I often get asked how general aviation is doing. The answer is – I don’t know. Some parts seem to be doing really well, others really badly.

A COMMON PERCEPTION is that general aviation is dying, largely due to it becoming too expensive and oppressed by the CAA – and video games competing for young pilots.

Yet the flight schools are doing well.

According to the SACAA, there were 13,223 pilots in South Africa as at October 2021. Ten years ago there were 14,560 pilots, so the decline has been relatively small.

Why is the continued health of GA so important? Simply because, in the absence of any training budget in the SAAF, every South African pilot, regardless of where their career takes them, begins as a general aviation pilot. Their experience gained with light aircraft lays the groundwork for flying large aircraft. Many airline pilots secretly admit to how boring piloting a large airliner can be, compared to flying a small single-engine plane around the Okavango Delta. For old airline pilots, the thrill of first solos and cross-countries lives with them long after their initial training.

And now, with the airlines facing unprecedented pilot shortages, the importance of GA as the foundation for the African air transport industry is ever more important. Flight schools are ramping up capacity. And most importantly, pilot pay is expected to likewise increase, making being a senior pilot as financially rewarding as being a senior company executive.

With airlines having to fund training to attract new recruits into the industry, there is a real hope that the biggest single obstacle to the growth of GA will be overcome – and that is the lack of funding for ab-initio training.

‘student pilot’s repay bank financing’

Further, Mike Gough, our stalwart airline columnist, has been quietly working away at bringing the Multi Crew Pilot Licence to South Africa. This will use sophisticated and stringent selection criteria that will almost (but not quite) guarantee the success of the student, and thus the student’s ability to repay bank financing.

Compared to perhaps R100,000 for a bachelor’s degree, the R500,000 required for a Commercial Pilot’s Licence may seem a lot. But if the much-anticipated shortage becomes real, the salaries will make repayment of that half a million Rand seem like a bargain.

The problem with fat pilot salaries is that it will attract those who do not have the passion and commitment flying requires. Commercial flying demands an extraordinary level of commitment and sacrifice, which only those with a deep avocational passion for flying will be able to endure. This will continue to make being a pilot an unattractive job to those who want the cushy working conditions and status of a regular office job – that may one day provide accesses to the levers of procurement.

While we wait for high pilot salaries – may I wish you all a joyous festive season and a better 2022.

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