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Ramping Up: Canadian flight schools take on the future

It was an overcast and humid Saturday morning: August 30, 1975. As I landed the Cessna 150 on Runway 27 at Markham, ON, completing my tenth hour of dual flying instruction, Tom, my instructor said, “Let’s go inside and get the pre-solo written exam out of the way.”




January 30, 2008
By Mike Minnich
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 A Moncton Flight College (MFC) student along with his instructor getting the traditional first solo cold water soaking on the ramp. The MFC tradition dictates that if the student is the instructor’s first solo student, then the instructor also gets soaked.

It was an overcast and humid Saturday morning: August 30, 1975. As I landed the Cessna 150 on Runway 27 at Markham, ON, completing my tenth hour of dual flying instruction, Tom, my instructor said, “Let’s go inside and get the pre-solo written exam out of the way.”

Twenty minutes and 42 questions later, I was officially approved by Chief Flying Instructor Mike McMahon to solo. Tom and I did one more dual circuit, and then he wished me a good flight and got out of the aircraft.

Another ten minutes and a single circuit later – with an unfamiliar and kind of spooky empty space in the seat to my right – I’d joined the long list of student pilots who’d passed the milestone that they’ll never forget: first solo. As I taxied back in to the ramp, I remember letting out the first spontaneous yelp of pure joy that I’d likely produced since I was a lot younger than my then 28 years.

That fine and confidence-building experience – and all the subsequent ones that turn a neophyte aviator into a competent recreational or commercial pilot – is being experienced many times each week across Canada these days, as our flying schools train massive numbers of students.

Here’s a look at the wide – and even exotic – range of current activities at three representative flight schools:

Down east at Moncton Flight College, CEO and principal Mike Doiron barely had time to do our interview.

“In the last month-and-a-half, we’ve completed opening a second campus in Fredericton…signed off on two more contracts from China … are in the process of finishing a 120-room residence in Moncton … expanding our Fredericton campus to 80 rooms … and are opening a new 18,000-sq-ft hangar,” he reports. “It’s kind of like trying to drink from a fire hose!”

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Currently, there are 13 students enrolled in the Aviation Program at Selkirk College.

Moncton Flight College (MFC) offers integrated Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) courses; integrated Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) courses; a two-year “Diploma in Aviation Technology (Pilot)” course in conjunction with New Brunswick Community College; a cadet direct-entry training program for students from China who will return home ready to start transition training directly onto Boeing 737, 747, or Airbus A320 airliners; JAA (the European Union’s Joint Aviation Authority, equivalent to Transport Canada) Private Pilot Licence and Com-mercial Pilot Instrument Rating courses; type endorsements on Beech King Air twins; a Safety Management Systems certification course; and an airside vehicle operator’s course.

“We’re also currently developing a four-year aviation-degree course with Mount Allison University, and are hoping to roll that out in September 2008,” Doiron adds.

The MFC fleet (divided between the two locations) includes 17 Diamond DA20-C1 aircraft (low-wing, two-seat fixed-gear trainers from Diamond Industries), with five more on order; seven Cessna 172s; one Cessna 182-RG; one Citabria for aerobatic training (scheduled to be replaced by its bigger-brother Decathlon by the end of 2007); three twin-engine Piper Seminoles (two more on order this year); and a Beech King Air C90 (with a second to be added to the fleet over the winter of 2007-08, and possibly a third one come spring 2008).

And that fleet is getting a lot of work.

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Left to right: Southern Skies Aviation chief pilot and Class II Instructor Michelle Tuckwood with student Sara Swartz just after her first solo flight.

“We’ve seen a 250% increase in business in the last year alone, and anticipate a similar increase across the next two years,” Doiron notes. “Generally, MFC would log 10,000 to 15,000 flight-training hours per year, but last year we flew 27,500 hours. Looking at it another way: historically, we’d train about 120 to 140 students annually, and now we have 243 full-time students in Moncton and another 43 in Fredericton. And our instructing staff was 26 in 2006, and now is more than 60. I currently have 16 trainee flight instructors who will graduate in December and January … and they’ll be hired to instruct at MFC on the day they graduate!”

Out west, the aviation course at Selkirk College (Castlegar, BC) is busily improving its various curricula and equipment.

“Our flight and ground courses take the student from Private Pilot level through the commercial and multi-engine/IFR levels and prepare them to write the ATPL exams by the time they graduate after two years,” senior instructor Mike Power explains. “At the completion of training, the student will have had 816 hours of ground school, 250 hours of flight training, and 150 hours of simulator training.”

The instructors at Selkirk reflect a wide depth and breadth of experience, Power notes: one was recently a captain on a BE1900D for a busy regional airline; another holds a master of education degree and handles continuous reviews/updating of the aviation curriculum; one divides his time between instructing at the college and flying as first officer on Air Canada’s Caribbean runs; and the department’s safety officer is a graduate of the Canadian Forces Flight Safety course and an active Air Reserve officer.

But the future at Selkirk didn’t look so rosy a few years back, Power recalls.
“In 2002, the college undertook a review of all courses offered, and concluded that, due to a number of other instructional partnerships between colleges and commercial flying schools in BC, the Aviation Program at Selkirk should be terminated. This caused a flurry of concern and involvement by local and provincial politicians, government officials and other concerned parties, and the result was that the program has been maintained, and with the full support of the college’s management,” he explains. “Our total aviation student capacity is 36 – 18 in each of the two years.”

Currently, there are 13 students enrolled in the Aviation Program (six in first year, seven in second year; all are from Canada), and they train on equipment that includes five Cessna 172P single-engine aircraft, two Beech BE-95 Travelair twins, two Frasca 142 simulators (more properly known as “flight training devices” these days) equipped with GPS and visuals, plus a Frasca 242T King Air unit. Also, late 2007 saw the delivery of the much-anticipated Alsim 200MCC multiengine simulator that has a 180-degree visual display. It is expected to be up and running for the winter semester.

“When Transport Canada endorsed the Integrated Commercial Pilot Course and Integrated ATP Course philosophy, Selkirk was already well-equipped to adhere to those requirements in all areas but FTDs, so that’s why we’re significantly upgrading our simulator capabilities,” Power notes. “Equipment like the Alsim 200MCC will not only enhance training opportunities for turboprop multicrew line-oriented flight training (LOFT) requirements, but will also save students money by replacing some training hours that would previously have required actual in-the-air flying.”

Over at Penticton, BC, Mark Holmes, director of operations for Southern Skies Aviation Ltd., provides similar insight into current activities at his busy flight school.

“With the placement into regulation of the Integrated Commercial Course by Transport Canada – which brings civilian commercial pilot training in Canada more into line with ICAO and JAA standards – Southern Skies moved quickly to ensure that our courses were in full compliance, and currently I believe we are one of only eight flight schools in Canada that are licensed to conduct the ICC,” he notes.

“Incorporating digital full-visual simulators and digital avionics are among the changes we made to develop our ICC course,” he adds.

Southern Skies offers the full range of Transport Canada-approved pilot training courses (professional, private and recreational) as well as instrument, multi-engine, VFR-on-top, flight instructor and float ratings/endorsements. (They also offer in-house-developed aerobatics and mountain-flying courses, and currently have eight students enrolled in the latter course.) Holmes takes pride in the fact that Southern Skies hasn’t had a student fail any TC flight test since 2002.

In December 2006 Transport Canada authorized the new Airline Transport Pilot Licence course, which is based on the same integrated-course philosophy as the ICC. Flight schools must apply to Transport Canada for an “operations specification” to instruct the ATP course, and Holmes says Southern Skies is hoping to be the first school in Canada to achieve this authorization.

“Before we can be licensed for the ATP Course, we must complete its development,” Holmes reports. “We plan to have it ready for September 2008, and an integral component for approval will be our acquisition of a multicrew flight training device. We’re coordinating arrival of that FTD with the completion of our course training-plan development. We currently have an Elite Cirrus-II FTD for our other training courses, and have short-listed three FTD manufacturers to supply our simulator requirement for the ATP Course.”

He notes that the current front-runner is the Alsim, which has the capability to model ten different aircraft types, but no final decision has been made yet.
Holmes is busy writing the Pilot Decision-Making module for the ATP Course which he describes as the “foundation” of that course. The course incorporates leadership, crew resource management, and decision-making logic into all three core components of the course: flying, FTD and ground school.

“Student throughput for our recreational and private-pilot students has remained fairly consistent in recent years, but there has been a drop-off in our commercial students, which we attribute to individual financial concerns as well as the booming Western Canada economy and the many job opportunities out here,” Holmes says. “Demand internationally for pilots seems to be at record levels, but Canadian visa requirements as well as insufficiently clear information regarding the level of fluency in English necessary for flight training in Canada are ongoing obstacles regarding our foreign students.”

Currently, Southern Skies has seven commercial students (graduating in May 2008) and 40-plus in the private-pilot courses. Three students are from overseas, representing Japan, India, and Europe.

Southern Skies operates two Cessna 172s, one Cessna 205, a Piper PA23-250 Aztec twin, plus a Citabria 7GCBC for the aerobatics work.

Learning to fly has never been inexpensive (even the 20 bucks an hour I paid for dual instruction on a Cessna-150 back in the mid-1970s seemed like plenty at the time!), and the rates quoted at these three schools ranged from $115-$122/hour solo in a single to $255-$360/hour for solo on a light twin. Instructor fees were an additional $40-$45/hour.

However, the door that learning to fly opens for an individual – whether for
recreational purposes or a commercial career – typically leads to a significant return on that investment, be it financial or in sheer self-satisfaction and sense of freedom.

While I never flew for a living (although I did some aerial photography
that supported various magazine-article writing assignments over the years), those 815 hours that ended up in my logbook were worth every penny.

Mike Minnich is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He held a Canadian multiengine commercial pilot’s licence for more than 20 years, and is also a veteran of non-aircrew service in both the US Air Force (1970-74) and the Canadian Forces Air Reserve (1981-2007).


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