As India witnesses an aviation boom, several rapidly growing airlines are sending young students halfway across the world to Sabena Airline Training Centre (SATC) in the US to become professional pilots.
A batch of 26 Indian students, including three women, sponsored by SpiceJet and Kingfisher are already training at a brand new SATC facility spread over 24,000 sq feet at Falcon Field, 30 km east of Phoenix. Their number may grow to 140 by yearend.
From this facility, giving access to the many uncontrolled airports in the southern part of Arizona - ideal for basic training, SATC plans to fly 48,000 flight hours with 310 international students training in 2007, said managing director Kris Van den Bergh at its formal opening.
"In the last 12 months the need for pilots has gone up dramatically, mainly driven by the birth and expansion of the new and existing Middle Eastern and Asian airlines," he said, adding, "For India, the numbers are already significant. Today about 2,900 pilots are employed in India versus a requirement of 3,100."
The additional 500 airplane orders for the next five years will yield an additional requirement of 5,000 pilots, meaning that the pilot population in India will virtually triple over the next five years, added Van den Bergh.
For the Indian programme, the airlines concerned pick up 19 to 29-year-old science/engineering graduates or those with physics and mathematics background who can communicate well in English.
The 32-week programme in Arizona involves 100 hours of theory and 225 hours of flying. Once they obtain their pilot's license for general aviation aircraft, the students are qualified to go on for training in specific Boeing or Airbus aircraft in Brussels or in their own airlines' training programmes, said business development director Laurence Adam.
Students pay a course fee of $38,000 and another $7,000 towards shared accommodation. However, Kingfisher-sponsored candidates get a refund of $10,000 and an assured job on completion of training.
Sharing a two-bedroom furnished apartment, three SpiceJet girls from diverse backgrounds have already moved from classroom to a couple of solos and are eagerly looking forward to an exciting career in flying back home.
The daughter of a businessman, Tanvitha, 21, from Bangalore is a BE in mechanical engineering. Shiv Priya Kapur, 23, escaped from dreary hotel management once flying opened up as a profession for women rather than just a thrilling hobby.
Delhiite Kanika Mehra, 21, an electrical engineering graduate from Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, always wanted to fly and only found words of encouragement from her chartered accountant father and office administrator mother.
Apart from India, "the numbers are equally impressive for China, and to a lesser extent for Europe. In addition to the required volume going up, we also observe more genuine interest of the airline in basic flight training," Van den Bergh said.
To meet this demand, SATC plans to expand its fleet of 27 aircraft to 34 aircraft making 170 flights, logging over 250 flight hours and 500 landings every day or a landing every three minutes! <b1>
Before moving into Falcon Field, SATC operated from Scottsdale Airport, just 11 miles northwest, to train more than 700 pilots over 16 years. "We could not grow at Scottsdale because of the single runway and jet traffic. We have two runways here and less business jet traffic," Van den Bergh said.
For the expansion, SATC has chosen a new family of airplanes, the Diamond, going from the smaller two-seater DA20, over the four-seater DA40 and the twin, the DA42.
"This range of airplanes provides us with a reliable and efficient training platform, and a uniform state-of-the-art training tool for the students, including a glass digital cockpit layout, which we consider a must for future airline pilots. They will receive the basics of working in a modern cockpit from the very start," Van den Bergh said.
Earlier serving onetime Belgian national carrier, Sabena Airline, SATC opened its door to other airlines after Sabena went bankrupt two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US.
Besides two simulators at Falcon Field, SATC operates six more at the Brussels Airport that mimic Boeing 737 and Airbus A320/330/340 aircraft. Those simulators continue to be used by numerous European airlines to train their pilots.
In Arizona, apart from the Indians, SATC's prime customer is KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, for which it trains at least 150 pilots a year. Pilots are also trained for Air Malta and SN Brussels Airlines, the Belgian successor to Sabena Airlines.