In the sweltering midday heat of a South Australian summer, Alex Leung paces around his Diamond DA40 aircraft. He is “pre-flighting” the tiny two-seater plane: checking the fuel quality, testing the tyres and ensuring the cables holding it down (the craft is so light that a strong gust could blow it over) have been detached. Instructor Zoran Miletic watches on as his charge completes the final checks. “The students know how to prepare for a flight by now,” says Miletic. “I’m just making sure it’s all been done well.” Ten minutes later and the pair taxi past in front of the vast open-sided hangar and speed off up the runway and into the shimmering air.
Leung is one of Cathay Pacific’s latest recruits on the airline’s cadet programme. He has been enrolled at Flight Training Adelaide (FTA), one of the world’s top pilot academies, for three months and already has several flights under his belt. Like him, most of the 260 students here are destined to fly for Cathay but there are also a handful of trainees from sister airline Dragonair and the Taiwan-based China Airlines, as well as a contingent from the quasi-military Hong Kong Government Flying Service. And like Leung, the vast majority of the cadets here live on-site at Parafield Airport.
It might seem an odd place to send your fresh-faced pilots-in-waiting: a small regional city in a remote part of the world with little aviation heritage. But it is precisely Adelaide’s size and relative isolation that have enabled FTA to grow into one of the southern hemisphere’s largest pilot schools. “It’s a big country town; everything is within 20 minutes of the cbd so there’s no traffic congestion,” says Pine Pienaar, FTA's South African-born CEO. “The same goes for the airspace: you don’t have the same air traffic flying into Adelaide that you have into Melbourne, Sydney or even Brisbane.”
Among fta’s other major assets are the local conditions. “From a weather perspective, Adelaide is perfectly positioned: clear skies and no pollution,” says Pienaar. “We generally have nine months of good flying days.” For carriers based in dusty and polluted Asian cities that’s invaluable. Add to that the fact that there is an international airport to the south and a military airport to the north, both providing the school with all the navigational aids it needs to carry out safe training, and you begin to understand why FTA has flourished on this arid patch of scrubland.
It also becomes clear why Cathay Pacific first decided to send its rookies to South Australia in 1994 – and why they’ve continued to do so ever since. Pienaar and his team pride themselves on offering a premium service that although more expensive than many other schools globally, turns out highly disciplined and capable young pilots.
The cadets are immediately put to work; Pienaar jokingly (we think) calls the training “55 weeks of torment”. The first three months are spent more or less entirely at “ground school” in a classroom learning everything from the principles of flying to navigation and meteorology. “I haven’t been to school for a while so it took a bit of getting used to,” says 28-year-old Winnie Chan, a relatively green recruit for Dragonair who is still in Phase 1 of ground school. “We start at around 08.30 every day and finish at 16.30. We have exams quite often so we also need to study outside of class.”
There is a break for lunch every day between 12.00 and 13.10 during which the FTA mess teems with cadets dressed up in spotless uniforms. “There’s an expectation that the students are groomed to an airline standard,” says business development manager Michael Wallis. “When you’re a pilot you’re an ambassador for the airline and the students here are treated as such.”
Once they’ve learnt the theoretical basics the cadets graduate to flying the DA40s, at first with an instructor then on solo flights around Parafield Airport, which FTA leases from the Adelaide Airport Corporation. “On your first flight all you think is ‘I don’t want to break this plane, I just want to land safely,’” says Chris Wan, who is now in his second and final phase of flight training. “For me the subsequent flights were really enjoyable. And even now as I come down on a solo flight I do think: ‘This is just incredible.’”
The school’s reputation is so strong that many aspiring pilots from Australia and abroad apply for a place on the course without any prior contract with a commercial airline. Tawfiq Jeneby is 20, from Nairobi and has been living and learning at fta since January 2015. He isn’t guaranteed a job if he passes his training but his ambition and passion are clear: “What I’d like is to go back home and get a job taking food and medicine to rural parts of Kenya by air.”
The aviation industry is tempremental and a pilot-training school is at the sharp end of that. “Even though the oil price is low, all it takes is another September 11, or for the price to spike, and suddenly the market looks really tough,” says Wallis. When a crisis hits, the first thing airlines do is cut training. Pienaar has seen it: “The volatile nature of the industry can see a order book of 260 students vaporise in a few weeks as airlines batten down the hatches to deal with challenges such as the GFC and oil prices.”
Despite this, the long-term prospects look good for FTA. “Future aircraft orders and pilot retirements on the airlines causes a projected demand for pilots of about 20,000 a year for the next 20 years,” says Pienaar. “Currently there is a view that all the reputable schools in the world can deliver about 12,000 a year.”
Expansion to another site outside Parafield is a real if not immediate consideration for Pienaar. His academy is fortunate in having sound financial backing – in 2005, FTA was bought by the Hong Kong-based Young Brothers Aviation and since then the holding company has invested more than AU$20m (€13m) in infrastructure and resources. Such solid foundations make the school well placed to capitalise on the unmet global demand.
But for the students at FTA the training is more about personal aspirations than fretting about the market. The 20-year-old Jeneby speaks for many when he explains what motivated his enrolment: “I always wanted to see the world and the only job I know that allows you to do that and get paid is aviation.”
1982 The school starts operations
1994 Cathay Pacific training begins
1998 BAE Systems buys the academy; Dragonair training begins
2005 Bought by Hong Kong-based Young Brothers Aviation
2007 HKGFS become FTA’s first helicopter customer
2015 FTA secures contract to teach University of South Australia students
2016 China Airlines starts training at FTA
In January, Qantas released a new in-flight safety video that takes passengers through the security features of its Airbus A380, while at the same time introducing them to the “Spirit of Australia”. The short film opens on the face of a gap-toothed outback farmer wearing an Akubra-style hat and holding a docile sheep in his arms. “G’day. Welcome to Qantas,” he says, reassuringly. “Today you’re in safe hands.”
He’s not wrong. This year Qantas topped the world airline safety rankings for the third year running. The national carrier has a fatality-free record during the jet-engine era, an unparalleled achievement, and scores highly for safety and operations year after year as well. Moreover, as the world’s longest continually operating airline, Qantas has built up a culture of safety over many a decade.
But Qantas’s success also speaks to something more profound about the Australian attitude towards safety and security in aviation. No matter what airline you fly with, next time the pilot comes on the PA system before take-off with a familiar Aussie twang, watch out for a distinct, if subtle, easing of the tension inside the cabin.