Monday, September 19, 2011

September 19th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

So many people ask me ‘How can I become a pilot?’ or arrive at the airfield with the statement ‘I want to be a pilot!’ and I am glad to say that I rarely answer them! The young Ghanaians that have been trained at Kpong Airfield are more than able to answer most of such questions, but generally, there comes the crunch point that requires an ‘older face’ to answer. ‘I want to be a commercial pilot’. That is a very different matter.

In my opinion, and I am far from alone, learning to fly because you want to become a commercial pilot is the biggest mistake an individual can make. You should only learn to fly because you are passionate about aviation, because you want to explore a new skill and find the amazing release that only flying can bring. Wanting to be a commercial pilot on ‘day one’ is a major reason to fail – and to make a big hole in the bank account at the same time! The reasons are many, but let us take some time to understand the statistics.

As we have discussed before on these pages, only two percent of the world’s aircraft are airliners. Only a small percentage of the world’s airports are commercial. So, it makes sense to extrapolate the above knowledge to ‘only a small percentage of the world’s pilots are commercial pilots.’ But that is not altogether true unless you add …who earn their living as a pilot.

I know a lot of people, even here in Ghana, who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on pilot training, only to find themselves unable to find a job in aviation. The cost of gaining a ‘frozen ATPL’ – which is the thing to go for if you want to join an airline – is between $80,000 and $100,000 – PLUS other costs that are many, including loss of earnings whilst training. That is a lot of money. ‘Ahh but I will earn big bucks if I get me my licence!’, I hear. Not true. The simple economics of flying today is that ‘it is more costly in gaining the licence than most people will earn in additional earnings in their career’. The competition is great, the obstacles are many and, what happens if you are ‘unable to continue a career in commercial aviation’ due to failing a medical? You may complete your training, only the next week to be told ‘you may no longer hold a class one medical’ – essential to fly passengers commercially.

But let us step back even further… let us look at the statistics of ‘people who start learning to fly’. Based on our experience at Kpong Airfield, which is specific to our region, for every one hundred ‘trial flights’, the first flight (or flights) you take to decide whether you want to progress towards a licence, perhaps two or three will register to learn to fly. This is major reason why we do not allow people to register to learn to fly, and go through all of the paperwork, until we know that this is what they really want. In our environment, there are so many who see ‘flying’ as something that is about freedom. It is true, but it is also about discipline and risk management. For one young man, his comment summed it all up ‘This is not for me – I thought it was like flight simulator and that I could pull and push the stick and do whatever I wanted – not all these rules, checks and safety things.’ I believe we saved this young man a lot of money – and today he visits to watch the planes and has a good job in ICT. He is thinking about learning to fly as a personal thing now, and laughs about his earlier desires to be ‘an airline pilot’. You see, in our environment, people are not aware to the same degree as in other countries about the true nature of flying – and for many the only taste of an aircraft that they will ever receive will be that ‘twenty minute trial flight’. This trial flight will change them, give them direction and rule out an avenue of career direction – or, in the small percentage, light a fire of passion, raise their bar of achievement and flying will become their ‘thing’ for a very long time to come.

So, we have two or three percent of the ‘starters’ who go on to ‘register and take lessons’. Wonderful, they start. Many drop out in the first ten hours due to lack of commitment, lack of funds and at times lack of ability. Flying is demanding – it requires discipline, practical and theoretical learning and… cash! For every one hundred who actually register to start learning to fly, around half will complete their first licence. That is an international commonality.

After completing the first licence, the vast majority will be happy and remain what we call ‘private pilots’, flying themselves in small planes, perhaps owning or co-owning aircraft and sharing their passion for being in the air safely with others. Such pilots are the source of great National resource – for they are ever ready to grow aviation interests and ever ready to support search and rescue missions, flying of organs, sick children and other humanitarian operations – and this is essential in all countries around the world that value the lives of their citizens.

From the fifty percent who registered and went on to gain their first licence, one or two will go on to invest in the ‘commercial training’. Out of every ten who complete their commercial training, it is far from all who are able to get a job in commercial aviation, and then, not all will be in the sector ten years down the line.

Let us look at the US statistics for so called ‘active pilots’ as at the end of 2009

Around 72 000 student pilots and over 237 000 private/recreational/sport/glider pilots (that is those flying personally), roughly 126 000 commercial pilots with 144,000 airline transport pilots. (all numbers for highest licence value held.) Furthermore there were a registered 95 000 flight instructors.

So, with a structure of nearly 600 000 active pilots we can draw some deductions…

Over half of all the active pilots are students and personal aviators (that does not take into account those who have ‘dropped out’, failed to pass medicals, etc). Over 16% of all active pilots are instructors, in addition to their highest rating. Remember, this does not indicate that they ‘exercise their licence at the highest rating’ just that they hold it. One can quickly see that over 12% of the total ‘active pilot population’ are students. So, assuming a career of 40 years, there should be over 6 700 retiring pilots each year… and the retirement in commercial aviation is strict! Therefore, the student pilots are looking at roughly a one in ten replacement potential into retirement posts, and the market shows small growth… The fact is very few who actually complete all of their investments will find and keep a job in an airliner cockpit.

The numbers say it all. You had best only enter the aviation marketplace if you have the passion for aviation – or you will be bitterly disappointed and possibly very out of pocket! Fly for the passion and see where it leads – that really is the best investment.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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