Flight Training in South Africa

South African flight schools find themselves in increasing demand to train students from around the world. The great flying weather the use of English and the high standard of our regulator are all key aspects of this surge in popularity in learning to fly in South Africa.

China has been obliged to seek outside help to provide pilots for its rapidly expanding airline industry. Hampered by tight military control of its airspace – with training flights often obliged to book circuit or cross country flights days in advance, it was clear that the country had to turn overseas, and South Africa is one of a number of nations chosen to provide training bases. It is anticipated that AIFA will ultimately order over 100 brand new Piper and Cessna aircraft to fulfil its obligations to AVIC.

Chinese aerospace giant AVIC International Flying Academy (AIFA) is now well established, with a pair of busy training bases at George on the Western Cape coast and inland, at Oudtshoorn and Beaufort West.

In AIFA’s case, the investment has been no government facilitation of this project, so it is a strong testament to the local industry’s stand-alone expertise in the pilot training arena. AIFA has not only employed a large number of flight instructors, it has also established infrastructure with capital investment in new aircraft.

Whilst AIFA provides flight crew training to mostly Chinese nationals, it is SA Flyer’s airline columnist Captain Mike Gough who has quietly gone about winning a large part of the international training market with his Skyhawk flight school based at Lanseria airport. Mike Gough reports that in July 2020 he experienced one of his most busy months ever as students could not wait to return to flying as the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.,

Another school which has led the way with international trimming is Port Alfred-based 43 Air School which has become the pilot training choice for many African nations. With its purpose-designed campus, it has attracted students from almost all English-speaking countries. In addition to pilot training, its Port Alfred base is home to an Air Traffic Control college, one of the world’s few that are able to train private individuals, without the constraints of government interference in candidate selection. There’s little doubt that 43 Air School’s success has had a significant impact on government-run institutions in Uganda, Ethiopia and Nigeria, which struggle to provide similar facilities and any level of coherent response to simple business enquiries.

A number of outside influences have benefited South African training establishments targeting career pilots. Vis-à-vis security, especially post 9-11, whilst the South African government has made some effort in tracking down the intelligence histories of foreign student candidates, those travelling to SA still find entry requirements a great deal easier to navigate than the draconian US visitor controls. Indeed, whilst African students tend to dominate flight school intakes, significant numbers from the Middle East and Southern Asia continue to find a welcome and capable training industry in South Africa.

Governments seem to battle to understand general aviation, but it doesn’t take much for a government to understand the need for career training facilities. Outside of major airports, South Africa still has relaxed community airfields where flight schools can prosper without restrictive airspace and security regulations. 43 Air School, Progress Flight Academy and AVIC International Flight Academy, are good examples. Flight schools in the Middle East operate under the paranoid yoke of suspicious aviation authorities.

There are around 200 Aviation Training Organisations in South Africa. 43 Air School has adopted the controversial integrated Student Pilot to Commercial Pilot philosophy, which cuts out the intermediate Private and Commercial Licences. The rationale is to take candidates directly to the flight deck of a commercial airliner as cost effectively as possible, without pilots having to seek experience amongst non-scheduled general aviation operators first.

For airline pilots the student to commercial concept appears successful. Rather than pilots being sent on hours-building sectors to fill out the time requirement, students are allowed to conduct IFR flights in the presence of instructors. In practice, it means that obligatory cross country flying time can now be dedicated to more realistic flights embracing real IMC in controlled airspace.

The integrated curriculum is a precursor to South Africa conducting its own long awaited Multi-Crew Pilot’s License (MPL) courses. The MPL has been included as part of a recommended ICAO crew licensing requirement; indeed, a number of overseas schools have already obtained ICAO approval to run MPL courses. These call for 240 flight and over 700 classroom hours.

Another trend, which might develop further, is the establishment of a complete preparatory and high school curriculum, taking students all the way through to Matric but embracing a specially formed flying training curriculum as well.

Another emerging trend amongst training establishments has been their use of subsequent employment opportunities to encourage business. Flight Schools began adopting this policy some years ago and it remains a pivotal factor in many candidate’s choice of training school. With the difficulties in obtaining a first job in aviation a major barrier, some schools recruit instructors from their own alumni and close off employment opportunities for those trained elsewhere. With barely 200 hours in their logbooks, new professional pilots are pressured to find work to increase their experience levels so that they are seen as employable by even non-scheduled, second tier operators. However, it is usually only those who have some level of teaching skill that will find success as instructors.

The career pilot training industry appears to be relatively healthy, partly driven by optimistic post Covcid-19 airline manufacturer forecasts. With Africa highlighted as a significant developing market, for both non-African, as well as African carriers, the demand for cockpit crew is set to continue.

The traditional recreational/ business pilot’s training industry is perhaps less fortunate, as regulatory authorities attempt to stamp out what they see as high accident rates. Unable to bring context and perspective to accident stats, because the CAA make no attempt to monitor and publish industry flight hours, let alone release the number of licenses issued annually; the CAA have resorted to attempts at making the pass standards higher.

Recruiting new blood into to aviation is a fickle marketing black art, not made easier by the ongoing global economic crisis, which has culled the ranks of people with sufficient disposable income to adopt flying as a recreational past-time. There has also been a significant move away from security-intensive airports, as government has made it difficult for flight students to access their training schools. This has had a positive effect for academies operating from smaller airfields, the likes of Grand Central, Heidelberg and Krugersdorp.

What is certain, is that the worldwide pilot population is getting fewer and career training establishments, more competitive. Training companies will need to address this marketing conundrum sooner, rather than later, if they are to include non-career pilots in their business plans. Marketing creativity is not a strong point in the flight training industry – relying on the internet and word of mouth is a less than creative approach to what is becoming a far more structured industry driven by increasing professionalism.

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