Tom Li and Rain Li dreamed of becoming pilots since they were boys in China.
One can bet they didn’t imagine their dreams would be realized at a small airport in Central Alberta almost 10,000 km from home.
Both are student pilots with Montair Aviation at Red Deer Airport and among 60 mostly Chinese trainees learning to fly with goals of becoming airline pilots.
The two cheerful young men, who are unrelated, have already adapted well to what will be their home for the next year.
“It’s fantastic. The weather is very good and the people are very nice,” said Tom, 21, who wants to become an international pilot and has been living and training at the Springbrook airport since July.
For him, one of the biggest adjustments has been the laid-back atmosphere of the area. His home in China, the city of Chengdu, is the provincial capital of Sichuan and has a population of about 15 million people.
“There’s less people so it’s a quiet place,” Tom says of the area. “I love the weather because we can always fly and enjoy the sky.”
While the food is different, he’s enjoying it. The students have already found a Chinese restaurant they like nearby. “And I love the pizza,” he says.
For Tom, the goal of becoming a pilot was set early in his life.
“When I was a young I had a dream to become a pilot. I love the sky and I want to enjoy it.”
He is looking forward to the day he is in the cockpit flying for his sponsoring airline China Eastern Airlines.
“It’s a very cool job.”
Rain has also found the area perfectly suited for the training they have embarked on. Besides the many clear-weather days, the surrounding area is flat, which means not having to contend with the mountains.
“It’s very good weather, a very good instructor and good land,” he says.
He has found one of the more interesting differences from his home in Baoji, a city of more than three million in Shanxi province, is Central Alberta’s notoriously fickle weather.
“In the beginning of the morning it’s very cold, but in the (afternoon) it’s very hot.” His home has a climate very similar to Vancouver, he adds.
Like Tom, he has always wanted to be a pilot.
“When I was a child I had a dream to become a professional pilot,” says Rain, also in his early 20s. He will eventually fly with Shenzhen Airlines.
Ian Kennedy, chief operating officer of Montair Aviation, said Red Deer Airport is the “perfect location” for what the company is doing and was chosen from among 21 prospects across Canada.
“Red Deer has so much going for it,” he said, pointing out the kitchens, accommodations and hangar space were all available. Students are housed in the former CFB Penhold barrack blocks taking out two whole floors in one building and are about to take over another floor as well.
Of course, Central Alberta’s reputation for blue skies is also a big plus. Typically, flyers can count on more than 300 days of good flying training skies.
Among those at Springbrook is a group of 30 who were transferred from Montair Aviation’s Pitt Meadows, B.C. home base to Red Deer for more advanced training. They will graduate in the next few weeks.
Chinese students are hand-picked by Montair. They go to China to interview candidates and do a language assessment.
“All of these students have had two years at the university and during that two years they have had English classes constantly.
“But there always different levels (of fluency) when they arrive so we augment that with additional English classes too.”
One of the challenges with the young students is getting them accustomed to their new home.
“There’s a big cultural shock coming to Canada,” he said. In Alberta, they may soon be in store for a weather shock too, he chuckled.
“It’s training people and educating them in a way that will fit their culture as well, which is very different to educating a Western-minded person.”
One of the differences is that there tends to be a more regimented structure in Chinese schools and universities.
Training pilots, no matter where they come from, means teaching them self-reliance and critical decision-making skills.