South African Airways to launch a new Flight Academy

South African Airways (SAA) has initiated a global search for a qualified and internationally recognised partner to join it in establishing and running a new flight academy, the SAA Flight Academy, which will ensure focused, expert training for new pilots.

The SAA Flight Academy will recruit students from across South Africa, placing special emphasis on attracting future pilots from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.

Besides training future generations of SAA pilots, it will be launched as an international centre of excellence to candidates from other South African, African, and international airlines.

The new SAA Flight Academy will concentrate its efforts on turning out pilots steeped in the ethos, practices, corporate culture and safety disciplines of a major international carrier while making a significant contribution to the transformation of the entire South African airline industry.

The academy will also offer future pilot generations a clear career path within commercial air transport, with the best candidates earning the opportunity to fly as Second Officers alongside SAA's established Captains and First Officers.

“With only 17% of pilots trained since 1994 coming from previously disadvantaged communities, South Africa has not yet made all the progress it needs to in opening this highly skilled area of airline operations to aspiring pilots,” said Siza Mzimela, SAA's CEO. “In order to establish a secure and sustainable talent pipeline of appropriately trained pilots and to further the best transformation interests of the country, the SAA Flight Academy is a highly systematic approach to ensure the production of top-class pilots year on year.”

SAA has issued a tender calling for established flight training institutions to express interest in a long term partnership to establish and manage the training academy. The tender is open to all qualified service providers from South Africa and internationally.

“Key will be the ability of any prospective partner, whether from South Africa or elsewhere, to prove that they have a track record in implementing international best practice in the airline pilot training sector,” said Mzimela. “As is SAA's practice now, the qualification authority will be the Joint Aviation Authority, responsible for setting training standards for civil aviation in Europe.

In contrast to non-scheduled air transport, the international passenger airline industry is highly regulated, with a premium placed on pilot perfection at every moment from the standard pre-flight checks to the post-flight debriefing after engines are turned off at the arrival gate. Traditionally, South African airline pilots have either received their initial training in the air force or at a private flying school, the latter going on to fly smaller general aviation aircraft as charter pilots or junior flying instructors gathering flying experience foran average of seven years before they are eligible to join a scheduled carrier.

“The new system will begin training pilots for their highly responsible roles within airline operations from day one,” said flight academy project leader Jimmy de Beer, himself an SAA Senior Training Captain with 37 years experience. “We will put candidate pilots into SAA's passenger aircraft simulators for 100 hours soon after they have learned the flying basics on the academy's own entry-level aircraft. This will ensure they absorb the entire approach required by a major carrier from the word 'go', without any unnecessary detours,” he explained.

Intrinsic to the training is the development of collaborative analytical, decision and action-taking skills. These are the foundation of the modern cockpit Crew Resource Management techniques that have contributed significantly over the past two decades in making commercial aviation the safest mode of public transport available.

The previous training philosophy, involving a variety of flying in other environments, has often resulted in pilots joining airlines with an air force or charter background first having to unlearn habits and procedures which are unsuited to the passenger air transport environment.

“Experience shows that over 100 hours in an airliner simulator practising every imaginable situation is worth a great deal more than say over 100 hours flying a light cargo plane between municipal airfields,” said de Beer. “Our students will inculcate the internationally benchmarked SAA approach from day one.”

In order to reach the necessary economies of scale, the academy will aim for an intake of 150 to 250 new students annually. As a result of natural attrition and growth, SAA needs approximately 45 new pilots a year. An integrated academy in South Africa will offer significant advantages: excellent flying weather for almost the entire year, comfortable living and working conditions for students pilots at a new, purpose built facility, and the ability to train on state-of-the-art simulators under the tutelage of SAAs' experienced training captains, will all contribute to the mix.

It is expected that the full training cycle from a candidate pilot's first day in the classroom to the first day in the flight deck on a regular flight will take about 3.5 years and cost between R1-million and R2-million. Candidates sponsored by SAA will be required to work for the airline for an agreed number of years, failing which they will be required to buy their way out of the training contract.

“Interestingly, one of the world's biggest airlines, Cathay Pacific, is about to implement a training system very similar to our new approach,” said Mzimela. “Our aim is for the SAA Flying Academy very quickly to become not only a national asset, but in fact an asset for the whole continent.”

SAA plans to select its partner for the academy this year, with the first student intake expected in 2013. 

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