People have wanted to fly since even before Icarus put on a pair of home-made wings. But Icarus didn’t have to deal with buildings, smog, and mountains the way Hongkongers do. It’s not the easiest place to learn to fly, and that’s why Cathay Pacific sends its trainee pilots to the quiet city of Adelaide, Australia, where skies aren’t clogged with skyscrapers or pollution.
This month, 30 Hong Kong students spent a week at Flight Training Adelaide (FTA) as part of Cathay Pacific’s I Can Fly 2016 programme. During their stay at FTA, they visited the control tower, saw some Australian wildlife up close, tested their nerves at a high-wire adventure park, and got a feel for what living in Adelaide and studying at the centre would be like.
But by far, the highlight of the week was getting to fly a plane – a Socata TB10 Tobago – with an FTA instructor. Take-offs and landings are quite turbulent in Australia’s wet and windy winter, but once the plane was high enough, the cadets were allowed to take over and steer.
“Flying felt like a dream,” says David Chung, 17, from YWCA Hioe Tjo Yoeng College. “It was a bit bumpy, but once we’d reached 2,000 feet everything settled down and it was smooth flying. I was a bit nervous using the controller for the first time: I expected the slightest rotation to make the plane roll. But the plane moved smoothly.”
Cheri Chan, 16, from Tsung Tsin College, used to want to be a doctor, but since Form Three, she has been interested in being a pilot. She used the FTA experience to learn more about what it takes to start a career in flying.
“I flew with a female cadet, and I asked her if she ever felt she wasn’t tough enough, or if she felt her ability was different from the boys. She said that sexism isn’t a problem at the school,” says Cheri. “She also told me that you don’t need a degree, and that maths isn’t very important to being a pilot – you just need to know a little bit of physics – but that English is important.”
FTA is based at Parafield Airport, which was built in the 1920s and was used by the Royal Australian Air Force during the second world war. In the 1980s, FTA opened its doors, and has been training Cathay pilots since 1992.
“About 50 per cent of Cathay’s pilots trained at FTA. When you travel with Cathay, there’s a pretty strong chance your pilot will have learned to fly right here,” explains the centre’s business development manager Michael Wallis.
The airline sponsors all training, board and gives students a monthly allowance. Students must work hard to pass weekly exams, but there is a dedicated welfare team onsite to help anyone who’s struggling. After the students get their commercial pilot licence, they head to Hong Kong, where they complete their Cathay training by learning to fly larger planes.
Students who have had no prior flying experience train six days a week for 55-weeks. This includes almost 200 hours of flight training, more than 800 hours of “ground” theory training, and lots of flight simulator training to prepare them for flying larger jets. The intense schedule takes focus and grit, but Cathay’s programme has a 97 per cent success rate.
“FTA is one of the most prestigious flying schools in the country,” says KGV’s Ashwin Varun Sanjay Mahtani, 15, one of the students on the I Can Fly programme. “The instructors don’t only teach you, they care about you on a one-to-one level. They’ll make sure you know your stuff but won’t freak out if you don’t remember what you did two lessons ago.”
Ashwin has wanted to fly since before he could walk, and he got to live his dream even before going to Adelaide. “I did a trial flight with the Hong Kong aviation club. That was amazing, but it’s much better at FTA because of the views and the planes,” he says.
Many of the I Can Fly cadets entered the programme with their hearts set on a career as a pilot, but participants quickly learned that there are many other jobs within the aviation industry.
“This programme has given me a better understanding of the different departments within the airline,” David says. “Like inflight service, flight operations, engineering, or ground staff. But I think being a pilot is the most exciting job of them all.”
But sometimes it can be a little too exciting: all three students admit they had some major fears to overcome.
“I’m afraid of heights, but I want to be a pilot responsible for getting three or four hundred people safely to their destination,” Cheri says. “During the test flight, I looked down at the world and thought ‘wow’. Everyone should have a chance to fly.”
David, who volunteered to be first for the test flight, is also afraid of heights.
“I don’t like doing things where I feel I have no control,” says Ashwin. “I’ll ride extreme roller coasters, but will get scared of water slides. Once you’ve started, no one can stop it. That’s my main fear. But I don’t get scared on planes.”
Whether sitting in the cockpit or in economy class, his faith in the professionals keeps his fears at bay. “Flying is very safe,” he reasons. “You have an instructor, and if there’s an emergency situation they’ll know what to do. Commercial pilots work in safe conditions, with another pilot beside them. If there’s a problem, we’d sort it out with teamwork.”