Imagine being seated in a training plane's cockpit with 'zero flying experience' and then walking away 14 months later with the licence to fly a commercial jet! Impossible, you might say. But a pioneering course by the newest training school on the block has made this possible. The Sharjah-based Alpha Aviation Academy is bracing itself to roll out multi-crew pilot licences (MPL) for its first batch of cadets next year.

And these licence-holders instantly qualify for an airline pilot's job, thanks to their intensive commercial jet flying experience
of 150 hours. The fact that it is the only aviation school in the Middle East offering this programme gives the academy a definite edge over its rivals.

"We began our first course in February for the MPL, so not only is it a new academy, it also offers MPL, which is a new method of training pilots. We are the first academy to start this training in the Middle East, or even globally," says Mustafa Ali, general manager.

Ali explains the academy's USP: "Traditionally, what used to happen with flight training was when a person wanted to become a pilot, he or she would have to take up the private pilot's licence (PPL) course. Then they were required to get a commercial pilot's licence and take separate courses for instrument readings, multi-engine readings and so on. Then they would have to do a jet transition course, only after which could they join an airline."

The problem with the above-mentioned approach was that prospective pilots would be required to put in 200 to 250 hours flying a small aircraft. "A big jetliner nowadays is nothing like the small aircraft pilots fly to qualify initially," explains Ali. "Therefore, what ended up happening was that airlines would retrain these pilots, investing more time and effort before they qualified to be on duty as first officers. So, it was an industry initiative that paved the way for a more appropriate method of training."

Most aviation courses have candidates training on small single-engine airplanes that enable them to get a commercial pilot licence, but these pilots are short on the skills and qualifications needed to fly new-age commercial jets.

As the aviation industry evolved, the need arose for training programmes that tackled these sophisticated technological advances in aircraft engineering. The result is the MPL programme that has been in development for many years. It is the brainchild of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which all countries are signatory to.

The course provides for relevant hands-on training through its use of advanced simulators and jet aircrafts in a specialised airline environment. It is also the first course of its kind which allows individuals to enter the aviation field for a definitive career while offering mid-level professionals from other fields an opportunity for a career change.

"The benefit of the MPL is that we train pilots from day one to be airline pilots in a multi-crew airline operating environment where the training is delivered by experienced airline training personnel," says Ali who, as a pilot training officer, has clocked more than 11,000 flying hours. "We perform the majority of the training instruction on the actual aircraft
type the cadets will be flying when they work for an airline."
The MPL programme begins with intensive ground school training for six months. Cadet students then train for 50 hours on small aircraft. "This is down from the 200-odd hours on small aircraft in conventional programmes," says Ali.

The rest of the training is done on simulators for big aircraft. "So, they are essentially flying a big jet during their training."
Also, the training would then be linked to an actual airline. "We have an operational airline partner, Air Arabia, which trains the students on its systems. So when they complete the course technically, they don't need any other training to be able to fly on the right seat of a jet. It makes it easier for the airlines to employ students without having to spend time and money re-training [them]."

Alpha Aviation began operations in February this year with a debut batch of 10 cadets. "We plan to qualify over 100 in a year's time. That's our goal; it's what our business model is based on."
Incorporated in the UK, the group operates two other aviation schools, one in the UK called Alpha Aviation Academy Europe based in Gatwick, and one in the Philippines called Clark Aviation. There are also plans to start other academies around the world.

The pilot training programme is what the academy is concentrating on at present. "In future, we plan to include cabin crew, personnel such as despatch and so on," says Ali. "Though there are no immediate plans, we could look at aeronautical engineering-related courses for future expansion.
"Our USP is that we follow the latest methods of teaching. But there is a lot of interest in the market [for the MPL courses], so you will see other institutes coming up with MPL courses soon enough as well."

What are the basic requirements for the course?

"A minimum age requirement of 18 years. There is also an assessment process: an English language comprehension test, mathematics and a pilot aptitude test that basically tests hand-to-eye coordination and alerts
us about risk factors. A medical test is mandatory too. If you qualify in all these, we promise you a MPL. And that, with no prior flying experience!"

The cost? A total of Dh440,000, in instalments. The course is divided into six months of ground school – which is the core flying programme on small aircraft and following that on medium-sized jets – and finally two courses on board actual airliners. After they complete the course, cadet students get practical experience – 40 sectors of line training which roughly works out to 150 hours of flying on a jet airliner. "That's a very marketable tool for a student pilot. Once you have that kind of practical experience, it's very easy
to get employed."

With Air Arabia as an operational partner, cadet students who have successfully completed training stand a good chance of being absorbed by the airline. "But they also have the option of seeking employment with other airlines," says Ali. "For UAE nationals, there is a guarantee of employment from Air Arabia."

The students are from Tunisia, Algeria, India, Pakistan and several Gulf countries.

Their curriculum follows the UK-based Oxford Aviation Academy's and Ali claims Alpha is the first to use such hi-tech classroom equipment with computer-based training.
"We are going to induct four new aircraft, which are to be delivered in a few months. We are investing in simulators too which will be used for basic training. An Airbus A320 simulator is scheduled to be inducted at a later stage."

Has the recession impacted the numbers seeking to take off? Not really, says Ali. "We are the pioneers of the multi-crew pilot licence. There is a huge demand for first officers in the aviation industry, mainly in this region. Most Middle East airlines have huge orders on their books, which are
going to be filled in the next few years. That is the gap we will bridge as a good solutions provider. We are working very closely with the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) which has one of the highest standards in the world."

– Shiva Kumar Thekkepat is Feature Writer, Friday