RIYADH: The phrase “private aviation” conjures up images of billionaires in Lear jets hopping between Monte Carlo and the Bahamas — but entry into this world is surprisingly affordable and accessible, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
The proliferation of private aviation academies in the Kingdom has opened the way for ordinary men and women to obtain a private pilot license (PPL) in a matter of a few months — allowing you to fly for sport and recreation with a couple of passengers, but not for commercial gain.
Capt. Abubakar Mohamed, the chief ground instructor at Rabigh Wings Aviation Academy located just north of Jeddah, explained the procedure.
“You need to be at minimum 17 years old, preferably with a high school diploma, and the first requirement is an English placement test, whereby you need to achieve at least four out of six levels.
“You need a criminal record check along with a medical test and a drugs test, which are conducted at certain specified clinics authorized by GACA.
“Once all that is OK, you’re registered on the private pilot course, entailing 60 hours of ground training — which is the theory aspect.”
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 solo. Trainees learn how to take off and land on short and grass runways, and to fly at night. Other exercises include stalling and restarting your plane mid-air.
“The idea is to prepare you up to GACA standards,” Mohamed said, “because they are the ones that give you the final oral, written and practical exams and issue your license.
It’s not only about getting the license — it’s the journey, and that’s what you should enjoy. We have an expression in Arabic: ‘Flying with happiness.’ And we are literally flying with happiness!’
Capt. Islam Saeed Gwayed, Safety and training manager at the Saudi Aviation Club in Thamamah
The GACA written exam is a computer-based multiple-choice quiz, following which is the final GACA assessment of your piloting ability.
The entire process takes three to four months, with a total cost of about SR60,000 ($16,000) including exam fees.
You can choose to study the required information yourself, with online materials, and go directly to the GACA written exam. This is cheaper option but misses out on the immersive experience of a real classroom with a professional tutor — and the camaraderie of your fellow trainees.
Some academies also offer training for the sport plane license, allowing you to fly a small sports aircraft with a maximum total payload of 600 kg including pilot and passenger. This requires only 20 hours of monitored and solo flying time — but again lacks the in-depth immersion of the full PPL course.
Having passed your GACA written and practical exams you will be the proud holder of a PPL — allowing you fly a lightweight single-engine aircraft.
Other types of aircraft, for example seaplanes and twin-engine planes, require more advanced qualifications. Also, a PPL only allows for “visual flight rules” — meaning that you are not permitted to fly in conditions of low visibility. Piloting in heavily adverse weather requires an instrument rating, with extra training and exams.
While most trainees see the PPL as a stepping-stone to a career as a commercial pilot, many simply aspire to flying as a fun and adventurous weekend sport.
But Capt. Islam Saeed Gwayed, safety and training manager at the Saudi Aviation Club in Thamamah, just north of Riyadh, sees piloting as life-enhancing in several respects.
“First, when you are in control of an aircraft, you are 100 percent in the moment, and disconnected from all your everyday problems and stress.
“Second, it adds to a person’s leadership and decision-making. Flying a plane carries a big responsibility and everything comes down to you as a pilot.
“Third, you’re learning a lot — about weather conditions, meteorology, the landscape as well as all the technical aspects of the plane and how airports work. And when you're witnessing the world from a cockpit, it's a very different perception of reality.
“Finally, it's a hobby that can take 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.”
Purchasing an aircraft does not have to set you back millions. Used sport planes (such as the four-seater Cessna Skyhawk 172) are available for as little as SR250,000 — with shared ownership making it even more affordable.
Mohamed recommends Saudi Arabia as a great place for private piloting, “because much of the airspace has relatively fewer restrictions than, say, London, where you have Heathrow, Stanstead, Gatwick and Luton airports, and all the military bases. Flying in and out can be a real challenge there, with so much air traffic.
“Here there is a wider choice of flight paths you can use. And this is a big country with a real variety of destinations. There’s nothing like viewing the Kingdom from the air.”
Gwayed has a word of advice for aspiring private pilots: “Enjoy it!”
“Some students say, ‘I want to finish the training, I need to get the license.’ But I tell them, ‘Just relax and take your time. You'll probably learn more because you won’t be so stressed about getting the actual qualification. It's not only about getting the license — it's the journey, and that’s what you should enjoy.’”
“We have an expression in Arabic: ‘Flying with happiness.’ And we are literally flying with happiness!”