China is pushing to train thousands more pilots in Australia each year as part of plans for at least three multi-million-dollar ventures in NSW and Queensland, sparking anger among residents over increased noise, a perceived security risk and the “takeover” of regional airports.
Amid mounting concerns about a looming shortage in Australia of commercial pilots, Chinese companies have been buying flight-training schools without controversy in recent years to meet demand for China’s booming aviation industry.
The emergence of plans for Chinese pilot training in Kempsey, on NSW’s mid-north coast, and at Frogs Hollow near Bega, in the state’s southeast, has galvanised residents in both towns — despite the promise of hundreds of jobs and other economic benefits.
A Chinese-backed venture is also behind a proposed training school at Mareeba airport in far north Queensland.
Dick Smith, a former Civil Aviation Safety Authority chairman, said yesterday he was highly concerned that some of the ventures were backed by Chinese government-funded companies with an “unlimited amount of money to pour into flight training”.
He said this was occurring while scores of Australian schools were going broke because of what he claimed was the excessive regulatory burden imposed by CASA.
“We have a dysfunctional regulator that is unintentionally destroying Australian ownership of the general aviation industry,” Mr Smith said.
Concerns about a Chinese takeover of training schools comes as Australian Industry Standards has identified a critical shortage of flight instructors caused by airlines around the world poaching experienced teachers to work as pilots. China will need an estimated 110,000 new pilots by 2035 but is relying on countries including Australia for training because of its heavy smog, military-controlled airspace and lack of teachers who speak English.
In Kempsey, residents are fighting an $18 million plan by the Australian International Aviation College, owned by China’s Hainan Airlines, to increase flights at the town’s small airport by 1000 per cent — from 3000 a year to almost 30,000 a year.
Save Kempsey Airport Action Group president Adam Ulrick said locals believed Chinese pilots had shown disrespect by conducting repetitive low-altitude circuit training from 7am on Australia Day this year, in an alleged breach of the college’s licence conditions. This had destroyed “any glimmer of remaining trust” between the company and the community.
The college’s plan to expand its operations at Kempsey — where it began training three years ago — is awaiting a decision from the Northern Joint Regional Planning Panel. The development is backed by Kempsey Shire Council, which says each student will spend almost $44,000 a year.
Mr Ulrick said residents were worried about incessant noise from circuit training 18 hours a day, every day of the year under the expansion plan. He said he was also concerned a foreign government-backed body could take effective control of the region’s main airport. AIAC did not respond to requests for comment from The Australian over several days.
In the Bega Valley, residents have written to Malcolm Turnbull and other federal MPs in an attempt to block plans by a company, Sports Aviation Flight College Australia, to build a recreational flight-training centre at the existing Frogs Hollow airfield.
The SAFCA board has strong Chinese links and includes former NSW deputy premier Andrew Stoner, who sits on several Chinese-owned company boards.
The head of the Frogs Hollow community group set up to fight the move, Steve Jackson, said the school’s proposed activities were incompatible with the tranquil lifestyle of the Bega Valley and the “clean, green” image of its agricultural producers.
In his letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Jackson alleged the plan raised national-security concerns given pilots would have unrestricted aerial access to a munitions base at Eden and the Defence Force’s Australian Headquarters Joint Operations Command near Bungendore.
SAFCA chief executive Mitch Boyle said yesterday the college planned to have a maximum of 360 students on campus at a time, with 1200 students graduating each year. He rejected national-security concerns, saying CASA had marked restricted areas on airways maps used by pilots.
Mr Boyle also dismissed fears over pollution, saying the college would have the same effect as putting 40 small cars on the road.
“By contrast, there are 5181 vehicles passing the airfield every day on the Princes Highway and this is increasing by approximately 70 cars per year,” he said.
In Mareeba, Australian Education Overseas has teamed up with Shanghai Jiao Tong University to propose a $10m training hub for Chinese pilots. The move has not generated unrest in the community.
Chinese companies are behind several other flight schools in Australia. In 2015, a China Eastern Airlines subsidiary bought a 50 per cent stake in CAE’s Melbourne training school. Its rival, China Southern Airlines, owns 50 per cent of a West Australian academy with operations in Jandakot and Merredin.