China Needs Pi­lots

A boom in Chi­nese air travel is send­ing hun­dreds of novices to flight school in Ari­zona.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY ARIELLE EM­METT

Pi­lots need English. How an Ari­zona school serves both needs.

JUST OUT OF UNIVER­SITY IN FU­JIAN, CHINA, Shel­don Yu faced an im­pos­si­ble choice. It was ei­ther a mas­ter’s de­gree in Marxist phi­los­o­phy or a ca­reer as a com­mer­cial air­line pi­lot. Among the perks of the lat­ter op­tion: un­lim­ited travel, so­cial pres­tige, smartly tai­lored uni­forms, lots of pretty women, and a life­long con­tract with good salary. So what did Yu choose? Marxist phi­los­o­phy. “I de­cided to study,” he chuck­les. “My par­ents wanted me to be a mid­dle school teacher so I could re­main near home and see them all the time.”

But fate, and a thirst for flight, in­ter­vened. Twice in his un­der­grad­u­ate years, Yu ap­plied for Chi­nese flight train­ing; he’d even passed the Xi­a­men Air­lines phys­i­cal, one of the tough­est in

com­mer­cial aviation. Though his par­ents op­posed the idea, Shel­don kept think­ing of the air­planes he used to watch take off and land at Fu­jian Air­port near his home when he was a boy.

“So here I am at 26, just grad­u­at­ing with a three-year mas­ter’s de­gree,” he con­tin­ues, “and quite ac­ci­den­tally a Xi­a­men Air­lines re­cruiter is in­ter­view­ing can­di­dates in the of­fice next to mine. ‘Hey,’ I tell him, ‘I’ve just fin­ished my mas­ter’s in Marxist phi­los­o­phy. Could you give me an op­por­tu­nity to fly?’ The re­cruiter said ‘Okay.’ And step by step I ended up here to­day.” He grins.

We’re in a con­fer­ence room at Transpac Aviation Academy near Scotts­dale, Ari­zona, and on the wall be­hind him hang a Chi­nese good luck sign and a map of his coun­try. Yu, whose for­mal Chi­nese name is Yu Zonghua (he prefers his adopted Western name for pro­fes­sional pur­poses),

is re­gal­ing me and his fel­low class­mates, Troy Tao and Kinno Yang, with sto­ries about the serendip­i­ties that brought him to this Amer­i­can flight academy, one with a dis­tinct Chi­nese style. He sparkles in his crisp navy and white uni­form, a pair of avi­a­tor sun­glasses hang­ing from his shirt pocket.

Head­quar­tered at Deer Val­ley Air­port and Chan­dler Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port, which are about 45 min­utes apart if trav­el­ing by car, Transpac is one of a few large, pri­vate U.S. flight schools spe­cial­iz­ing in the train­ing of Asian pi­lots. In Transpac’s case, the stu­dent body, ap­prox­i­mately 400, is more than 80 per­cent Chi­nese, with about 45 Vietnamese and a few Amer­i­can and Colom­bian stu­dents in the re­main­der.

Yu, Tao, and Yang come from very dif­fer­ent aca­demic back­grounds, but all three are part of Transpac’s 2015 class of

ab ini­tio—“zero to hero”—chi­nese pi­lots earn­ing their com­mer­cial rat­ings in less than 14 months. The three are among 360 Chi­nese can­di­dates at Transpac who have been tapped to get this elite com­mer­cial ed­u­ca­tion: from pri­vate and in­stru­ment rat­ings to multi-en­gine tur­bine, all the way up to a high-per­for­mance rat­ing that read­ies them for spe­cific jet train­ing back in China. Each Chi­nese cadet’s tu­ition and liv­ing pack­age, at more than $100,000 each, is paid in full by his or her “home” air­line. Be­cause of the de­mands cre­ated by rapid ex­pan­sion, re­gional Chi­nese air­lines are too busy to train all their pi­lot can­di­dates. In­stead, the re­cruited cadet signs a con­tract for life­long ser­vice, then takes the train­ing in the United States.

“There’s a huge mar­ket in China right now for aviation, es­pe­cially gen­eral aviation,” says David Hsu, the vice pres­i­dent of Pe­ga­sus In­ter­na­tional Re­sources Inc., a com­pany that paves the way for re­la­tion­ships and con­tracts among the Civil Aviation Ad­min­is­tra­tion of China (CAAC), the Chi­nese com­mer­cial car­ri­ers, and U.S. flight academies. Be­fore 2012, Hsu ex­plains, the Chi­nese mil­i­tary con­trolled all airspace, and pi­lot train­ing pro­grams were ex­tremely lim­ited.

But now China is con­sid­er­ing open­ing up airspace be­low 1,000 me­ters (about 3,300 feet) for gen­eral aviation, and the CAAC has rec­om­mended open­ing airspace as high as 3,000 me­ters. While the mil­i­tary has yet to ap­prove these changes, and China’s air­line radar sys­tem isn’t ready for them—hsu says the ex­pected boom in air traf­fic would re­quire a mas­sive up­grade—the CAAC’S an­nounce­ments have set off a pi­lot-train­ing and equip­ment-buy­ing frenzy.

Some 200 Chi­nese com­pa­nies have ap­plied for gen­eral aviation li­censes, most for cor­po­rate or pri­vate fly­ing. Com­mer­cial car­ri­ers are div­ing into the mix with new ac­qui­si­tions and ex­panded train­ing plans.

To meet ris­ing de­mand, the coun­try will sup­port as many as 100 air­lines in the next few decades, ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese me­dia. Yet Boe­ing re­cently es­ti­mated that within 20 years, China will have a short­fall of 77,400 com­mer­cial pi­lots. (The coun­try’s re­gional air­lines are re­cruit­ing for­eign pi­lots: Shen­zhen Air­lines re­cently ad­ver­tised for a cap­tain’s po­si­tion pay­ing an

an­nual salary of $212,000.) The coun­try’s 12 civil­ian aviation academies are op­er­at­ing at full ca­pac­ity, and can turn out only 1,200 to 1,400 cer­ti­fied com­mer­cial pi­lots per year. Chi­nese air­lines spend the equiv­a­lent of $162 mil­lion an­nu­ally to send 80 per­cent of the stu­dent pi­lot can­di­dates abroad: about 2,000 to the United States, the oth­ers to Europe and Aus­tralia. The big ad­van­tage of learn­ing abroad is English lan­guage im­mer­sion. Aviation, even in China, is a busi­ness con­ducted in English.

Transpac pro­motes it­self as a mul­ti­cul­tural flight academy that teaches, as much as pos­si­ble, “the Chi­nese way.” Many of the school’s re­quire­ments—which in­clude 60-plus hours of aviation English, a six-week ground school in China prior to stu­dents get­ting the fi­nal go-ahead to train in Ari­zona, and a mil­i­tary ap­proach to sched­ul­ing and dis­ci­pline—have been shaped by in­ter­ac­tions with the CAAC and Chi­nese air­line clients. “Air­line cul­ture is more for­mal in Asia,” Hsu says.

But even stu­dents who have strug­gled with English or fly­ing skills have been en­cour­aged to stick it out. David Morse, Chief In­struc­tor at Transpac, smiles when he re­calls a stu­dent named Shi Kai, who went by Stan­ley. “He was from Chengdu, a ru­ral kid from Sichuan prov­ince,” Morse says. “He was re­ally hav­ing trou­ble ad­just­ing to English, but he wanted to do it and he’d come into ev­ery­one’s of­fice to prac­tice and ask ques­tions. Ev­ery­one fell in love with him.” When he fell be­hind his class by sev­eral months, “he did ev­ery­thing in his power to catch up. Fi­nally, at his grad­u­a­tion he got a stand­ing ova­tion. He had strug­gled, but he put his head down and just went to work.”

Mas­ter­ing aviation English along with flight skills is a tall or­der. Nader Yassa, an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen who was born in Egypt but came to the United States at the age of two, is Transpac’s CEO and CFO. He learned to fly in the Phoenix area. “I was

( al­ways lis­ten­ing on the ra­dio to these young men and women learn­ing to speak English and to fly a plane at the same time,” Yassa says. “I have al­ways had the great­est re­spect for them.”

In Yassa’s view, Amer­i­cans be­lieve fly­ing is an ex­pres­sion of free­dom and adventure; in­di­vid­u­als pay for that priv­i­lege. The Chi­nese see it less ro­man­ti­cally: Be­ing a pi­lot is a job, al­beit a pres­ti­gious and well-paid—and sub­si­dized—one.

Still, Yassa says some U.S. flight academies ap­proach in­ter­na­tional stu­dents as though there is no dif­fer­ence in ori­en­ta­tion. “We ask our clients, ‘What are your re­quire­ments? What’s the best way to train stu­dents com­ing from your coun­try?’ ” he says.

Although the Asian re­cruits now gen­er­ally come from math and en­gi­neer­ing univer­si­ties (there are still a few from the Chi­nese mil­i­tary, but not as many as be­fore), the CAAC ex­pects that about 10 per­cent of the can­di­dates who make it to Ari­zona will fail or drop out. Most Chi­nese can­di­dates have never flown an air­plane be­fore; a few, from ru­ral back­grounds, never flew one be­fore they were se­lected for the Transpac

in train­ing pro­gram.

But the school has man­aged to re­duce at­tri­tion to less than three per­cent, Yassa says, and not by low­er­ing check ride stan­dards or curv­ing exam scores. The low washout rate is due to a tough pre­flight vet­ting of in­ter­na­tional can­di­dates, says Yassa—in the form of that six-week course stu­dents take in China, con­ducted in English by Transpac staff, be­fore they leave for Ari­zona. (Vietnamese can­di­dates com­plete a three­month pro­gram at Viet­nam’s Air Force Academy in Nha Trang.) “We’re even able to vet for mo­ti­va­tion,” Yassa says. “That’s the last piece of the puz­zle. In a stan­dard one-time screen­ing, you can’t tell who is re­ally mo­ti­vated. But if you sit with a stu­dent, you’ll know af­ter three weeks.”

Can­di­dates fly five days a week in Transpac’s fleet of 58 air­craft, mostly Piper Archers and Piper Semi­noles, and they’re re­quired by CAAC reg­u­la­tion to fin­ish all their rat­ings in about 250 hours—plus the high-per­for­mance bridge pro­gram, a fiveto seven-week pol­isher that stu­dents com­plete af­ter earn­ing their com­mer­cial aviation rat­ing at Transpac. This is a CAAC­man­dated pro­gram, a prep course for the ad­vanced Boe­ing 737 or Air­bus A320 that in­cludes 129 hours of aca­demic course­work,

10 hours in a full-mo­tion sim­u­la­tor, and 10 hours in the air in a tur­bine air­craft. For the lat­ter re­quire­ment, Transpac uses a Beechcraft King Air 90 eight-seater.

But long be­fore they get there, the school drills stu­dents with safety pro­to­col, see-and-avoid drills, and heavy red indi­ca­tors on ramps to pre­vent pro­pel­ler ac­ci­dents. Check­lists aren’t enough, ac­cord­ing to Brett Cavitt, Transpac’s Se­nior Di­rec­tor of Ad­vanced Train­ing, who joined the school in 2008. Chi­nese stu­dents, he says, are amaz­ing at mem­o­riza­tion, “but mem­o­riz­ing isn’t an in­di­ca­tion of un­der­stand­ing,” he says. “So we spend time on sit­u­a­tional aware­ness—what’s hap­pen­ing, prob­ing deeper. It’s al­most a So­cratic method of teach­ing. The stu­dents talk about sce­nar­ios and learn it’s not all about a check­list.”

Once they pass all their cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, stu­dents re­turn to China and take three tests. Two are in aviation English; one is the the­o­ret­i­cal Air Trans­porta­tion Pi­lots Li­cense (ATPL) exam. If the can­di­date passes, and most do, the re­gional air­line will ac­cept him or her as a pi­lot em­ployee and pro­vide ad­di­tional train­ing on the fleet’s jets—ei­ther Air­bus A320s or Boe­ing 737s. The pi­lot takes another 56 to 72 hours of sim­u­la­tion and prac­tices 12 to 20 take­offs and land­ings.

Af­ter pass­ing a check ride, the can­di­date is bumped up to a po­si­tion of thirdtier “first of­fi­cer” and placed in a cock­pit jump seat be­hind a real cap­tain and first of­fi­cer. Chi­nese air­lines re­quire another 200 to 250 hours of jump-seat ob­ser­va­tion be­fore a new pi­lot can sit in the right seat and fly the air­plane. Sev­eral hun­dred more hours in this po­si­tion are re­quired be­fore the can­di­date is fi­nally pro­moted to first-tier first of­fi­cer and gets to take off and land the air­plane with pas­sen­gers aboard.

Cer­ti­fied flight in­struc­tors work­ing at Transpac also un­dergo

strin­gent vet­ting be­fore they’re em­ployed as teach­ers. They at­tend ground school to learn Transpac pro­ce­dures, un­dergo sim­u­la­tion train­ing, and have to per­form the ex­act same stage checks—that is, ver­i­fi­ca­tion by another CFI that you know all the things you’re ex­pected to know, in the form of a writ­ten or oral quiz plus a test flight—in the air that stu­dents would demon­strate at the end of the course. While many schools only em­ploy free­lance in­struc­tors and pay at an hourly rate, Transpac in­struc­tors get a full-time salary and ben­e­fits.

Morse says the washout rate for in­struc­tors is a lit­tle less than 20 per­cent, a fig­ure he at­tributes to the academy’s high stan­dards and rigid ap­proach to dis­ci­pline. “It takes a spe­cial in­struc­tor to teach in this type of en­vi­ron­ment,” he says.

It also takes a spe­cial stu­dent. Cadets Kinno Yang and Troy Tao both strug­gled with cul­ture shock upon ar­riv­ing in Ari­zona. “When I first came here I re­ally wasn’t ad­justed to the school at­mos­phere,” says Yang, a 23-year-old Nan­jing na­tive and ju­nior at Nan­jing Univer­sity of Aero­nau­ti­cal and As­tro­nom­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing. “I have no broth­ers or sis­ters; I’m one son, and my par­ents have big plans for me.” Yang’s fa­ther had wanted to be a pi­lot but he couldn’t pass the phys­i­cal. All hopes are on Yang, who will be fly­ing with Sichuan Air­lines when he grad­u­ates. You can imag­ine the pres­sure he’s un­der. So what stresses him out most? The fly­ing? Ex­ams? “Oral English,” Yang says. “Some­times I have to use a dic­tio­nary for aviation terms be­cause all the text­books and in­struc­tions are in English.” Af­ter com­plet­ing the pri­vate pi­lot’s exam, Yang says, he re­laxed a bit, and that helped his English im­prove. His days aren’t all stress­ful now. “The spirit of the school, the weather, the at­mos­phere, suits me,” he says.

The school’s at­mos­phere of mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline does not mean Spar­tan liv­ing con­di­tions. Stu­dents live near Deer Val­ley Air­port in dor­mi­tory-style apart­ments, two stu­dents to a bed­room, two or three bed­rooms in a spa­cious, fully fur­nished suite. They have TVS, air con­di­tion­ing, and well-equipped kitchens and bath­rooms. There’s a gym, movie rooms, and out­door pools. The school pro­vides six buses for trans­port and even of­fers Chi­nese cook­ing classes for cadets who never learned to cook at home. In their spare time, bud­dies will pool their air­line per diem and do grand shop­ping trips, and get to­gether to cook in teams. On the week­ends, they play bas­ket­ball, go bowl­ing or shop­ping, or swim and have bar­be­cues.

Troy Tao, who has a mas­ter’s de­gree from Xi­a­men Univer­sity in nan­otech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing, had no trou­ble with English or the Western life­style. But Phoenix’s sum­mer cli­mate taxes him. “Some­times the weather changes here are fierce and so is the tur­bu­lence we fly in,” he says, not­ing that in the sum­mer, it can get to 113 de­grees Fahren­heit.

Transpac has had its own share of tur­bu­lence. On­line, dis­grun­tled in­struc­tors have posted that pay is low and that stu­dents share exam ques­tions on so­cial me­dia, en­abling oth­ers to cheat. The school has also ex­pe­ri­enced sev­eral ac­ci­dents. In May 2013 an air­plane with two Transpac in­struc­tors was struck 900 feet above ground by a Cessna rented by an in­de­pen­dent in­struc­tor from a neigh­bor­ing flight school. The Transpac teach­ers, the Cessna pi­lot, and his stu­dent all died.

In May of this year, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board is­sued a find­ing that the prob­a­ble cause of the crash was “the fail­ure of the pi­lots in both air­craft to main­tain ad­e­quate vis­ual look­out in a known train­ing area where mul­ti­ple air­craft fre­quently op­er­ated.” A Fe­bru­ary 2014 report doc­u­mented a to­tal

Ari­zona Repub­lic of three fa­tal ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing Transpac stu­dents be­tween 2010 and 2013, con­clud­ing that Transpac’s ac­ci­dent rate, cal­cu­lated per 100,000 flight hours, was sub­stan­tially lower than the na­tional av­er­age. Since the May 2013 ac­ci­dent, Transpac has in­stalled ADS-B (Au­to­matic De­pen­dent Sur­veil­lance– Broad­cast) on its en­tire fleet, equip­ment the Fed­eral Aviation Ad­min­is­tra­tion will man­date for all air­craft by 2020.

For Tao, trust in his in­struc­tors and air­craft equip­ment was a big part of get­ting back into the cock­pit af­ter his fright­en­ing, early ex­pe­ri­ence with tur­bu­lence. “The first time I flew over Phoenix at night with my in­struc­tor, I thought the lights were in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful,” he says. “I loved that.”

Shel­don Yu, the Marxist philoso­pher, says that when he pre­pared for his first solo flight, he wasn’t afraid at all. He’s ab­sorbed a “Just do it” at­ti­tude. “My im­pres­sion is that Amer­i­can op­ti­mism is a ta­lent,” he says. “In China, peo­ple are goal-di­rected and wor­ried about things like ‘To­mor­row I’ll buy a house.’ But a lot of Amer­i­cans aren’t like that; they don’t worry and think that way. The Amer­i­cans seem hap­pier.”

Yu has learned to rec­on­cile his am­bi­tion to fly with his need for philo­soph­i­cal in­quiry. “I can now get on a plane and an­nounce, ‘Marx said my ca­reer choice of be­ing a pi­lot was a great thing!’ ”

Af­ter all, a pi­lot’s con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety is clear. Es­pe­cially in 21st cen­tury China.

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