Calgary flight training school sees value in new China deal

The Calgary Flying Club is training its first class from China after a five-year deal was struck to generate more commercial pilots as demand heats up in that country’s aviation sector.

Restrictive Chinese airspace means fewer opportunities to log hours

Calgary Flying Club CEO Duane Hicks is now training Chinese students as part of a 5-year deal for more commercial pilots. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

The Calgary Flying Club is training its first class of aviation students from China after a five-year deal was struck to generate more commercial pilots as demand heats up in that country's aviation sector.

"They'll leave here with a full commercial licence with a multi-engine rating and an instrument flight rating also," said the club's CEO Duane Hicks.

"The government of China has asked us for five years to train as many pilots as we can."

The club started training 16 students from China this spring.

Among those students is Sky Hou, a recent graduate from a Beijing high school.

Student Sky Hou says eventually she wants to be a flying instructor. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

"In China we need pilots very much," she said as she prepared for another training flight on a Cessna at Calgary's Springbank Airport.

"I want to build more time here. I would like to be an instructor," Hou explained.

Clarence Chen left his job as a cabin attendant with a Chinese airline to attend the Calgary training program.

"I want to be an aviation pilot, a commercial pilot," he said.

Student Clarence Chen wants to be a commercial pilot. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Chen says widespread military airspace restrictions over China make it difficult for civilian pilots to log enough flight time to advance their training.

Two years ago the country announced plans to eventually open up more of that airspace for civilian aviation use. That move is also expected to trigger an increased demand for pilots as more civilian planes take to the air.

But until those changes occur, Chen says Canada provides him with an opportunity to get the kind of training he needs.

"If I have a chance, I want to stay here and build my hours," he said.  "Hours are very important for every pilot."

The Air Transport Association of Canada represents the country's commercial air transport industry, including flight schools.

The flight school is currently training 16 students from China as part of a 5-year agreement. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

President John McKenna says his group has travelled to China on several occasions to pitch Canada's aviation training capacity and expertise.

He says 45 per cent of the commercial licences issued in Canada over the past year were earned by foreign pilots.

"Canada sees an opportunity to export its very accredited knowledge in flight training," McKenna explained.

"I imagine it's a huge deal for the Calgary Flying Club because it's going to generate all kinds of business that they wouldn't normally have from the local community."

McKenna says that includes jobs and equipment upgrades for Canadian flight training facilities.

Meanwhile, Hicks says he hopes to eventually train thousands of Chinese students in partnership with programs across the country.

Duane Hicks says the school is also learning from the students. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

He says it means an economic boost for his industry and an opportunity for his flight school, which is also coping with the effects of Alberta's economic downturn.

"It's forced companies to go looking for opportunities globally."

Hicks says while the students have been quick learners, this first class has also served as a teaching experience for the school.

"We're learning from these 16," he said.

"It's a foundation for this whole project and I really see good things coming out of this."

The flight school says some of the students will likely stay in Canada once the program is complete. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

He says the learning curve for these students includes mastering English, which is considered the official language of civil aviation around the world.

According to Hicks, when the first class of students complete their training next year, he expects some will stay in Canada to log more flight hours until their visas expire.

After that most will return home with Canadian commercial licences and from there they will have to complete more flight and physical testing before they can work as commercial pilots.

Skye Hou laughs as she talks about her future beyond small planes one day.

"I think Chinese airlines have good salaries."