Amid terracotta sands on the outskirts of Al Ain, cadets are hard at work in classrooms with names such as Yeager, Bader, Lindbergh and Earhart.
The names, of course, refer to the famous pilots Chuck Yeager (the first pilot to travel faster than sound), Charles Lindbergh (the first solo transatlantic pilot), Douglas Bader (a Second World War flying ace) and Amelia Earhart (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic), and the rooms are part of the Etihad Flight College.
Etihad set up its college in 2014, having bought the fixed-wing training division from Mubadala’s Horizon Flight Academy. The college has an intake of up to 120 cadet pilots each year, both for its own staff of more than 2,000 pilots and for its partner airlines. Some 65 to 75 per cent of students are Emirati nationals.
Some 230 Emirati pilots have graduated from the cadet pilot programme since it started in 2006.
The cadets graduate from the programme as second officers. With another four months of supervised line flying, they can qualify to become first officers.
When Etihad set up its flight college, it made two major shifts in training from how Horizon had operated – it insists on its high school leavers taking an aviation science degree at Abu Dhabi University first, and it now trains using the multi-crew pilot licence (MPL) programme rather than the traditional air transport pilot’s licence (ATPL).
“Four years ago we identified that university education was needed before coming here,” says Phil Chandler, the general manager of Etihad Flight College. “Before that, cadets tended to be younger and less experienced, coming out of high school. These cadets are the future management of Etihad.”
While 90 per cent of students pass first time, the failure rate was higher before it was mandated that cadets graduate from university first. Still, the average age of a cadet is 23 to 24; there is currently even a 21-year-old studying at the college.
University also gets the cadets speaking English – which Mr Chandler says is key. “Few pilots learn in a foreign language – Italians training in Italy learn in Italian, Germans in German. But we fly multicultural crews and the job of a pilot has an international flavour: there are 123 nationalities at Etihad.”
There are 145 cadets studying at the college – situated at Al Ain International Airport – across all intakes; 93 are Emirati, but there are also students from the US, UK, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Oman and the Seychelles.
The MPL programme means that instead of flying a prescribed number of hours in single-pilot aircraft to gain a commercial pilot’s licence before being thrown into a dual-pilot environment with an airline, cadets learn flexibly, focusing on multi-crew flying and airline operations from the start.
The course takes about 20 months and 329 flying hours, with 12 examined take-offs and landings in an A320 overseen by a UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) approved flight examiner. A graduating cadet is ready to work on an A320 the very next day as a second officer.
While the military set up such practices decades ago, the MPL has not been universally embraced by airlines, with some preferring the ATPL – although Lufthansa, Tiger Air, easyJet and Air Arabia, among others, train with the MPL.
In the Yeager classroom on this day, eight students, six of them Emirati, are writing copious notes and listening intently to their instructors. There are two women in the class – one Italian, one Emirati. One woman who graduated from the college five years ago is now flying A380s, says Mr Chandler. That’s not to be sniffed at, when the ratio of women is 33:1 among the world’s 130,000 commercial pilots, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots.
Khaled Al Dhaheri, 27, from Al Ain, hopes to graduate next February. He was studying civil engineering when he applied for the Etihad programme in 2010 and switched to the aviation science degree. “I’ve flown to Fujairah and back. My favourite thing is the views – I saw Athens from the cockpit on an observational flight,” he says.
Khaleifah Al Yammahi, also 27, has just started flight training manoeuvres around Al Ain. From Fujairah, he is looking forward to a training flight over his home emirate and “going home in the air”.
Mohammed Al Bloushi, 24, is from Al Ain. He was already two years into an aerospace engineering bachelor’s degree in Canada, having applied unsuccessfully for the Etihad programme. He got accepted second time around and is now finishing level two of ground school. He hopes to be working on A320s a year from now, on short-haul regional flights of no more than five hours, to places such as Qatar, India or Pakistan.
“My family was not so supportive originally, but aviation started booming a few years ago and now it’s a good profession in the UAE. I want to do something to support the development of my country. Five years from now I hope to be a captain. Eventually? An astronaut. I’d love to be in the new Mars programme.”
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