is so critical,” said Ursula Tierney, a professor in the Aviation Department at CCBC.

“This is not an easy program. There’s hours and hours of ground school you’ve got to take,” said Hupp. “You’re probably going to spend close to 100 hours in ground school just to get that 40 hours of flight school.”

Then there’s instrument rating—another 40 hours—followed by 120 hours of commercial training. After all that, CCBC graduates can choose from three career options: multi-engine rating, certified flight instructor or professional flight instructor.

“Generally speaking, our graduates have somewhere between 230-250 hours at graduation,” said Tierney.

That’s still just a small percentage of the required 1,500 hours to be become an airline pilot. So even after graduation, those aspiring to work for an airline have a lot of work to do.

“Most of our students become flight instructors so they can build up their logbook, make money, gain more experience before they make the next jump in the industry,” said Tierney.

Bhattari has about 870 of the required 1,500 hours. She hopes to log the rest in 2023.

“The most important part of training in an aviation program is continuity, and that’s the student flying on a consistent basis,” added Hupp.

Flying can be expensive, something Andrae knows firsthand.

“I took a couple of years off because I paid for my private [training] by myself, which is around $10,000,” she said.

“The flight costs are always going to be the flight costs no matter where you go,” said Tierney. “It’s not cheap to rent an airplane, especially with our current fuel prices, but that’s how financial aid helps students.”

For Bhattari, the time and investment are worth it.

“I want to fly for Delta or United,” she said. “If I don’t fly, I don’t know what else to do.”

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