George Gershwin belts out in his song “Summertime”: “One of these mornings, you’re gonna wake up singing, you’re gonna spread your wings, and take to the sky…” .
There is something very liberating about ‘taking to the sky’ in a small aeroplane, and this is the closest that most of us will ever get to knowing what it feels like to be a bird.
Light aircraft aviation, and flying as a leisure activity, is highly developed in countries such as the UK, US, Canada, and Kenya, but as yet, it has barely taken off in Saudi Arabia. However, Prince Turki Bin Mugrin Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud is a keen aviator, and he is doing his best to change this. He is licensed to fly both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, and after setting up aviation schools in the UK, and then in Lebanon, he finally turned to his own home market two years ago.
We met at the Rabigh Wings Aviation Academy when they held their first promotional event, ‘When Street Eagles meet Sky Eagles’. Nearly 100 members of the Jeddah Harley Owners Group had ridden there for the day and there was an impressive line-up of gleaming bikes parked neatly on the edge of the apron. As we sat talking, the air was filled with the sounds of whirring propellers and rumbling Harley-Davidson engines.
“I am the CEO of Rabigh Wings Aviation Academy, and also one of the main shareholders,” Prince Turki explained. “I have been flying since 1991 and started with helicopters in the UK. When I moved back to Saudi Arabia, I learned from many people that it is much easier to fly fixed wing here than helicopters, so I went to study fixed wing flying and got my licence. I now hold the US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) licence. Since I started flying in Saudi Arabia, I met many pilots and other people who would love to fly here, so I decided to start a flying school about two years ago.”
He was casually dressed in jeans, a royal blue Wings Aviation ‘Polo’ shirt and baseball cap, and on his left wrist, sported a classy Breitling watch – a brand designed especially for aviators. “During the first month that we opened, we received over 250 applications from students,” he continued. “But we could not accommodate that many all at once. Today, we have over 100 students. Some of them are under the Part 141 regulation, which is full time training, and others are under Part 61 which is a part-time course. The minimum requirements to have your Private Pilot’s License, is 40 flight training hours, including five hours of cross country flying, and 40 hours of ground school instruction. Then we sign the pilot off to the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) so he can apply for his licence. Then he can do his instrument rating here, or go on to do his Commercial Licence with us.”
In the meantime, Prince Turki keeps up with his own personal flying, which is for fun rather than for commercial reasons. I wondered what he enjoys about it so much. “The freedom!” he said with a spontaneous and relaxed laugh. “It is as simple as that. When you fly in Saudi Arabia there are so many things that you can see from the sky that you can’t see from the land.”
He introduced me to other essential members of the team: Adib Shishakly, the Vice CEO; Majid Shihadeh, the director of Maintenance, and Chief Pilot Peter Dascoulias.
Shishakly is not a pilot but has a background in business and marketing and he has been instrumental in constructing the school. “I did all the business side of it from buying the aircraft and delivering them to Rabigh. I also helped structure the maintenance department, the fuel farm, and the marketing and business strategy for the school. We have 15 aircraft: some single engine Cessnas, and single and twin Piper aircraft, as well as two twin engine Seneca Vs. Our aim is to encourage private recreational and business aviation,” he explained.
Shishakly is keen to organize other PR events and invite other organizations to Rabigh. He is in the process of arranging this with the Lamborghini Club, and also with a Jeddah orphanage to bring their children to see the aircraft and to take some of them for joy rides.
Chief Pilot Peter Dascoulias, is from the United States and is an ex-military man. He has been a pilot for nearly 40 years and a flight instructor for around 30 of those years and holds Masters Degrees in Education and International Relations. He initially joined Rabigh Wings as a ground instructor but after a few months, the Chief Pilot asked him to be the Assistant Chief Pilot. “He then left to join Saudia Special Flight, and so he asked me to be the chief, so very quickly I had to do a lot of written tests, flying exams, and oral exams to pass the GACA Instrument Rating, the Commercial Flight Instructor, Instrument Flight Instructor, and Multi-Engined Flight Instructor, as well as a few more!” Dascoulias explained. “We have now got seven instructors, including myself. I don’t normally do the instructing, I do the stage checks to check up on students’ progress. I also do checks on the instructors to make sure they are proficient and teaching the things they are supposed to be teaching. Our two despatchers are also very important as they help us keep track of the aeroplanes and the requirement for their periodic inspections.” Dascoulias is in charge of a multinational team of instructors: “We have a Saudi instructor, one from Germany, a couple of guys from the the States, a Spanish instructor, an Irish instructor, some pilots who are training to be instructors from the Sudan, and my Assistant Chief is from Pakistan. They are a good group of guys. We begin operations at 8 A.M. and we are required to stop at 4 P.M. Flight Instructors are limited to eight hours of instruction in one day, and a student could get anything from two to four hours of instruction in a day. We are always looking for new people to come out to learn to fly.”
Director of Maintenance Majid Shehadeh is from Eastern Texas and is also an ex-military man and was involved with the maintenance on Black Hawks, Apaches and Cobra helicopters in Dammam during the Gulf War of 1991. “I have four mechanics on my team right now and 15 aeroplanes to maintain. Two of the mechanics are Saudis, and two are expats. We are extremely busy all the time, and I have to do a lot of hands-on work here to make sure that their work is done in a proper manner because I am the only one who is an inspector authorized by the FAA to sign them off,” he said.
Shehadeh went on to explain the critical importance of safety, which is his number one concern: “I always tell my mechanics ‘Don’t put the pilots lives on your shoulders because if you do that, you will never be able to sleep again.’ That is my motto.”
It is about an hour and a quarter drive from Jeddah to the Rabigh Wings Aviation Academy. For further details about their courses, see www.rwaa.com.sa
– Saudi Gazette