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One of the most memorable and essential experiences for student pilots is solo flying, says Captain Ghazanfar Ali

Dubai/Islamabad: Credibility of Pakistani pilots working around the world is now at stake, following reports of “dubious” flying licences issued to many of them . The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has also expressed concern over serious lapses in licensing and safety oversight by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA).

The latest controversy over pilots’ authentication began with the crash of a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) passenger plane in Karachi on May 22, 2020, that killed 97.

262 ‘fake’ pilots

Pakistani pilots working in their country and with different other airlines around the world have come under the scanner after a startling revelation by Pakistan’s Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan regarding a racket for “fake” flying licences in the country. He said on the floor of the parliament at that close to 40 per cent (around 262) active pilots in Pakistan held “dubious” flying licences.

The 262 pilots — 109 commercial and 153 transport pilots — were grounded pending conclusion of inquiries against them.

He disclosed this information as part of the preliminary inquiry report into the PIA plane crash in Karachi on May 22. He held that pilots of the ill-fated plane and those manning the air traffic control tower in Karachi were responsible for the fatal crash.

Suicidal attack

The aviation minister’s statements proved to be a suicidal attack on his own ministry as the global community has not only been banning the PIA from operating flights within their airspace, but has also been barring Pakistani pilots from flying planes abroad.

Worldwide impact

Following the minister’s report, PIA grounded 141 pilots with suspected licences, which raised many an eyebrow.

European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) barred Pakistan pilots from flying to 32 European countries and also suspended PIA’s authorisation to operate in EU member-states for six months with effect from July 1.

Earlier this month, Vietnam also grounded 27 Pakistani pilots, causing further embarrassment, while several Gulf countries have written to the PCAA demanding authentication of licences of Pakistani pilots flying their planes in different Arab countries.

Aviation experts termed the report about dubious licences as alarming for the future of Pakistani pilots. They said the credentials of the pilots should be thoroughly scrutinised and all necessary steps taken to restore the confidence in Pakistani pilots and airlines internationally.

PCAA under scanner

The expert also raised questions about the credibility of PCAA, which is responsible for issuing licences. “Why is regulatory authority not checking the licences, which are required to be renewed every six months,” questioned a pilot without disclosing his name.

Khan also ensured to initiate criminal proceedings against the Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) officials involved in issuing dubious licences as their cases were being sent to Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).

Pakistan is currently verifying credentials of Pakistani pilots serving with other airlines in Malaysia, Gulf countries and Vietnam, and only those who will be certified would be allowed to fly.

‘Full of discrepancies’

Meanwhile, Pakistani pilots and their union have raised questions about the government’s claims of 262 pilots with ‘dubious’ credentials, saying it was full of discrepancies. “It contains names of highly educated and qualified pilots who have passed all the tests,” Chaudhry Salman, president of Pakistan Airlines Pilots Association (Palpa) said after the minister’s allegations.

The Palpa president said that the list issued by the government was baseless. He said that the aviation minister raised the issue because he wanted to divert attention from the May 22 air crash in Karachi.

He pointed out that the minister’s allegations had put the jobs of Pakistani pilots working across the world at risk.

When it all began

The investigations into pilots’ qualifications began after the 2018 crash-landing of a PIA plane on a domestic route. It was found that the test date on the licence of the pilot involved was holiday — suggesting it was fake, as testing could not have taken place on that day. That led to 16 PIA pilots being grounded in early 2019. The PCAA requires pilots to pass all eight papers to become eligible to fly.

What industry experts say

To understand the whole scenario, the process of pilot licensing and the consequences on Pakistan’s aviation industry, Gulf News spoke to leading experts in Pakistan.

How are ‘fake or dubious’ licences being checked now?

Captain Ghazanfar Ali, who has 34 years of experience with Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and more than 16 years of experience with a commercial airline, says when a pilot joins a flying school, he/she is issued a Student Pilot Licence (SPL), and is assigned a PCAA-reference number. “This reference number contains the record of all the certificates, exams, flying hours of the pilot.” This is how PCAA is now verifying pilots’ credentials in keeping with international aviation laws. Following the controversy, “CAA requested for this data from our flying school, which we have already sent”, he said.

Pilots fear they are being made the scapegoat

A senior aviation expert with more than 50 years of experience, Anthony Chaudhry, deems the issue “has been handled poorly without proper investigation”. He fears that the jobs of “Pakistani pilots working in foreign airlines are in jeopardy now” because of the crisis. The appropriate way would be to resolve the issue internally to take the “black swans” into account.

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Pilots feel they alone have to now bear the brunt of the controversy when the problem runs deep and concerns government institutions. “If a pilot is awarded a licence without taking the written test, even though he aced the flying test, who is at fault here? It is the authority that issues the license, the PCAA in this case,” said one pilot who wished to remain anonymous.

Ever since the report was released and made public on TV, “every Pakistani pilot is being questioned if his or her licence is fake? We do not deserve this”, remarked Usman Khan, flight instructor at Hybrid Aviation. “A pilot earns his licence after a series of rigorous written and practical tests in which flying tests are conducted by the flying clubs and exams and verification are done by PCAA.” 
The issue of some pilots adopting unfair means, he says, requires investigation, but “there was no need for this kind of exposure and hype that blames only the pilots for the blunders of the institutions”. It is worth recalling that Captain Sajjad Gul, the pilot of the ill-fated PIA aircraft that crashed on May 22, had 17,000 flying hours of experience and was considered among the most experienced pilots of the airline.

A pilot earns his licence after a series of rigorous written and practical tests in which flying tests are conducted by the flying clubs and exams and verification are done by PCAA.

- Usman Khan, flight instructor

Political influence

Experts claim that decades of politicisation and “mismanagement, cronyism, corruption are responsible for the degradation of PIA” and the country’s aviation industry.

Pakistan’s aviation disaster is the result of decades of politically-motivated hiring in state institutions such as PIA and Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority

- Fahad Ibne Masood, Aviation analyst

When asked who is to be blamed for the current pilots’ fiasco, aviation analyst Fahad Ibne Masood said: “Pakistan’s aviation disaster is the result of decades of politically-motivated hiring in state institutions such as PIA and PCAA by PPP [Pakistan People’s Party], PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz], MQM [Muttahida Qaumi Movement] and the politically-affiliated trade unions.”

Hiring without merit

Some, though not all, of the appointees were unqualified and non-technical at the time of their employment by local ministers and MNAs [members of National Assembly], who were accused of taking bribes-for-jobs, he said. “Since 1989, there has been a political-hiring process in place to give ‘naukrian’ (jobs) to the party members.” 
During 2012 and 2016, the then two ruling parties, PPP and PMLN, accused each other of recruiting hundreds of non-skilled employees “either to satisfy their voters or to earn money”.

PIA reforms

The reason why this has suddenly become a hot-button issue is that the government is now attempting to “reform PIA and balance the aircraft-to-pilot and ground crew ratio”, he commented. PIA’s fleet consists of 31 aircraft and around 434 pilots, which is “much more than what is internationally required in a competitive organisation” said Fahad Ibne Masood, an ATPL [Airline Transport Pilot Licence] holder and an MBA in Aviation Management, who is well-versed in commercial, military and applied flying domains.

Muhammadd Shamim

Aviation expert

Muhammad Shamim, a senior Pakistani aviation expert based in Germany, says while countries like India have resolved and/or are still verifying “fake documents” issue of pilots internally, Pakistan’s government was not in a position to do so due to “internal and political pressures”, especially from “trade unions representing different political parties” that remain the biggest hindrance to introducing reforms. 
“Whenever the government plans reforms, employees get stay-orders issued from courts and nothing changes. Nowhere in the world are trade unions as politically motivated and as powerful as in Pakistan,” he added.

Can PIA revive its reputation?

Although the aviation industry is going through a rough patch, Fahad is hopeful that the “reformation of PIA as a new brand” and restructuring of PCAA is the path to follow. “When you have hit rock-bottom, there’s no place to go other than up,” he added.
PCAA has to lose the bi-function of being the regulatory authority as well as the service provider “as it cannot be both judge and jury at the same time” Fahad asserted.

Shamim, who has more than 50 years of flying experience with both Pakistani and European airlines, described the pilots’ licence issue as “damaging in the short term, but beneficial in the long term” as it offers the country an opportunity to resolve, reform and restructure the aviation industry.

Lahore Flying Club
Lahore Flying Club is Pakistan's prestigious and oldest aviation institution founded in 1930. Image Credit:

Meticulous process to get a pilot licence

How pilots get their licences in Pakistan?
Explaining the meticulous process, Captain Ghazanfar Ali, Chief Flight Instructor (CFI) at the country’s top aviation school, Lahore Flying Club (LFC), says the first step for those who have a passion for flying is to register at a flying school or club. “The flying club enrols only those students who have been declared medically fit for flying by a doctor certified by Pakistan’s CAA”, said the CFI (same as a school principal).

The first stage is Student Pilot Licence [SPL], the flying permit issued by the CAA after medical and police verification. After receiving the permit, the student begins with ground training and classes, studying several flying-related subjects.

The next step is Private Pilot Licence (PPL), which is earned by the student only after completing 40 hours of flying and passing the written test conducted by PCAA with at least 70 per cent marks. One of the most memorable and essential experiences for student pilots is solo flying. But for the instructors, “it is the most significant and difficult decision” as they are responsible for the safety of the students.

After clearing PPL, the third stage is Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL), which is the minimum qualification required to join any commercial airline. The CPL requires a minimum of 150 hours of flying time and 200 hours when complete with instruments rating (IR), which assesses the pilot’s flying skills in difficult weather conditions and at night.

“We prepare the students mentally and physically for flying based on International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards in the best possible way, but the final assessing authority is CAA for both flying and written exams,” Captain Ghazanfar told Gulf News.

Time and cost involved

The whole process from SPL to CPL takes about 24 months and equips pilots with at least 200 hours of flying experience. The average expenditure from SPL to CPL (both ground studies and flying) is around Rs4 million (Dh552,294).

Differences between the four types of pilot licences:

1. Student Pilot Licence (SPL): SPL is a flying permit issued by the CAA, certifying that the student is fit for flying. A student must be at least 17 years old and have Higher Secondary School Certificate (FA/Fsc/A-level) and required medical certification.

2. Private Pilot Licence (PPL): PPL holders can fly smaller aircraft in non-commercial operations. A pilot must be at least 17 years old, have SPL and required medical certificate to enrol. The training consists of 40 hours of flight time (20 with an instructor) on a single-engine aircraft and passing a theoretical examination in nine subjects.

3. Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL): For CPL, a pilot must not be less than 18 years of age and must have PPL and obligatory medical certification. CPL requires the pilot to have accumulated at least 150 hours of total flying time on single-engine aircraft and 200 hours with instrument rating (IR). CPL is a basic requirement to join any commercial airline as First Officer (second pilot or co-pilot).

Number of written examinations

PPL: 6 written exams. 1 oral

CPL/IR: 8 written exams

ATPL: 8 written exams

4. Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL): ATPL is the most advanced pilot certificate required to become a captain on a commercial jet. A pilot should be at least 23 years old and have logged at least 1,500 hours to gain ATPL.

Major flying clubs in Pakistan:

Lahore Flying Club

Rawalpindi Flying Club

Peshawar Flying Club

Multan Flying Club

Askari Aviation

Hybrid Aviation

Air Eagle Aviation Academy

Karachi Aero Club

Which planes are used for training?

The Cessna 152 and 172 are the most well-known and commonly-used aircraft for flight training in Pakistan and also globally.

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Flying schools prepare the students mentally and physically for flying based on international standards but the final assessment authority is CAA, says Captain Ghazanfar