China's national civil aviation authority says the country will need to train about half a million civilian pilots by 2035, up from just a few thousand now, as wannabe flyers chase dreams of landing lucrative jobs at new air service operators.
The aviation boom comes as China allows private planes to fly below 1,000 meters from next year without military approval, seeking to boost its transport infrastructure. Commercial airlines aren't affected, but more than 200 new firms have applied for general aviation operating licences, while China's high-rollers are also eager for permits to fly their own planes.
The civil aviation authority's own training unit can only handle up to 100 students a year. With the rest of China's 12 or so existing pilot schools bursting at the seams, foreign players are joining local firms in laying the groundwork for new courses that can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars per trainee.
"The first batch of students we enrolled in 2010 were mostly business owners interested in getting a private license," said Sun Fengwei, deputy chief of the Civil Aviation Administration of China's (CAAC) pilot school. "But now more and more young people also want to learn flying so that they can get a job at general aviation companies."
While uncertainties remain for what will be a brand new industry, firms are betting they can make money and trainee pilots are convinced they can land dream jobs. Among them is Zong Rui, a 28-year-old former soldier in the People's Liberation Army from Shandong province in east China, attending a pilot school in Tianjin, an hour's drive from Beijing.
"The salary is good for a general aviation pilot," Zong told Reuters by telephone, preparing for a training session. Even without a job lined up, Zong is certain money he borrowed to learn how to fly will pay off: "I can easily pay back the 500,000 yuan ($81,750) tuition in two years, once I get a job."