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Flight Training On the Up, Down Under

Flight Training On the Up, Down Under

Flight training in Australia provides opportunities for everyone. Ryan Hart takes a closer look at the egalitarian nature of the business. 

Jeff is a 15-year-old schoolboy who works part-time in a supermarket. Bill is a 52-year-old analyst with a major bank. Nicole is a 17-year-old who has just completed her HSC.

Despite being from different backgrounds and varying age-groups, Jeff, Bill and Nicole have one thing in common: the dream of flight. Two have aspirations of becoming professional aviators while the other just wants to fly for fun. Each at some stage would have asked the question you’re now probably turning over in your mind: “I want to fly but how do I get started?

Aviation is a learn-by-doing proposition. What newcomers to the game need is a road map for getting started, some answers to some basic questions about how flight training works and some guidelines for choosing the right program.

Aviation training consists of flight and ground lessons but you will quickly see that they merge into a cohesive whole, each facilitating the other. Your training program is designed to use each new step as a foundation for what will follow. The subjects you will have to study and the flight experience you will have to acquire before being able to take the relevant flight examinations are set forth in the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s (CASA) regulations.

Like the abovementioned trio, people train to be pilots under a variety of circumstances, so enormous flexibility exists for developing the kind of training that is right for you. Therefore, choosing the right flying school is crucial and should be determined by your motivation for learning to fly. For instance, are you learning to fly for fun or do you have ambitions of pursuing a career as a professional pilot?

“There are three options when choosing a flying school,” one CFI explains. “One is to learn at a GA school which holds an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) issued and overseen by CASA. Option two is to train with a school which is part of Australia’s fast-growing light sport sector, overseen by Recreational Aviation Australia (RA-Aus). The final option is to engage in a fullt-ime integrated training program, which is essentially for those who want a career in commercial flying.”

Despite being just 15-years-old Jeff has for the past two years been training at his local flying school. In fact, Jeff soloed in a glider on his 15th birthday and he’s now aiming to go solo in his trusty Piper single when he turns 16. Aviation has been a constant presence in Jeff’s life: his father is an aircraft engineer and private pilot; his uncle an airline captain and his grandfather flew fighters during World War 2 and in Korea.

“I’ve always wanted to be a pilot, ever since I was a little kid” Jeff says. “Flying is in my blood.”

To pay for his flying lessons, Jeff works in his local supermarket and earns a few dollars doing chores around the house – every cent he earns goes towards his flight training. The young man’s ambition is to earn his commercial licence by his eighteenth birthday, complete a flight instructors’ rating and then apply for jobs. His ultimate goal is to fly for a regional airline.

“I’m not really into the big jets,” he says. “And being from the country I think I’d prefer flying for a regional airline. That would be awesome.”

Nicole on the other hand, has always dreamed of being an airline pilot. Intelligent and ambitious, she studied hard at school, worked part-time jobs to pay for flying lessons and by the time she was 16, she went solo. She then earned her private licence and aced HSC maths, English and physics.

Competing against hundreds of other candidates, Nicole has been accepted into a cadet program run by a major airline. Her parents are prepared to pay close to $100,000 to give their daughter an opportunity to follow her dream. Given her voracious work ethic and ambition, they consider their outlay as an investment into Nicole’s future.

The cadet program will allow Nicole to pursue fulltime flight training, plus the offer of a guaranteed position as a line pilot on completion of the course. Within a year of starting the course, Nicole is hopeful of graduating to the right-hand seat of a sophisticated airliner.

Of the trio, Bill is the odd one out. Not only is he mature-aged, he’s also a successful professional who has no desire to pursue a flying career. He just wants to fulfil a dream and to learn how to fly. But rather than pursue a licence through General Aviation, he has chosen to earn a recreational licence instead.

“I’ve always been mesmerised by the concept of flight but I never really got the opportunity,” Bill says. “My goal is to earn a recreational licence and to fly around Australia. That would be a dream come true.”

When asked why he preferred the recreational route as opposed to the traditional GA path, the banker said: “For two reasons: money and equipment.”

“I’m flying through an RAA school because not only did I find it to be more economical, but the aeroplane I’m going to fly – the Bristell BRM – is brand new,” Bill says. “I can learn to fly in a new recreational aircraft such as the Bristell BRM for a fraction of the price it would cost me to fly a clapped out 1970s Cessna at a GA flying school. At this stage I just want to fly for fun, so the choice is a no-brainer.”

In almost three decades, recreational flying has developed into a major player in Australian aviation. Inspired by unparalleled growth, innovation and development, recreational aviation has emerged from humble beginnings of a few hundred die-hard members into a large, active membership of almost 10,000.

In 2004 the Australian Ultralight Federation (AUF) changed its name to ‘Recreational Aviation Australia Incorporated’ (RA-Aus), the governing body that now regulates recreational flying. And since then there have been huge changes in both the type of aircraft flown by members and the pilots who fly them. Training, facilities and aeronautical knowledge has grown within the organisation; while a culture previously dismissed as reckless and disorganised has been replaced by one of maturity that encourages safety and blue chip standards.

According to the recreational powers-that-be and its disciples, more pilots than ever before are choosing to fly under the RA-Aus banner rather than follow the traditional path of General Aviation (GA). Indeed, many who hold GA PPL licences are converting their quailfications to the recreational side of the fence.

One owner of a recreational flying school assures Aviator that RA-Aus standards are high.

“I believe our safety is second to none, we have an operations manual that is concise and works hand-in-hand with the relevant CASA publications,” he says. “Our organisation strives to maintain its position at the forefront of sport and leisure aviation and we’re always breaking ground with the regulators, which brings more privileges for our members.

“It’s no secret that RAA is growing at a faster pace than GA, so I guess somewhere along the line RAA and GA could actually become one. There is an increasing number of GA pilots coming to us and converting to RAA. They’re surprised that most of their GA endorsements can be carried over to the RAA Pilots Certificate as well, and in most cases conversions can be done in five hours, give or take.”

Before committing to his flight training, Bill also did his own research into the pros and cons of GA and recreational aviation.

“It goes without saying that the biggest challenges facing GA are cost-related,” he says. “For the majority of flight training organisations the issue of aircraft replacement “must” be addressed at some point in the future. However, how many flight training organisations are making, or are indeed in a position to make, provision for aircraft replacement? The average age of GA aircraft used for training is reportedly in the order of 25 to 30 years. As such GA has old aircraft which, while maintained to high standards, are expensive to maintain relative to more modern aircraft, such as those prevalent in recreational aviation. I can’t wait to start flying the Bristell. It’s a brand new, all metal low wing aircraft fitted with a Rotax engine. It has a glass cockpit and is very comfortable with excellent all round visibility. It’s the perfect plane for me.”

One CFI at a GA school agrees that flying schools face many challenges, including the replacement of ageing aircraft.

“Our business just doesn’t provide sufficient income to sequester funds for purchase of newer aircraft,” he explains. “So, like many flying schools around Australia, we’re in a position whereby our students are learning to fly in old Cessna aircraft.

Other concerns include a suitable airport location and facilities within the school’s economic capabilities, plus an increase in operating costs.

“Our operation is run by a professional organisation whose staff maintain careful oversight on students and members,” he says. “I believe it is run well with a high emphasis on safety. The increasing burden of paperwork and meeting various regulations and new requirements in detail may detract to some extent on the amount of time given to practical safety training for members. An example is compulsory drug and alcohol testing.”

In general, economic pressures due to increases in land values, airport costs, costs of maintenance and replacement of aircraft, force some organisations to work with minimal financial resources. This may have an impact on safety by stretching resources; while care needs to be taken to see that any adverse effect from economic pressures is minimised.

“Unless we can preserve the aero clubs and small flying schools GA may have a very different look in the future as a lot of the new commercial students going through these days are very attracted to the idea of completing an airline cadet course and bypassing the GA commercial sector,” the CFI says. “There would still be the need for light GA but due to the reduction of qualified pilots willing to fly in the light GA sector we might be in a situation where it prices itself out of the market and is not sustainable.”

So how can GA improve?

“By insuring that ‘the teachers’ are qualified and have some practical experience to pass onto the future of GA. We need to work within reality. GA is never going to have the budget of a domestic airline, so the measures that are required to run and administrate a GA business must be realistic so that it can be sustained economically and practically.”

While GA may be experiencing a lull, the airline industry keeps booming and according to some, there is an exciting future for aspiring professional pilots. Recent figures from the largest airline manufacturers show that in the next 10 to15 years something like 80,000 new pilots will be needed worldwide; of which around 20,000 are expected to be from Australia and New Zealand. Such figures offer substantial motivation to prospective airline pilots, including the likes of Jeff and Nicole.

Indeed, some flying institutions such as Jandakot-based Advanced Cockpit Flight Training (ACFT) are ready to make the most of the opportunity.

“Those considering a career as a pilot are in for a good future,” says ACFT chief executive Mark Thoresen. “There is a lot of talk in the aviation industry of the looming (or current) shortage of pilots to meet the needs of growing regional and global demand. There is no argument that the combination of the number of pilots required to fly new aircraft ordered, and the effect of pilots reaching retirement, means there will be a continuing demand for new pilots.

“That demand was just one of the reasons we (ACFT) decided to enter the market, and we have underpinned our business model with a long term partnership with Edith Cowan University to train Graduate Diploma students.”

However, the looming shortages beg two questions: Where will the students come from, and more importantly, where will the instructors come from? Flight training is expensive, and instructors tend to stay only long enough to build hours for the airline job they all seem to aspire to.

Trent Robinson, ACFT’s Chief Pilot, points out that there are a several career options for pilots, including instructing and training, charter, RFDS/EMS, the military and the airlines.

“There is a perception, real or otherwise, that flying for one of the majors is where the money, and presumably, contentment, is to be found,” Trent explains. “But the time it takes from commencing flight training to sitting in the Captain’s seat of an A380 can be daunting – too daunting for some.”

Mark adds: “I don’t think we as an industry do a very good job of selling the opportunities to future generations. We who are already in the industry often focus on the negatives in our conversations. For example, the effect of increased competition on job security, the problems with the company we work for, or falling salaries. We forget to tell the newcomers to aviation what a great field it is because let’s face it, for those of us that really love flying, it’s a pretty good deal to be paid to do what you love! I think we need to get back on the front foot encouraging the generations to come that flying is a great way to earn a living, and we should be starting to influence primary school kids, and not wait until careers counselling in high school!”

So how good are Australia’s flight training standards?

“That’s a difficult question to answer,” says an executive at one of the country’s leading flight training organisations. “At my place of employ we have a heavy focus on training standards with the aim of ensuring that the student at pre-test is ready for the test. We use a select number of ATOs and we have a head of training, head of standards and a number of standards instructors in the organisation to ensure consistency of flight training standards. But I acknowledge that this is an expensive overhead and not all flight training organisations will be able to adopt this structure.

“I know that CASA has been very active in looking at flight training standards and now undertakes the testing of Grade 3 instructors coming out of various flight training schools. While a good initiative I really believe that there is more work to be done. There is still a need to get the ATOs standardised in line with CASA’s expectations, syllabus and standards so that we can achieve uniformity across the various flight training organisations.

“In reality I believe that we will see the introduction of more simulation for flight training. The technology has reached a point where positive learning transfer does occur in an artificial device.  We will also see the introduction of newer aircraft and greater use of glass-based avionics. In terms of general aviation in a broader sense, the future of general aviation is really up to us – what do we want it to be? I see young 17 and 18 year olds along with those who are much older in their 60s and 70s who are still passionate about flying. There is no doubt that costs will continue but we must accept that and adapt and look for better and more cost effective ways of doing business.”

“The Law of Primacy cannot be underestimated, and teaching students in aircraft with the systems that modern airliners use will produce a better pilot,” says Trent Robinson. “It is essential that the basics are taught well, developed and cemented in every student pilot’s head as early as possible. Effects of Controls, stalling, and emergency handling and management are some of the most important lessons, and are often lost in the race to get into the circuit. Circuits are a whole lot easier if you have mastered the basics early.”

Which brings us to the subject of aircraft: ACFT has a modern fleet second-to-none. They are currently re-equipping with new Aquila AT01-211 aircraft, more commonly referred to as the A210; and, for multi-engine training, the Tecnam P2006T.

“From the very beginning it has been an important part of the business plan to acquire brand new aircraft, more aligned with modern aircraft systems and training methods,” Mark Thoresen says. “Our A210’s are being fitted with Garmin 500 flight instruments, Garmin GTN650 avionics, GTS 800 Traffic Advisory Systems and video recording systems, and the Tecnams with Garmin G950 systems,” Mark explains. “The new aircraft will provide our students with modern systems from the very start of training.”

Times are definitely changing in Australian aviation and while the path to learning to fly is no longer monopolised by the traditional GA route, General Aviation remains a critical element in flight training, especially for pilots with ambitions to pursue flying careers. Yes, the sport and recreational scene has emerged as a serious contender that not only continues to grow and successfully retains its old fashioned ideals and beliefs, but GA will always have a place on the flight training landscape. Indeed, there’s room for everyone. There’s room for young country boy Jeff and his dream of flying for a regional airline; and there’s a place for Nicole, whose ambition has always been to fly the big jets. But just as importantly, there’s a place for Bill, a weekend warrior who just wants to get into his aeroplane and fly beyond the wide blue yonder.

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