Jamaican pilot trainees chase dreams in South Africa
Nathaniel McCreary was fascinated with the thought of becoming a pilot since he was a child, but, as he grew older, the dream seemed more far-fetched because of limited financial resources. The 22-year-old, who hails from Oracabessa, St Mary, said...
Nathaniel McCreary was fascinated with the thought of becoming a pilot since he was a child, but, as he grew older, the dream seemed more far-fetched because of limited financial resources.
The 22-year-old, who hails from Oracabessa, St Mary, said that, while working at a gas station, he approached a man dressed in pilot gear and expressed his desire to be enrolled in aviation school.
That man turned out to be David Daniel, the 63-year-old chief instructor at Amber Aviation, who has been flying since 1972.
The two engaged in many conversations following the first chance encounter, which led to the submission of personal documents.
Today, McCreary is among four Jamaicans undergoing three months of intensive training in ultralight aviation in South Africa.
Ultralight aviation, also called microlight aviation, is the flying of a lightweight one- or two-seat fixed-wing aircraft. These aircrafts are designed especially for recreational usage and short distance flying.
The trip to South Africa was his first time leaving Jamaica and he has been enthralled by the culture and food.
“Training has been amazing, just seeing the land from so high up – the beaches, and the mountain,” an exuberant McCreary said in a Gleaner interview, adding that he saw snow in the mountains for the first time a few days ago.
He has racked up about 17 flight hours thus far and said he feels privileged at having been selected for training, as Amber Aviation could have opted to import pilots to service Jamaica.
It was an instant yes from 28-year-old Alando Perry when the idea of becoming an ultralight pilot was pitched to him.
Perry, the second of five children, was raised by his mother, whom he describes as his superhero.
He explained that he had a bittersweet childhood growing up in a violent community, but maintaining a positive outlook has opened up opportunities for him.
The Jamaicans have been receiving practical and theoretical training since June 1. Perry shared that the practical component was challenging in the beginning but he has improved with time and is now close to flying solo.
“My preferred time to fly is in the morning, because the wind is more settled and you get a better flight,” said Perry, of Kingston, adding that he wants to fly bigger aircraft.
“The future looks good and I know tourists and Jamaicans will enjoy this when it becomes available in Jamaica.”
Thirty-one-year-old Arnold Avis, who is from St Mary, recounted that his mother recognised his interest and enrolled him in aviation classes.
In 2010, he participated in an aviation course at Jamaica College and completed one year of ground school with pilot David Robertson.
His mother got ill and died, leaving himself and his three siblings in the care of their grandmother.
Avis switched paths and became a lifeguard, as swimming and being at the beach are among the activities he enjoys. But that change led him back to where he belonged.
It was while working at Jamaica Inn hotel that he met David Daniel, who introduced him to Amber Group CEO Dushyant Savadia.
“My world changed in just under a year,” said Avis, who describes his time in South Africa as surreal.
Orlando Stephenson, 20, is the youngest of the four pilot trainees. A glimpse of the cockpit during his first flight to France when he was 13 years old solidified to him that his childhood dream was achievable.
The Manchester native is thrilled to be in South Africa and shared that he is impressed by the receptiveness of the four-member team to the knowledge being transferred.
He is amazed by South Africa’s weather and fauna, particularly the elephant sanctuary and a nature reserve with lions, giraffes, zebras and pajama donkeys.
On returning to Jamaica, Stephenson hopes to display high-quality flight skills while inspiring others to follow their dreams.
Savadia said the cost to provide full financing to the pilot trainees is ongoing.
“Training for one person alone in the aviation industry is very expensive, let alone flight tickets, accommodation, food, and everything else. Amber Group is known for doing good and for doing things differently,” he said, adding that the bottom line is about the lives that are being changed.
Three and a half years ago while he was in South Africa for business, he went microlight flying and recalled that he was initially sceptical about manoeuvring a small plane with an open cockpit.
“It was mind blowing. Durban has endless beautiful beaches and I could see waves and dolphins and I was just mesmerised with the wind blowing on my face,” the CEO said.
“When I experienced that, I suddenly recognised how big of an opportunity Jamaica has, because we’ve got one of the best sceneries and best beaches in the world,” the CEO said.
Pointing to South Africa, one of the most mature markets which attracts more than 200,000 ultralight tourists annually, Savadia said the industry has ballooned globally.
With Savadia believing Jamaica to be decades behind in recreational aviation, the goal is to add a new adventure tourism offering that is expected to strengthen and diversify the industry while boosting aeronautical skills and employment opportunities locally.
A second batch of Jamaicans will arrive in South Africa in September. Within the next five years, 50-60 ultralight pilots will be available to serve Jamaica.
Savadia said the recreational activity will set Jamaica apart from the rest of the Caribbean and position the country to become the aviation tourism destination in the region.
“This is the first phase of Amber Aviation and we also want to launch a domestic airline and a business jet programme that will serve inter-Caribbean passengers,” Savadia remarked.
Daniel, Amber Aviation’s chief instructor, said the trainees have so far learnt to ascend, descend, land, take off, and turn the aircraft. They’ve also mastered the difficult theory of South African aviation law.
“They are all ready to write the first exam, which is the Aviation Regulations. It’s very exhausting, it’s a full time programme from Monday to Friday and they fly and attend classes all day,” he said, adding that it has been a wonderful experience having Jamaicans under his tutelage.
Daniel, a South African citizen, has visited Jamaica twice and is yearning to see how populated the skies will be in the next five years.
Savadia said that Daniel trained him, and his wife, Kate, to be ultralight pilots a year ago and they have accumulated more than 120 flight hours.
“This year, we also completed our light sport plane pilot licence,” the CEO said.
It is a lifelong dream come true for Savadia, whose journey started as a four-year-old, plane spotting on the roof of his house.
His speech impediment, stammering, resulted in his being kicked out of the training school and threw his desires of becoming a career pilot out the window.
That flame was kept alive and decades later is being manifested in Amber Aviation, which was launched at the Ian Fleming International Airport in Boscobel, St Mary, last October.