en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 29, Number 1January/February 1978

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Classroom in the sky

Written by Daniel Da Cruz
Photographed by Robert Arndt

Headed for their next class, books in hand and immersed in conversation, pretty Samar Oran and slim, mustachioed Rami Ba'ara could have been students at any of a thousand universities around the world - until they climbed into the cockpits of their twin-engined Seneca PA34's and took off for their classroom in the sky.

At 8,000 feet the sere, rocky hills south of Amman flatten out into golden desert on the east, and toboggan down toward the leaden Dead Sea on the west, with Mt Nebo straight ahead dividing the two contrasting geographies. But of all this and of the cerulean sky around them, the two young Jordanian pilots, blinded to the outside world by long-visored plastic helmets, would see nothing.

Flying with a watchful, unhooded copilot, they would put their aircraft through intricate maneuvers at times involving simultaneous changes in altitude, speed and course, flying entirely by instruments. After two hours of twisting and turning, climbing and descending in patterns only a 250-mile-long strand of spaghetti could duplicate, they would come winging home, with seeming wizardry lining their planes up precisely with the runway into Amman International Airport, still invisible to their shrouded vision.

Their classroom is immense, and occupies 37000-odd square miles of airspace above the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. But grander still are the ambitions of the Royal Jordanian Air Academy of which Samar Oran and Rami Ba'ara are a part: to become the first fully-integrated air university in the Middle East, literally and figuratively the pilot plant for the burgeoning Arab civil aviation industry, which already counts 16 individual Arab airlines.

That plant may someday be the center for training pilots and other professional aviation personnel for Arab commercial airlines. It was the brainchild of Ali Ghandour who in 1965 was Technical Director of Alia, the Jordanian airline founded only two years before. An alumnus of the American University of Beirut, Ghandour's fancy has been flight ever since he was graduated as an aeronautical engineer from New York University in 1953. From that moment, his course has been steadily skyward, first as engineer for an American airline, then as aviation safety expert for Lebanon's Department of Civil Aviation, and since 1968 as president of Alia, of which he also became chairman of the board in 1974. His fascination with flying led him to found and organize, in successive years beginning in 1974, the all-cargo carrier Jordan World Airways, the first Arab executive-jet service Arab Wings, and the aerobatic Jordanian Falcons, who recently concluded a 58-city tour of the United States.

In the early 1960's, however, Ghandour found that Jordanians did not share his passion for flight; fledgling Alia boasted only three Jordanian co-pilots and no Jordanian aircraft mechanics, aeronautical engineers or captains at all. So, convinced that the day would soon dawn when regional airlines would clamor for professional Arab flight personnel, Ghandour, in 1965, founded an aero club at Amman airport in a room and hallway that had been the modest home of Civil Defense firefighters. His aim: to kindle in the hearts and minds of Jordanians an enthusiasm for flying to match his own.

Ali Ghandour had chosen the right country for an aviation crusade. He sought, and instantly received, the wholehearted backing of His Majesty King Hussein, who not at all incidentally was then, as he is still, Jordan's most avid and accomplished pilot Ghandour forthwith organized a comprehensive ground course and became the club's first instructor of engineering, meteorology, navigation and the myriad other aviation basics, aided by two Alia pilots. The first class of 15 students was a name-dropper's paradise: to dramatize aviation's coming role in Jordan, King Hussein was the first student to enroll, followed by former - and future - Prime Minister Zaid Rifa'i, His Majesty's cousin and Minister of the Royal Court Prince Ra'ad, Mrs. Sherifa Hussaima, King Hussein's personal secretary who was the wife of the Director General of Civil Aviation, and others of distinguished rank

The course was far from being a public relations stunt King Hussein underlined the value he placed on the instruction by never missing a session of the classes, which met two hours every evening, five days a week, for four weeks. To celebrate the course's successful conclusion, the club invested in a Link trainer to supplement the two U.S. AID-donated Cessna 150's used for flight training.

With that acquisition the founders felt emboldened to shuck off the name "aero club," with its suggestion of amateurism, and take wing with the resounding designation of Royal Jordanian Air Academy. To lend substance to its ambition King Hussein personally Alia corporately and the Jordanian government officially supported the new school with gifts of money, expanded quarters at Amman airport, and four new Piper Cherokee training aircraft Ground and flight instructors were brought in from Lebanon, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, and the school's operations soon expanded to such a degree that 12 Bulldog trainers were purchased from England to accommodate new students.

Today 12 years after its birth, the Royal Jordanian Air Academy is the largest civil aviation school in the Middle East Smaller schools in Saudi Arabia, Sharja, Egypt Lebanon and Qatar have a similar bright future too for, as Ali Ghandour notes, "We need tens of thousands of pilots and technicians in the decade ahead to staff Arab airlines which now depend largely on foreign personnel." With that in mind, the Civil Aviation Council of Arab States meeting last June in Casablanca moved to set up an Arab Air Academy which would establish standards, policies and procedures for national flying schools in the Arab world. And when King Hussein promised the Amman International Airport as the academy's home - once the Queen Alia Airport is completed - CACAS immediately called for a $500,000 feasibility study with a view to accepting the offer.

The academy, according to Ghandour, will train pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and airport management specialists, indeed all personnel required for the functioning of a modern, independent airline. To get this bigger bird off the ground will require financing of a magnitude to rival King Hussein's gift of Amman airport. As an initial contribution, Alia has already pledged its Boeing 707 and 727 flight simulators, worth $5 million, to the academy.

For the present the Royal Jordanian Air FC Academy operates within more modest dimensions. Its quarters are spartan, low-slung ex-barracks at one end of the hardstand at Amman airport, not far from where their 24 trainers are parked. Its offices and classrooms are functional rather than fashionable, as are its administrators and instructors - veteran airmen who deal less in the glamor of flying than its solid disciplines.

The academy's commanding officer is an American, Major-General William J. Maddox Jr, U.S. Army (ret), formerly Commanding General, Fort Rucker, Alabama, the Army's center for helicopters and ground-support aircraft But most of his senior staff is British or Irish. They include his Chief-of-Staff, Captain R. P. J. King, who established the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh and for two and a half years was chief instructor there, and has more than 30 years civil and military flying experience; and chief line instructor Captain Peter Hicks, a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain, with long RAF service later in the Mediterranean and many years instructing civil pilots.

The nearly 30 ground and flight instructors have flown a total of more than 150,000 hours in fighters, bombers, reconnaissance and civil aircraft fixed-wing planes and helicopters, in one- two- three- four- and more-engined craft in straight-and-level and aerobatic flight. The average instructor at the academy has flown 22 years with nearly 5,000 hours in the air. The large operations staff gives the academy the enviable teacher-to-student ratio of nearly 1:2 in ground school, and 1:3 in the air, guaranteeing individual attention.

The main problem, for most students, is merely to get in. The 16-month course costs 6,200 Jordanian dinars, equivalent to $20,000 in monetary terms, but significantly higher in relative purchasing power, considering the lower take-home pay of the average Jordanian. For those who cannot muster the tuition on their own, scholarships are presently available from His Majesty the Prime Minister, and Alia; five of 16 students in the class graduating in December 1977 were recipients of such aid. Moreover, a review of selection procedures now in progress promises even wider government support, on the premise that no able candidate should be denied a place at the academy for financial reasons.

Money, and possession of the tawjihiya, the secondary school diploma equivalent are only the first hurdles. Next comes a thorough physical examination by a flight surgeon qualified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency. Only students whose eyesight hearing, cardiovascular system, reflexes and general health put them in the top physical category, Class 1, proceed to a day-long battery of tests in mathematics, mechanics, physics and other academic disciplines. Tests are given in both English and Arabic to ensure that language deficiency alone does not disqualify an otherwise promising candidate. Applicants are, finally subjected to a searching personal interview to determine their motivation, poise, stability and determination. Survivors of the rigorous selection pro are enrolled in a class, usually not exceeding 15, which begins its aviation training with the most mundane, ground-bound of studies: the English language. While most incoming students have some familiarity with the language, a special aviation English dialect replete with call letters, code words and special enunciations for clarity to pierce the static barrier, must be mastered, for English is the international aviation tongue. Students daily spend two hours in class, another two hours in laboratory work with English tapes, and two hours on various preparatory aviation subjects in English, for a solid month. They will continue to study English for an hour a day for the remainder of their training, for, as Captain King says, "The language lab is the key to the entire training course."

Their second and third months are devoted to ground school, primarily mathematics, physics, aerodynamics and the theory of flight. By the fourth month, just as they despair of ever getting into the air, the students - now firmly grounded in the principles of flying, imbued with proper attitudes toward safety, and disciplined to think first and then act decisively - at last man their planes. For the next 13 months, they will fly up to four hours a day, in addition to ground school. Only 85 percent of those who begin will successfully complete the course and be awarded the coveted CPL, the Commercial Pilot's License.

Attrition of less gifted pilots is the price the Royal Jordanian Air Academy pays to maintain its standards of excellence. These standards are strict the fruit of many decades of pilot training through which, by trial and error, experiment and insight the constants of sound flight training have been determined. Listed by the International Civil Air Organization for accreditation of flight schools are requirements detailing the number, model and maintenance level of the school's aircraft fleet; its engineering facilities and standards; the subjects which must appear in the flight and ground syllabi, and hours to be spent on each; the quality and experience of flying and ground instruction; lecture room facilities and equipment; the density of student population relative to those facilities; faculty-student ratios; briefing-room facilities; testing procedures and standards; minimum and maximum time devoted to each phase of the program, and a host of other flight-tested imperatives which may appear trivial to the uninitiated, but fundamental to pilots charged with the comfort and safety of passengers.

ICAO requires that schools on its approved list give their CPL candidates 150 hours of actual in-flight training. The Royal Jordanian Air Academy does better: because most of its students are not native speakers of English, the academy demands an additional 30 hours of flying time to instill in its students a higher degree of competence and self-confidence. Another 25 hours is spent in the Link trainer, basically a blacked-out cockpit which never flies beyond the air-conditioned room in which is immured. Here the student practices instrument flying, radio navigation and airways procedures at a fraction of the cost of actual flying, and at risk of wounding only his pride instead of sacrificing his life should he blunder.

Once the student has compiled hours of flight experience in single-engined Cherokee 140 B's and receives that emblem of new-wrought professionalism, the CPU he moves on to the twin-engined Seneca PA 34. In this aircraft whose complexity of instrumentation - two engine instruments for each one he had to monitor on the Cherokee - is offset by the security of having one functioning engine in reserve should the other ever fail, the pilot achieves the Multi-Engine Instrument Rating which qualifies him for an airline flying position as flight engineer.

A favorite old saw among airmen is that "a pilot's life is 98 percent boredom and 2 percent sheer terror." The mission of a first-class flight school such as the Royal Jordanian Air Academy is to train the student so thoroughly in the various emergencies that can arise in flight thunderstorms, engine failure, congested landing patterns, loss of radio and loss of bearings are but a few-and their remedies that sound decision becomes second nature, thus reducing the terror quotient to manageable terms.

Contrary to lay opinion, the actual techniques of flying are relatively simple, for the rudiments can be absorbed in a few weeks by any reasonably intelligent 14-year-old. Fourteen-year-olds do not, however, pilot commercial aircraft. The reason is implicit in the collateral skills and experience which the paying passenger seldom notices, yet depends on implicitly to bring him to earth safely, and on schedule. These skills are learned, refined and honed to razor keenness in 651 hours of ground school and 250 hours in-flight training. After their 15th week and 36 hours in the flight simulator at the academy, students begin 14 weeks of practice in navigation by ADF (automatic direction finder), VOR (very-high-frequency omni-range), and ILS (instrument landing system). Using these systems in combination with Loran (long-range navigation), the future pilot will be able to lift off at the end of the runway at Amman, traverse Europe and the Atlantic in the dead of night, and put down in Chicago without ever having glanced through his windscreen until he feels his wheels touching the runway. That degree of expertise will cost the student six hours of classroom work a day when he is not practicing flying, frequent quizzes, and 36 hours of formal examinations during his 16 months at the Jordanian academy - followed by years of closely-observed line experience and periodic checks as flight engineer and first officer before he assumes full responsibility for plane, passengers and crew as captain.

The complexity of the subject matter of today's flying - a far cry from seat-of-the-pants pilotage of yesteryear - can be inferred from RJAA's ground school syllabus, which comprises aircraft performance, aircraft type rating, airframes, principles of flight, navigation, electrics, engines, loading, aviation law, flight planning, radio aids, aviation medicine, communication and radio procedures, instruments, and meteorology. A very partial list of lecture topics in just one of those subjects - meteorology - includes synoptics, humidity, air in vertical motion, wind, icing, fronts, altimetry, forecasting, pressure systems and temperature. The seemingly elementary subject of temperature, in turn, be comes the stuff of three hour-long lectures, covering measurement units, solar and terrestrial radiation, conduction and convection, heat transfer, vertical distribution in troposphere and stratosphere, lapse rates, inversions, diurnal variation and other esoterica. In ground school, as aloft, the romantic notion of the pilot as a daring fellow with goggles, trailing scarf and flashing grin quickly expires beneath an avalanche of must-remember information on conversion angles, suction-driven direction indicators, normally aspirated engines, Bernoulli's theorem, mach numbers and a thousand other minutiae and gargantuae guaranteed to make a student straighten up and fly wright.

Since the Royal Jordanian Air Academy's inception nearly one hundred fully qualified Jordanian, Syrian, Kuwaiti, Pakistani and Bahraini pilots have been graduated. Most of the Jordanians go directly to Alia where they will serve as panel systems operators or flight engineers for approximately two years, while keeping up their flying skills with periodic continuity training. Promoted to first officer, they will advance to the right seat on the flight deck. After an additional five to seven years seasoning, the qualified first officer will make that long voyage for which some 10 years of flying have finally prepared him, the four-foot shift to the left seat, where he will henceforth exercise command as captain of his aircraft.

By then, depending on his luck, sense of vocation and proficiency, the pilot who is today an RJAA student will be approximately 31 years old, captain a Boeing 727, 707 or 747 or one of their successors, and be one of the highest-paid professionals in his country. By every measurable criterion he will be the equal of jet captains anywhere, for in world aviation, if not in world politics, there is a democracy of achievement which flies above the clouds of language, age, race, sex, nationality and religion, and one's rating as a pilot is based on strict standards of excellence, experience and judgment observed and honored by all who wear wings.

Like its pilot-trainees, the Royal Jordanian Air Academy is steadily maturing, month by month. When CACAS approval is obtained, the school's first mechanic's course will begin - with a class of 20 studying theory and shop practice for 20 months. Firmly grounded in basic mechanics, they will then receive - probably with Alia - six months of on-the-job training, rounded out by another three months of advanced schooling leading to the A & P (Airframe and Powerplant) license, which requires an equivalent period of work and study in the United Kingdom.

An academy for the training of mechanics in aircraft maintenance and repair is one of five envisaged for the full-fledged air university which is still in the planning stage, according to Najeeb Halaby former PanAm board chairman and presently part owner, along with Alia and Syrian Arab Airways, of Arab Air Services Corporation. The others will be for flight services - the training of cabin crews-airport facilities and maintenance, airways flight controllers and communications and, of course, pilot training.

Halaby notes that some of the academies could well be set up in other countries; the airport academy in Saudi Arabia, for example, already has splendid facilities. Current estimates are that buildings and equipment for the Arab Air University will cost some $25 million, exclusive of Alia's Boeing simulators and the Amman International Airport already earmarked for the project. In addition to short-term specialist courses, the university will offer subjects leading to a four-year degree in aeronautical sciences and engineering. Should current hopes for capitalization materialize, work on the university's facilities could begin in the next year or two. If all goes well, the Arab Air University in Amman will spread its wings in 1980 and Jordan, a nation which has already subdued desert and plain, will fly forth into a new dimension, helping to tame the wild blue yonder.

Daniel Da Cruz is a veteran Middle East correspondent, magazine writer and novelist. His latest book, The Captive City, won a Special Award in 1977 from The Mystery Writers of America.

"All the fun...is getting there"

I may be the only pilot in the world who doesn't want to boss a 747," replies Rami Ba'ara, when asked which type in the Alia fleet he aspires to command. "Personally I'd rather captain a Boeing 707. The pay is less, to be sure, and the 747 has more glamor. But the bigger plane is pretty thoroughly automated and computerized, while the 707 takes a lot more actual flying. And flying is what I'm here for."

To become a pilot has been Rami's goal since high school days, but his father, a retired Jordanian army major-general and a firm believer in education - Rami's three brothers are, respectively army officer, medical student, and secondary school student - urged him to finish his formal studies first.

Rami compromised. For three years he attended the University of Jordan full-time. Then, in mid-1976, eager to get airborne, he enrolled in the Royal Jordanian Air Academy.

His first months flying the university - academy scholastic biplane were the toughest. The main difficulty was studying in two languages simultaneously mostly Arabic at the university and English at the RJAA, where he also had to tune his ear to the various national dialects of his instructors. Easier was ground school, because of his university background in the sciences.

For a strenuous 12 months he had to forego his usual extra-curricular pleasures of swimming, tennis and football to get up as early as 4:00 am. on flying days, spend five and a half hours at the academy, bolt lunch, hurry over to the university's campus for three hours of lectures, and then trudge home to battle sleep and the books to keep abreast of assigned outside work. He managed the intellectual juggling act well enough to graduate from the university in June 1977 with a B.A in economics and statistics.

On a full Alia scholarship, Rami went on to graduate from the Royal Jordanian Air Academy in October and immediately signed on as a panel system operator with the Jordanian airline which sponsored his flight training. It will be another two years before he takes the big step to flying duties as first officer, but the wait doesn't bother him. For Rami, a lifelong travel addict, almost all the fun is just getting there.

Samar: "Queen of the Sky"

She could pass for a pert, pretty secretary - as indeed she is in her spare time to augment the family income - whose only interest in aviation would be along the lines of flyin' down to Rio.

Nothing like it Samar Oran has been obsessed with flying since she was a child whose home near Amman airport provided her with frequent glimpses of aircraft soaring into the sky. Further­more, in her quest for wings she has overcome handicaps which would have grounded a less determined spirit

Unable to afford a flying career, on graduation from secondary school Samar enrolled at Beirut's Arab Univer­sity to study political science. But she had her eyes in the sky, and after a year she returned home to work as a secretary scrimping to set money aside for flying lessons. Beginning early in 1975, whenever she accumulated enough for an hour's flying - the Cherokee 140 B rents for approximately $35 an hour in Jordan today - she would promptly go up for a lesson. But she soon discovered that a secretary's paycheck doesn't fly very far.

A year and a half of frustration later she happened to meet King Hussein and confided in him her dream of becoming a pilot. King Hussein, recog­nizing the gleam in her eye and im­pressed with her bootstrap resolution, forthwith awarded her a full scholarship at the Royal Jordanian Air Academy.

Her troubles were far from over. Her fellow students, all young men, were suspicious and aloof, doubting her seriousness of purpose. The English language was hostile, too, until concen­trated study made it an ally. Worse yet was her timing: she was accepted in December for a course which had begun the previous October, so despite her flying experience she had to put in long, hard hours to catch up with her class. She finally did, the following March.

While enjoying her new-found lei­sure, however, she wound up with a broken leg when she went horseback riding and her horse threw her. Another two months were lost. Recovered, she redoubled her efforts, and by mid-July had caught up once again. By then her determination had convinced her classmates that she was serious in­deed, and her acceptance was com­plete.

When she wins her wings, Alia has promised her a flying job as its second woman line pilot. But, Samar says wistfully, she'll miss school days, "especially aerobatics and solo work. I love soloing, because up there, all alone, I feel I'm queen of the sky."

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the January/February 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1978 images.