The hope of one day being able to fly has been among the most cherished dreams of mankind, achieved more fully than anyone could have imagined just over hundred years back through the magic of aviation. If you ask a child what he or she wants to be when they grow up, the word “pilot”, more often than not, is likely to recur, and for a good reason. To be a pilot, then, is to really live the dream. But let us not forget, becoming a pilot is no child’s play. 

The trial-by-fire of an average pilot training course is something that only a select few can suffer through, let alone accomplish. It’s a rigourous process that begins with a screening round intensive enough to let only the fittest (aviation is a Darwinian world) pass on to the subsequent stages of the training regime. Each day, the trainee spends hours on end to master the finest nuances of aerodynamics, every theoretical tidbit having to do with flying. Besides, there’s all that time to be spent within the claustrophobic, shaky confines of flight simulators, before you get to lay your hands on the real thing.   

Aside from all the glamour attached to being a pro pilot, it is also a great career opportunity for youngsters. Especially so in this day and age when we’re witnessing an unprecedented boom in the domestic aviation industry. According to the official website of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), there are around 20 licenced airlines operating in the country at present, with another five awaiting their licences. So the scope of landing a high-paying job in this sector is immense.

And there’s only one way to embark upon a full-time career in flying: you need to go through an extensive pilot training course either here or abroad. In India, as per the DGCA, there are around 26 government-run and 12 privately-run aviation schools, where aspiring pilots learn the ropes, the science and craft, of flying. 

Captain Dipak Mahyavanshi is a flight instructor at Ambitions Aviation Academy in Aligarh, which receives around 40-50 student applications annually. “We offer two programmes for our students,” he told Guardian 20. “One involves 200 hours of flying on a single-engine aircraft. The other programme offers 190 hours of flying on a single-engine aircraft and another ten hours on a multi-engine aircraft. Along with this, the students also need to undergo 350 hours of ground training, which includes subjects like air regulations, meteorology, navigation, radio navigation and other technical aspects. All this makes the entire duration of the course between 10-12 months.”  

The DGCA has set out clear norms and guidelines for those who choose to apply for a pilot training course in India. The applicant, for instance, should be above 17 years of age, and aside from all the required schooling degrees, should present a Class-I medical certificate — a fitness certification system devised especially for pilots which is valid across the world. 

The course itself is generally subdivided into three parts: ground training, real air miles, and simulator rounds. The simulators used at these schools are works of art in themselves. They are exact cockpit replicas of a real Airbus or Boeing, coming as close to the actual deal — closely simulating the dynamics of pitch, lift and yaw — as is scientifically possible. Not to mention, they cost a lot of money. All aviation schools in India don’t have such simulators, and students generally undergo simulator training only after they’ve been hired by
some airline.

“The fee structure will not be that different if you compare a good flying school abroad with one in India, but you must understand that the living expenses there are huge.”

“The high cost of maintaining and flying the training aircraft, managing the simulators and other equipment trickles down to the students, which in turn makes the fee very high,” Mahyavanshi added. “Thus not a lot of people select flying as a career option and the ones that do, prefer to go overseas. So Indian flying schools have a very limited number of students if you compare them to their foreign counterparts,”

Captain Vinshu Arora is a Delhi-based pilot with a commercial carrier, who did his flying course from the Flight Safety Academy in Florida, United States — one of the best in the world. He now has 2,000-plus flying hours to his name. We asked him why aspiring pilots in India tend to choose foreign schools over the ones present here. “I chose to go overseas as the duration of the course back then was lesser than what it was in India,” he says. “Also, the teaching quality and infrastructure over there were better. If you plan to spend lakhs on pilot training in India, why not add a few more and go abroad to get an altogether better quality of education.”

Situated in Pondicherry, Orient Flight School receives around 20-25 applications a year. Pinky Agarwal is the manager there. “ Indian students choose to go overseas,” she said, “as they think the courses over there take less time, but they don’t consider the fact that once they return to India the time taken to convert their foreign CPL [Commercial Pilot Licence] to the one approved in India can take a long time. They end up spending another few months, or years at times. So over all, the time taken to get a CPL in India is almost the same. Course fee overseas at times can even prove to be cheaper than in India if the academy you select is not among the best ones.”

A degree in the West can indeed cost you a fortune. Nilesh Gayakwad, now a Bangalore-based commercial pilot, went to a flying school in India — to the Academy of Carver Aviation Limited in Baramati, Maharashtra. “The fee structure,” he says, “will not be that different if you compare a good flying school abroad with one in India, but you must understand that the living expenses there are huge. So even if the difference is, say, of a few lakhs here and there, the living expenses make a foreign degree way more expensive, at times twice as expensive.”

Anyhow, flying schools, whether in India or elsewhere, are meant only for people with deep pockets. A good university overseas, plus the living expenses, should easily set you back by Rs 50 lakh, if not more.

“The average salaries of a first officer, which is the designation given to a cub pilot, is between Rs 1.25 to Rs 2 lakh a month depending upon the airline.”

So is it all worth it? In financial terms, what are the returns on this investment? “The average salaries of a first officer, which is the designation given to a cub pilot, is between Rs 1.25 lakh to Rs 2 lakh a month depending upon the airline. That’s for domestic carriers. It is a bit higher in the case of international airlines,” explains former pilot Captain Amit Vij, who is now a flight instructor. “Meanwhile, a captain makes between Rs 5-8 lakh again depending upon the airline and route. So return on the investment is good. But also remember that all this happens when you get a job. Because after completion of the course one needs to get the CPL which is very difficult to obtain in India. The DGCA exams can be tough to crack.”

The aviation job market in India, especially from the standpoint of commercial pilots, is now beginning to look bullish, after the recent lull of the last few years.

“The years between 2006 to, say, 2010 was the most amazing period for us pilots as several airlines — like IndiGo, Go Air, Kingfisher — were up and coming, and all of them needed pilots. But later on, as everything settled, there were hardly any new ventures emerging, so things slowed down quite a lot,” said Captain Vinshu Arora. 

The unexpected shutdown of Kingfisher Airlines, too, had its adverse impact on the market. As per Captain Nilesh Gayakwad, “After completing my course I was unemployed for several years, for there was no hiring happening anywhere. The airlines that were hiring preferred to hire Kingfisher pilots as it had shut down around the time I graduated, so the market was full of experienced pilots willing to work for less money as they had not been paid for months.” 

The aviation sector, like any other, has its ups and downs. Some say that the rise and fall here is cyclical — every few years things improve, and boom-time ends once the bubble is burst. “I agree that the last few years have proved to be difficult for this sector,” said Captain Mahyavanshi of Ambitions Aviation Academy. “But in my opinion the next two years will be the best time to enter this industry.”

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