U.S. Academy Helps China Fill Its Huge Pilot Training Gap

 - April 17, 2014, 11:45 AM
The TransPac Aviation Academy in Arizona is now graduating around 400 Chinese student pilots each year. [Photo: TransPac]

China’s great need for airline pilots is well documented, not least by Boeing, which last year estimated that the country’s fast-expanding air transport industry will need some 77,400 pilots through 2032 (plus 93,900 mechanics). According to the airframer, that represents around 40 percent of the overall requirement across the Asia Pacific region over the same period. The question is how can a country with effectively no indigenous general aviation community cultivate so many future professional pilots, as is so commonly the case in the West?

TransPac Aviation Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, stands at the forefront of efforts to fill that skills gap by nurturing and training China’s next generation of flight crew. In March, 29 Chinese students graduated from the academy with the backing of Hainan Airlines and West Air 2 Airlines. According to TransPac CEO Stephen Goddard, the school now trains some 400 of the 2,000 Chinese pilots he estimates will undergo instruction each year. By comparison, the Civil Aviation Flight University of China graduates between 600 and 800 pilots each year. The TransPac pilots leave Phoenix with an FAA commercial pilot license with the turbine engine add-on rating required by Chinese authorities. They then undergo a license conversion process back in China.

The academy has worked hard to develop a holistic process aimed at helping students fully adapt to their chosen career and take account of their need to adapt to the life of an international airline pilot. After the Chinese carriers have conducted an initial selection of the prospective ab initio trainees, TransPac instructors screen them further. The recruits undergo initial aptitude and English language testing in China, and the successful candidates then go through a six-week program of ground school and English instruction before making the trip across the Pacific to the U.S.

“Among other things, we are trying to determine their motivation and attitude and the early part of the program can be pretty tough for them,” Goddard told AIN. The failure rate for the full training program has dropped to just 2 percent from 10 percent, thanks to more thorough early screening and preparation. A lot of the Chinese trainees come with an engineering or math background, but one of the recent graduates had trained as an actor.

During training in Phoenix, the students learn to fly in the Piper Archer III, Piper Seminole and Beechcraft King Air C90 aircraft. They also receive instruction in various simulators and flight training devices. But, crucially, they also get full immersion in the English language—a key difference from the experience of undergoing training solely in China, where the society still considers an airline pilot career highly prestigious. Commercial pilots operating in and out of the Beijing airports must have a command of English, even if flying domestically. “[Flying at TransPac] helps us to use English, and it helps us to fly international flights,” commented Chao Chi, one of the most recent batch of graduates.

TransPac also is training pilots for carriers from other parts of Asia, including a group of 60 self-sponsored Vietnamese students.




Interesting that you note an airline pilot career is still considered prestigious in China.  The fact that it is no longer prestigious in the U.S. begins to explain why over 90% of students in U.S. civilian flight academies are foreign with no possibility of flying for a U.S. carrier.  Many large flight academies in the U.S. are owned by and operated for foreign airlines exclusively, this is a nice place to train.  U.S. regional airlines are unable to find pilots to replace pilots, who are leaving for jobs just beginning to open up at the major airlines.  In a few years the dreaded retirement bubble begins at the major U.S. airlines.  Nearly all of their pilots are over 50, and must retire by 65, the next 5-10 years will see huge losses with few replacements.

If you Google "Pilot Career" or anything like it, you will see what young people see when considering the career.  The pay is low, hours long, lifestyle poor, options and freedoms limited, it hits on most aspects of an undesireable career.  It takes $200,000+ for all expenses from start to finish for a young person to get trained.  Then it takes a few more years of minimal employment to get the flight hours to be legally allowed to pilot an airliner, eight years is the norm from start to able to apply for an airline pilot job.  New airline pilots start at the low-cost and regional airlines, the biggest are SkyWest and Republic, who operate as American Eagle, United Express, Delta Express, etc.  They pay new pilots $15k/yr for their first several years, then the pay goes up rather slowly.  It is a grueling and unpredictable job, as anyone who flies often can attest.  For these reasons, new airline pilots have gotten rare.  There are some American pilots who have left the profession, and some have gone overseas to the much higher pay, but not significant numbers, and they are not all that young.

The future is not hard to predict, many in the industry expect the U.S. airline system to get much smaller and much more expensive.

Aircraft Sales Brokers, Aircraft Engineers, Aircraft Builders are all paid based on their merit, not paid based on how long they have worked for a company. A new aircraft engineer designing planes can be paid the same as a design engineer who has been with the company for 10 years if the new engineer has a better design than a more senior engineer. Real Estate Agents earn the same commission regardless of experience or how long they have been in the business. Home builders are paid based on their product design, not how long they have been a builder. So why not just make all pay equal for all pilots regardless of how long the pilot has been with the company and eliminate the Captain and Co-Pilot titles? This already works when a pilot changes airlines. If a Captain has been with a company for years but the company is sold or closes, the high senioroty Captain will try to find a pilot job at another airline or corporate business but will have to start at a low seniority level and low pilot pay level at another airline, regardless of experience, but can be hired off the street as a Captain with top pay if qualified in the "Free-Market" pay world of corporate aviation. So why not let the Free-Market determine airline pilot pay just as corporate pilots and professional sports players are paid based on their Market Value or skill? Why not let pilots move around in the industry from one airline to another based on who will pay the pilot the most, just like NFL and most pro ball players? Many airline pilots like to play golf. Pro golf players do not get tpo play in major tournaments based on how longtheyae been a pro golf. Pro golfers ony get to play in major tournaments based on their previous wins or job performance. I am a former regional airline Captain who was paid 1/4 of Captain pay at the Major airline partner for the same level of responsibility, liability and pilot skill. I am currently a flight instructor, free lance contract pilot, auctioneer, real estate broker, appraiser, builder, aviation insurance adjuster, dispute mediator. There is no seniority in a capitalistic system. May the best man or woman win. Eliminate the pilot seniority system and let airlines bid on pilots in a pilot auction just like art is sold for millions of dollars in art auctions. Can you imagine Apple saying they should be paid more for their smart phones because they had been building smart phones longer? Can you imagine Boeing saying they deserve to be paid more for their jets than Airbus because Boeing has been building planes longer and has more seniority in the airplane building business?. Seniority is a child's way of hiding their insecurity and selfishness. Adults and "Real Men" are not afraid of competition. America was built on ruthless competition. Airlines have to compete on price with other airlines, so why should "senior" pilots not have to compete with "junior" pilots for pay and good schedules? If airlines pilots are Real Men, they would love a good fight or competition to be the best so they can earn a higher pay. Airline pilots like to project a Macho Man image that they are not afraid of anything. So why are senior pilots afraid of the very free market system that their airline has to compete in daily?     

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