Pamela J. Cooksey isn't your ordinary bank lender. Her clients tend to be high-fliers, in the most literal sense.

For the past six years, Ms. Cooksey, 40, has specialized in lending money to companies and individuals for the purchase of aircraft.

Three months ago, the tall, personable banker went to work for Akron- based First National Bank of Ohio, a subsidiary of FirstMerit Corp., and a bank with ambitions of building its business in this area.

First National is among the banks reacting to customers discouraged by high airline prices or high leasing rates for corporate jets.

Most of the small business fliers in the area, and nationwide, buy twin- engine, turbo-propeller, and piston-powered cabin class aircraft, usually seating six. Prices average about $800,000.

According to a sampling of financial institutions prepared by the Arlington, Va.-based Equipment Leasing Association, total aircraft financing in the U.S. jumped 9% last year.

"Banks are breaking their necks to get into this business, and lenders need to know what they're doing," said Joseph Vazzo, president and owner of Canton Aircraft Sales in Akron.

Ms. Cooksey, who started out at a finance company making mortgage loans and doing credit checks, agrees.

"Aircraft lending is quite different because there is a different clientele," she said. "There are the upper-scale executive customers, who want something to fit their company, and then the amateur pilots, who expect you to know the aviator lingo."

Ms. Cooksey's bank benefits the large number of registered pilots and registered aircraft in the region near its Akron headquarters.

According to Federal Aviation Administration data, the concentration of U.S.-registered aircraft in Ohio is among the highest in the nation.

"With the growing demand for aircraft financing and leasing in Ohio, those banks experienced in the area will meet those continuing demands," said John Masco, president and chief executive of FirstMerit's Akron unit.

So it's not surprising that in the last few years, aircraft lending and leasing among banks has perked up at First National Bank, Bank One Akron, and Cleveland-based National City.

National City mostly leases airplanes, and Michael Sandmann, its commercial leasing officer, said that business has performed well. The portfolio is secure and assets have been performing better than average, he said.

Ms. Cooksey's bank, First National Bank of Ohio, is a veteran in the business, having leased and loaned funds for small aircraft for about 30 years, competing with banks like Bank One Akron, where Ms. Cooksey received her schooling in aircraft lending.

Now FirstMerit's six bank offices have someone in this niche to transfer calls to. And the bank expects to bring in more expertise, and enhance marketing and advertising to make this lending area comparable to others.

It's also an interesting career for a banker.

In fact, Ms. Cooksey's desire to understand her customer base compelled her to begin taking flying lessons. So far, she has logged 11 hours of solo time.

Richard G. Norton, an executive vice president with First National Bank of Ohio, and a registered pilot himself, said taking ground school (learning to handle a plane before it takes off) or some flying lessons makes eminent business sense.

In addition, it's important, he said, to attend aviation conventions and seminars, and join groups like the Airplane Operator and Pilot Association.

Ms. Cooksey reports to Stephen A. Nitzsche, the vice president and manager of the equipment finance and leasing division, who has financed and leased aircraft.

She said a good lender would know if the plane or jet fits the customer, the expenses of storing it, the insurance, and the maintenance costs.

Most of Ms. Cooksey's hands-on training came from an expert, Robert Sprigg, the head of aircraft lending at Bank One Akron, where she was an aircraft loan officer.

"I learned from one of the best, and what I learned was invaluable," said Ms. Cooksey.

Mr. Sprigg, who joined Bank One Akron in 1973, has been a well-known member of the aircraft lending business, particularly in Sacramento, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., where there are a large number of registered pilots and aircraft.

But, he warned, banks and those who lease planes cannot go into this field blindly.

"There can be problems if you don't understand the collateral," Mr. Sprigg said from his office, conveniently located at the Akron/Canton airport.

"There might be bogus aircraft parts, or stolen planes, and lenders must understand the aviation lingo."

Added Ms. Cooksey, "This is not a 9-to-5 job, nor is it a desk job by any means."

To illustrate her point, Ms. Cooksey closed a deal for a red-striped Aerostar dual-propeller, twin-engine, pressurized plane at the Akron airport. The 15-minute car ride from the office took longer than the entire closing.

Ms. Cooksey said the transaction was made in person because it gave the seller a sense of trust. She had the funds, and exchanged them for the bill of sale.

It was the first loan for Canton Aircraft Sales through First National Bank, "but since I knew Pam, and having dealt with her when she was with Bank One (Akron), I knew what I was getting," said Canton Aircraft's Mr. Vazzo.

"It doesn't always work that quickly," Ms. Cooksey admitted. But many are anxious to take off in their new planes, she said.

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