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Tue 1 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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New Heights

Mohammed Humaidan Al Zaabi maps out the future plans for Horizon International Flight Academy, the region’s only helicopter training school.

New Heights|~|horizon2.jpg|~|Mohammed Humaidan Al Zaabi|~|Horizon International Flight Academy is aiming to make Al Ain, the garden city of the UAE, as well known for flight training as it is for dairy farming. The city already boasts a training academy for the UAE air force, while Horizon is the only helicopter flying school in the Middle East. However, Horizon now has much wider plans beginning with a fixed wing training operation that has already won a training contract from Etihad Airways. “Horizon is moving according to the demand,” explains Mohammed Humaidan Al Zaabi, general manager of the two-year old flight school. “And, there is a big demand locally for aircraft pilots.”

“If you talk about Emirates, they will have 151 aircraft, which is amazing,” he adds. “Etihad is growing up, Qatar is growing up… even [low cost carrier] Air Arabia is looking for training,” Al Zaabi continues.

Horizon’s move into fixed wing training is a logical development for the company, which has already carved out a successful niche for itself as a helicopter training school. The school was first suggested by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, in December 2001 in order to fill a gap for helicopter training in the region. There were then no helicopter schools in the Middle East , but demand for training was on the rise as many local armed forces and security services were expanding their helicopter fleets. The need for a regional training solution to service this requirement was also increased by 9/11, as many Arabs subsequently prefered not to travel overseas.

Convinced by the business case for the centre, work on constructing the flying school quickly began in January 2002, even though the final model was still being ironed out. “The feasibility study and the construction work happened at the same time,” admits Al Zaabi. “However, we worked with very highly experienced consultants in this field, and, at the end of the day, they said ‘we agree with you, this idea is going to succeed’.”

The foundation for the school’s development so far has been the UAE Air Force, which now contracts out all of its helicopter training needs to Horizon. However, the centre has also trained personnel from other UAE government departments, as well as students from Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The first cadets from Oman and Kuwait are expected to arrive in Al Ain soon. “At the moment, we are focusing on the GCC, but there is also communication with the rest of the Middle East for helicopter training, and there is a demand,” says Al Zaabi. “We have also received calls from Africa, and these are interesting as well.”

Horizon currently operates a fleet of 10 Bell 206-B3 Jetranger helicopters, which are maintained inhouse by a JAR-145 equivalent MRO operation. The 19 strong engineering team can proudly point to a safety record of more than 11,000 flight hours without incident. On the ground, Horizon’s students can also use PC-based simulators, and a Bell 206 full flight simulator will soon be arriving at the centre.

In terms of personnel, the centre has 12 flight instructors and six ground instructors who are drawn from all over the world. “It is not easy to find good staff,” says Al Zaabi. “At Horizon, we like to exceed the internationally recognised standard, the JAA standard, and it is difficult to find very highly qualified guys… All the time, we are looking for high standard people because that is our benchmark,” he adds.

The instructors have so far seen a total of 36 students graduate, divided between three commercial pilot licence (CPL) courses, a flight instructor course and one ground instructor course. Another 56 students are currently undergoing training, again they are divided between CPL courses and a flight instructor course. Further courses are set to begin before the end of the year.

The majority of Horizon’s helicopter students so far have come from the military and governmental sectors, but the company is looking to widen its client base. For instance, it is planning to set up weekend flight operations to cater for the needs of private students. It is also developing relationships with local helicopter companies servicing the offshore oil & gas sector. These operations also have a strong demand for pilots, especially as they move to boost their use of local pilots in line with wider governmental employment drives. “Saudi Aramco, for instance, is starting to replace its expatriate workforce, and they need pilots, so there is a big demand from this [oil & gas] side,” notes Al Zaabi.

“We have also had questions from local students who are asking about their future careers and if it possible for us to link them to offshore companies… We think we will go on that route one day,” he continues.

More immediately, Horizon is already building a fixed wing flying school at Al Ain Airport. The construction work is due to be completed early next year in time for the arrival of the first class of 24 cadet pilots from Etihad. The school is also in the final stages of selecting a supplier for the fleet of five single-engine aircraft that the cadets will learn in.
Horizon is confident that it will soon add other airline customers from the region, aside from Etihad. It has held talks with a number of local carriers about their training needs, and it is clear that airlines in the region will need to invest more in training their own cadets because of the growing demand for pilots both in the Middle East and around the world. “In five years or so, it may well be difficult to bring in first officer pilots from Europe or elsewhere,” notes Al Zaabi. “European carriers have started to increase their salary packages, as they are losing pilots. Of courses, pilots are going to come to the region from other areas [of the world] instead, but not in the same numbers,” he adds.

To help develop its skills in fixed wing training, and to share its own experiences, Horizon has held discussions with a range of training schools from Europe and the US, including the likes of Cabair, Lufthansa Flight Training, Flight Training Europe and Spartan College. These talks may eventually lead to partnerships with overseas colleges, which would, for instance, enable students to experience flying in a range of environments.

“We have very good weather here in Al ain,” says Al Zaabi. “It is very rare that you will have low clouds and bad weather for [singe engine] training. At the same time, however, when you get to instrument flight and twin-engine training, good weather is not so helpful. That is then a good time to go to Europe, because of all the clouds,” he explains.

These relationships will also help Horizon as it further expands its training offerings. The school now offers both fixed wing and helicopter flight training, but Al Zaabi sees this as just the first step in creating an aviation university in Al Ain. Over the next few years, the centre is planning to add a technical school for maintenance training, and to also launch commercial courses, such as aviation management.

“Our dream is to be Harvard Middle East,” he says. “We will still be one centre in Al Ain, but adding other business lines… This is why we are keeping in touch with everybody now,” Al Zaabi concludes.||**||

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