RIYADH: The phrase ‘private aviation’ conjures up images of billionaires hopping in Lear jets between Monte Carlo and the Bahamas – but entry into that world is surprisingly affordable and accessible, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
The proliferation of private aviation academies in the UK has paved the way for ordinary men and women to earn a private pilot license (PPL) in a matter of months – allowing you to fly with a few passengers for sport and recreation purposes not for commercial gain.
Captain Abubakar Mohamed, the chief ground instructor at Rabigh Wings Aviation Academy, located north of Jeddah, explained the procedure.
“You have to be at least 17 years old, preferably have a high school diploma, and the first requirement is an English placement test in which you have to achieve at least four out of six levels.
“You will need a criminal record check along with a medical test and a drug test, which are performed at designated GACA-authorized clinics.
“Once everything is in order, you will be registered for the private pilot course, which includes 60 hours of ground training – that’s the theoretical part.”
Then you are ready to take to the skies. There is a minimum of 35 hours of flight training, first with an instructor and then on your own. The trainees learn to take off and land on short and grass runways and to fly at night. Other drills include stalling and restarting your plane mid-air.
“The idea is to prepare you for the GACA standards,” Mohamed said, “because they are the ones who give you the final oral, written and practical exams and issue your license.
It’s not just about getting your driver’s license – it’s the journey and you should enjoy it. We have an expression in Arabic: “flying with luck”. And we’re literally flying with happiness!’
Captain Islam Saeed Gwayed, Safety and Training Manager at Saudi Aviation Club in Thamamah
The GACA written exam is a computer-based multiple choice quiz followed by the final GACA assessment of your piloting skills.
The entire process takes three to four months and costs around SR 60,000 (US$16,000) including exam fees.
You can study the required information yourself with online materials and go straight to the GACA written exam. This is a cheaper option but misses out on the immersive experience of a real classroom with a professional tutor — and the camaraderie of your classmates.
Some academies also offer sport pilot license training, which allows you to fly a small sport aircraft with a maximum total payload of 600 kg including the pilot and passenger. This only requires 20 hours of supervised and solo flight time – but again, it lacks the in-depth immersion of the full PPL course.
After passing your GACA written and practical exams, you are the proud holder of a PPL that allows you to fly a light single-engine airplane.
Other types of aircraft, such as seaplanes and twin-engine aircraft, require more advanced qualifications. Also, a PPL only allows “visual flight rules” – meaning you are not allowed to fly in poor visibility conditions. Piloting in severe adverse weather requires an instrument rating with additional training and testing.
While most trainees see the PPL as a stepping stone to a career as an airline pilot, many simply aspire to experience flying as a fun and adventurous weekend sport.
But Captain Islam Saeed Gwayed, safety and training manager at the Saudi Aviation Club in Thamamah, north of Riyadh, sees flying as life-enhancing in several ways.
“First, when you’re in control of an airplane, you’re 100 percent in the moment and detached from all your day-to-day problems and stress.
“Second, it contributes to a person’s leadership and decision-making. Flying an airplane carries a lot of responsibility and it all depends on you as the pilot.
“Thirdly, you learn a lot – about weather conditions, meteorology, the landscape, as well as all the technical aspects of the aircraft and how airports work. And when you watch the world from a cockpit, it’s a very different perception of reality.
“After all, it’s a hobby that can lead you to another hobby – so if you want to play golf in Taif or scuba dive in Yanbu, you can just take your plane and go.”
Buying an airplane doesn’t have to cost millions. Pre-owned sport planes (like the four-seat Cessna Skyhawk 172) are available for as little as SR250,000 – with shared ownership it gets even more affordable.
Mohamed recommends Saudi Arabia as a great place for private pilots “because much of the airspace is relatively less restricted than, say, London, which has Heathrow, Stanstead, Gatwick and Luton airports and all the military bases. With so much air traffic, flying in and out can be a real challenge.
“Here there is a greater choice of flight routes that you can use. And this is a big country with a real variety of destinations. There is nothing quite like seeing the kingdom from above.”
Gwayed has some advice for aspiring private pilots: “Enjoy it!”
“Some students say, ‘I want to finish school, I need to get my driver’s license.’ But I tell them, ‘Just relax and take your time. You’ll probably learn more because you’re not as stressed about getting the actual qualification. It’s not just about getting your driver’s license – it’s the journey and you should enjoy it.”
“We have an expression in Arabic: ‘Flying with luck.’ And we literally fly with happiness!”