Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fresh Saudi pilots regain trust of national flag carrier

TAIF — After more than three years of struggle, fresh Saudi pilots have started regaining the trust of the country’s flag carrier.

Youngsters holding Commercial Pilot Licenses (CPL) had been denied employment amid new hiring rules issued by Saudi Arabian Airlines incorporating high scores in TOEFL and a maximum age restriction of 27.

Saudia has now decided to employ pilots who succeed in the exam set by Prince Sultan Aviation Academy in Jeddah. A major barrier has been the conversion of the foreign license to its Saudi equivalent, issued by the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA).

Khalid Huladar was among the very first pilots who were able to convert the CPL. “It is a brave decision by Saudia. I appreciate it,” he said.

"Converting my CPL was a great experience, because I found myself back on track flying brand new DA-42NG and DA-40NG aircraft with an expert flight instructor. Moreover, it was an honor to be one of the first students recommended for GACA check-ride. Now, I will apply to Saudi Arabian Airlines."

Capt. Vince Peccarino heads the training at Saudi Arabian Flight Academy (SAFA) in Riyadh. He has devoted his life for aviation with thousands of flying hours under his belt as a flight instructor.

“We have had students converting their CPL who were very well prepared and they took 3-4 flights and were ready, while others needed 30-40 hours. Quality of their previous training impacts significantly. GACA is following FAA practical test standards, rules and procedures," Capt. Vince told Saudi Gazette.

“What I have noticed with people who have obtained their licenses from certain countries is that training has been very lacking,” says Capt. Vince.

“GACA has serious reservations with regard to accepting these licenses. Saudi Airlines will not entertain them and that is why conversion is inevitable. Once they come to SAFA, they realize how severely handicapped they are. There are students with 300 hours of CPL, yet unable to fly in a straight line," he said.

Capt. Vince cited the example of India, which faces a shortage of commercial pilots despite having 7,000 jobless CPL holders who obtained their licenses from various parts of the world. “Getting the pilot license is not the end of the road, it is where the journey begins. Then you go to an airline and start training. There is a big gap from just acquiring a CPL to becoming an airline pilot,” he said.

Capt. Vince has trained in countries such as the US, the UK, Italy, France and Germany. He says Saudi Arabia is "brand new with respect to general aviation ... but certainly the quality is going to be comparable with anywhere else in the world”.

Capt. Vince believes that flight training in Saudi Arabia will expand and more and more flying schools will emerge. “In the next five years we will produce a number of commercial pilots and instructors and some may opt for own school openings. ... It would be nice to get young guys coming from zero hours to become flight instructors, and pass on the knowledge," said the veteran trainer.

He said the job prospects in the industry were excellent. "According to a Boeing study, in the Middle East 32,700 pilots will be in demand in the next 20 years. We will essentially have to produce 32 commercial pilots weekly, just to meet regional demands. It has a bright future, if you ever want to become a commercial pilot in this region, now it is the time."

Speaking about the trainees, he says, “I have high expectations of my students. I expect strict discipline. I expect them to fly within a set altitude and a set heading. Everything needs to be done properly and this makes training very hard in the beginning. Certainly Saudi Arabia is going to be on the map as a good training country.”

Capt. Vince thinks the main challenge students in Saudi Arabia face is the English language. "When training abroad, it becomes even harder. In my view, it will be easier to remain in Saudi Arabia and obtain quality training while no compromise is made with GACA regulations," he said.

While Saudi men expect to be incentivized for flying, women in Saudi Arabia hold an opposite passion, and are willing to pay themselves for pilot training.

Noorah Hassan is one of the Saudi women passionate about flying. “I have always wanted to be a pilot," she says. “This has been my dream since I was a child; I hope one day it will come true. I wouldn’t mind even being a co-pilot as long as I fly. Perhaps one day I will be able to do that in Saudi Arabia, or may be in some other country.”

Meagan Quinlan, a European female pilot living in Riyadh, says, “Restrictions here in KSA do not permit women to fly. This needs to be reevaluated because 8 percent of the world’s pilots are female, and Saudi women should have the opportunity to participate in such a rewarding career.”

A number of Saudi females are already training in various parts of the world. “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return,” said one of them.

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