The sound of light aircraft engines on a summer’s breeze is music to the ears of aviation enthusiasts. They enjoy recognising a type by its sound signature and are apt to scan the horizon in search of the source of an unfamiliar noise.
That, says Captain William Roe, is one of the factors behind the creation of the Saudi Aviation Flight Academy (SAFA) in Riyadh, of which he is managing director.
“Our principals have an ambition: they want to be able to step outside their front doors at any time of the day and hear the sound of aircraft engines in the sky,” said Captain Roe. “The only way you can do that is to build training capacity in the kingdom, bring planes here that people can buy and fly. “You have to open up the airspace. We’re really in at the ground floor.” The SAFA dream, which has the backing of the influential Saudi Aviation Club and Saudi Binladin Group, became a reality in mid-2012 when the academy enrolled its first students. It passed a milestone in July 2013 by becoming a GACA Part 141-approved pilot school. At the time, Captain Roe said it was “a huge leap” for the academy toward fulfilling its mission “to fuel the growth of aviation in the kingdom by providing a world class centre of excellence for pilot training”.
Captain Roe’s background in aviation training is rooted in the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, where he was involved in developing a methodology that sought to exploit the possibilities of new technology in mainstream flight training. It pioneered many techniques that were later found in the multicrew pilot’s licence (MPL). He joined SAFA in 2009 after spending two years setting up the ill-fated Dubai Aerospace Enterprise University. The Saudi venture, he said, offered interesting and exciting possibilities. “Our training philosophy is to provide students with not just the ‘stick and rudder’ skills of an experienced airman, but the ability to make complex decisions, which will set them apart from those trained under traditional flight training principles. “We’re able to complete this task by using not only the latest in teaching methods utilised by the world’s leading airlines, but through our commitment to staying current and validating our curricula on a constant basis.” The academy officially started operations in mid-2012 at Thumamah Airfield, the facility 28km northeast of Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport, which once served the needs of the late King Khaled’s winter palace.
Currently operating from temporary facilities,
it has 10 aircraft delivered with a further 10 on order to make up a mixed fleet of the Austrianbuilt Diamond piston singles and twins,complemented by Diamond Simulation Level 5 and 6 flight-training devices (FTDs). SAFA’s permanent facilities are under construction beside the 4km runway. Phase 1 comprises the main academy building, a new maintenance hanger, simulator buildings, apron and covered aircraft shelters and is on schedule for completion and handover in October 2014. The cost of construction is in excess of 100 million riyals ($27 million). Phase 2 includes commercial shop space and the first set of on-site student and staff housing – “like a live-in campus”. With the academy’s measured approach to development, work on this phase will follow completion of the first phase at an appropriate interval.
The 4,000sqm school building will house what SAFA describes as one of the world’s best civilian flight training facilities. Its resources will include a suite of classrooms and briefing cubicles, laboratories, libraries, simulators, offices and social amenities. Significantly, it will also contain an aviation outreach facility for the general public. “We’ve been working to understand our market,” said Captain Roe, whose duties include giving presentations to Saudi high school students. “I’m learning a lot about the habits of these individuals, what they think is a good career. “It’s one piece in our outreach programme. The idea is to bring in the general population to teach them a bit about aviation and get them excited so they may pursue aviation as a career.” And the public is responding positively, judging by the popularity of the academy’s open days. SAFA has two streams to its training – professional and recreational flying.
While Captain Roe expects some graduates will go on to fly for Saudi Arabian airlines, business and charter operators, he also anticipates many will remain private pilots. The profile of the academy’s current register of students is significant. Most of the 70-odd students are Saudi nationals, although a “fair number” are expatriates, including foreign men on contract and young non-Saudis who grew up in the kingdom. Some students have enrolled to convert their foreign pilots’ licences to Saudi Arabian GACA certificates. Because some of SAFA’s students are working professionals, the academy has built-in flexibility to meet their needs and work around their schedules.
“The kingdom has a lot of people with the means to own, operate and fly an aircraft,” said Captain Roe. “There are businessmen who have a PPL and want to convert it and buy a plane. “Our development will support, grow and build GA in the kingdom. In that respect, we’re a strategic project. “Our principals recognise that aviation is an expensive and low-margin business but it’s important to grow this capacity inside the kingdom and keep it here.”
As part of its support for private pilots, SAFA will soon offer after-market maintenance support to owners of Diamond aircraft. Earlier this year, the academy signed an agreement with Diamond Aircraft to become its sole dealer in Saudi Arabia – and within two weeks had sold a Diamond DA40 NG. Despite not having started marketing the aircraft, Captain Roe said there have been other expressions of interest.
New products It is unusual but not unknown for a flying school to hold an aircraft dealership, but there were “synergies” between SAFA and Diamond Aircraft that led to the agreement. At this stage in the relationship, there are no sales forecasts, but Captain Roe said the new products that Diamond has under development, especially the larger and faster DA52 piston twin, would be of great interest to businessmen with interests across the kingdom. SAFA is naturally keen to do its part to help meet the future flight crew requirements of the national airlines. The academy is in on-going discussions with airlines in the kingdom about their pilot training needs.
Although its primary aim is to support Saudi students to enter aviation, the academy welcomes all nationalities, subject to security requirements and residency status. For its part, SAFA follows a policy of employing nationals wherever possible and has Saudis peppered throughout the organisation, at dispatch and senior management level, maintenance and administration. “We’re here to create jobs,” said Captain Roe. “Saudi Arabia looks ominous unless you’re here. It’s important for people to understand that folks like us and a couple of other schools in the kingdom are trying to develop the aviation industry in a professional and proper manner.”
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