SPRINGBROOK — It was fitting that it was perfect flying weather on Wednesday as Sky Wings Aviation Academy Ltd. announced a nearly $15-million deal to teach 200 Chinese pilots.
After all, Central Alberta’s 300 days of good flying conditions were one of the big draws for China Flying Dragon Aviation, a general aviation company based in Harbin, a city of nearly six million in northeastern China.
“This is the perfect place to fly,” said Dennis Cooper, CEO of Sky Wings, shortly before a contract-signing ceremony with a representative from the Chinese company, which operates short-haul passenger and charter cargo flights, as well as offering maritime surveillance, aerial photography and forestry protection services.
Besides clear skies, Sky Wings can offer students the experience of flying in the mountains to soaring over flat featureless terrain less than an hour of flight time away and for long-haul flights, the Chinese pilots will range as far as Winnipeg and Whitehorse.
Unlike many parts of the world, Canada also offers the opportunity to take to the skies with few of the restrictions, such as flying times, that ground civilian pilots in other countries, said Cooper.
“There will be a tremendous amount of range of flight that we can offer.”
Training the first 10 pilots is part of a $750,000 deal for Sky Wings. The agreement to teach the remaining 190 pilots is expected to be worth about $14 million.
China Flying Dragon Aviation found Sky Wings through its website, but the deal also owes much to good relations between China and Canada and the economic development efforts of the Alberta government in Asia, he said.
Cooper said the Chinese contract and a commitment to train 16 air cadets this summer will mean boosting the number of instructors to 11 from seven in Springbrook this summer. Another four instructors are based at Sky Wings’ Okotoks base. In all, the company flies 11 training aircraft.
The first 10 Chinese students have already landed in Springbrook and will began their training this week to become commercial pilots with multi-instrument rating, a process that will take close to a year.
Cooper calls this first cadre the pioneers of the training program and it is hoped a few of the graduating students stick around to help train the 190 who will follow in groups of 30 or so over the next five years.
They will be housed in quarters set up in a nearby hangar.
The young students, university graduates in their 20s, have already begun to settle in. Most know some English, which is the language they will be taught in.
Tyler Zhao, 25, is among those looking forward to his experience in Canada.
“We have a lot of teachers here. We can fly freely and we can learn a lot of things like English, a different culture and experience more. That’s why we came to Canada.
“The food here will take us a long time getting used to it, but other things I think (are) pretty good,” he added with a grin.
Candice Chu, 25, is the only woman in the first group, and she is proud to be part of the training program and is looking forward to being more independent and to experience more, said Zhao, who translated for her.
Lawrence Lee, president of the Red Deer and District Chinese Community Society, said they already have plans to take the newcomers under their wing and show them how Western and Chinese cultures have intertwined as guests at the society’s potluck dinners.