By Rob Russell
Ag Aviation Flight Academy (AAFA) hosted an open day and launch party on the 24th of March 2022 to showcase its facilities and new Air Tractor flight simulator to the aviation world, potential clients, customers and the financial world. Flightline Weekly was in attendance to report on the successful event.
Flightline Weekly had a chat with the Director of Ag Aviation Flight Academy, Graham Wells. With over 20 years in the aviation industry, specialising in finance and business management, Graham forged a reputable career within the aviation industry.
Graham spoke to us about where Ag Aviation Africa (AAA) came from, what it does and where it is planning to go, as well as its exciting new development – Ag Aviation Flight Academy.
Ag Aviation Africa is the Sub Saharan and Middle East agency for Air Tractor Inc. There are several models available:
• The entry-level AT-400 which comes with a very reliable and
durable PT6 turbine engine,
• AT-500 series, which comes with a 500gallon tank, providing
more payload and thus productivity
• AT-600 series, with its bigger tank, again and finally
• AT-800 series. This top of the range comes complete with an
800-gallon tank, a much upgraded PT6 engine and stands in a
league of its own.
Demand, worldwide, for agricultural aircraft is growing and in 2021, Air Tractor delivered 163 models throughout the world. It is intended to deliver over 200 variants in 2022. At present, there are about 70 models being flown throughout the Sub Sahara and the Middle East. With their proven reliability, there is no doubt a large market for these aircraft.
Predominantly used for agricultural purposes in South Africa, there is also a growing market for these aircraft to be used in support of fire fighting. In South Africa, this is via the Working with Fire organisation. In East Africa, mainly in Ethiopia and Djibouti, they are used in the ongoing fight against locust swarms and play a huge part in the prevention of damage to food crops in that area.
With farming becoming very scientific and moving towards the most efficient and effective use of land and equipment, there is a growing need for equipment such as crop spraying aircraft. Gone are the days of aircraft with just a stick, rudder and basic aircraft instrumentation and a few workers on the ground waving flags, showing the pilot where to go. Today’s aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, GPSs and the ability to communicate via data links with the farmer, enabling the most efficient and cost-effective use of the aircraft. All these factors are vital, both for the farmer and the aircraft operator.
Graham went on to speak at length about financing. Two main options are available:
• When purchasing your aircraft, which are manufactured at the factory in Texas, of making use of the American Exim bank. Whilst offering very favourable low-interest rates, the deal is subject to the rand dollar exchange rate volatility, so the price can fluctuate significantly.
• Local financing. AAA has good working relations with all the big financial institutions in South Africa, and working with them and the client, are able to negotiate favourable financing deals, often using the client's own bank.
The latter option is encouraged by AAA and seems to be the more favourable option, with many of their clients.
Reliable maintenance support for their products is vital. The need for proper, CAA approved Aircraft Maintenance Organisations (AMOs) is given a high priority by AAA. Whilst not doing any servicing of the aircraft they sell, AAA works closely with Company approved AMOs, to ensure an efficient, reliable and cost-effective service is provided to their clients. Allied to this and as part of the technical support, AAA has 2 spare depots in the country, one being at Parys and has just opened another one in Stellenbosch. These two depots hold a vast inventory of necessary essential spares, both for the aircraft and the PT-6 engines. They are developing a sophisticated courier service, to ensure all orders are handled with minimum downtime to the client.
Ag Aviation Africa has also started their own engineering support division to assist clients and AMOs with any support and assistance they might need. This is based at their Head Office in Stellenbosch and will be available 24 hours a day.
Part of Graham’s vision is to provide a total package to the client and their pilots. With this in mind, they have invested a great deal of time, effort and money in developing their own pilot training division.
AG AVIATION FLIGHT ACADEMY
Ag Aviation Flight Academy is based at the Head Office situated at Stellenbosch Agri-Business Park, between Cape Town International Airport and Stellenbosch, and also 5 minutes from Stellenbosch Airfield, it is surrounded by the rural agricultural areas and wine farms with lots of accommodation of all types and costs with magnificent views. For want of better words, right in the centre of the Western Cape aviation world.
Flightline Weekly was able to spend some time with the CFI, Charlie Marais and speak to him about his vision and where he wants to take the AAFA. There is no doubt that he is very committed to its success and growth and there are exciting plans in the pipeline.
The training will be divided into three areas:
• Agricultural Recurrency Training on the Air Tractor 802 Flight Simulator
for current ag and fire fighting pilots.
• Air Tractor Engineers Courses
• Air Tractor type and ag ratings (coming in 2023)
Charlie hails from Bloemfontein and has years of experience in instruction from ab initio through to Airline Transport Pilot training, including plenty of experience in agricultural pilot training and he brings a wealth of experience, His knowledge will certainly add value to this training organisation
The Academy was recently awarded its Part 141 – Aviation Training Organisation approval from the CAA, which will enable it to train pilots, as well as offer recurrency and refresher training. Working with clients, they will be able to custom design courses to their customer’s individual requirements. The Academy is operated as a stand-alone company but falls within the Ag Aviation Organisation.
The company has also invested a large amount of money in an FSTD (Flight Simulator Training Device) based on the Air Tractor 802 aircraft. This modern simulator has been built by Geosim Technologies, a well-known Australian Company with years of experience in building such simulators. It is a fixed base simulator, with state-of-the-art 270 degrees surround graphics and sound, giving the student a very realistic flying experience. It is controlled by an instructor sitting at their desk, just behind the aircraft.
Such a project is a massive one and requires a lot of expertise from both the supplier and the customer to ensure that the simulator is as real to the actual aircraft as possible. AAFA is busy working with the CAA, to ensure it is correctly licensed and certified, to ensure the necessary simulator training and recurrences can be done on it. The process is well down the line and it should be certified soon. It will be unique in being the first Flight Academy to offer simulator training on aircraft used exclusively in the agriculture and fire fighting fields certified by the CAA. The ground school will be predominantly modular in design, enabling the student to work at their pace, under instructor supervision and ensuring structured disciplined training. So necessary in such a highly-skilled discipline that operating agricultural aircraft is.
Exciting plans are in development for Ag Aviation Flight Academy, as they have concluded an agreement with Stellenbosch Flying Club. The intention is to offer a complete course to students with the focus on agricultural flying, which will see them do their ground school at the academy premises. Their initial flying on aircraft from the Stellenbosch Flying Club and once they have gained the necessary experience, move on to taildraggers, probably in the form of an RV7. Once the student taildragger qualified, they will move on to the simulator for his training on the Air Tractor at AAFA.
As part of the student’s training, one must obtain chemical applicators course and P-rating as these are the CAA requirements to be a crop-spraying pilot. The student can obtain these licences while completing his/her CPL training course. All students will also spend time working in support of crop spraying operations, to ensure they have a proper and complete understanding of all aspects of commercial crop spraying. A unique package that will ensure the student once qualified will be licensed and operate the various Air Tractor aircraft, as well as have a complete understanding of all aspects of the job.
There is no doubt that the Air Tractor 802 Simulator is a very necessary tool in the training of the modern pilot and is a very useful tool. The safety of training in it, the economics of operating one, as against using an aircraft to train students to make them very necessary for any Academy to succeed. The other big advantage is the standardisation of training.
The long term plan is to acquire an Air Tractor 504. This model is unique in that it comes with a dual side by side cockpit, which is ideal for training new students, in all aspects of agricultural and fire fighting usage.
Graham also mentioned that one of the factors influencing their decision to start and training facility and purchase the simulator was their close working relationship with the insurance industry. It is hoped that once recognition was gained from the insurance companies and underwriters, of their formal training of pilots and ongoing recurrency and refresher training, companies using Air Tractor aircraft and employing pilots trained through Ag Aviation Flight Academy, would be able to get favourable, and hopefully, discounted insurance rates.
Flightline Weekly was very impressed with everything on display, The commitment of their management team can only ensure exciting future growth of Ag Aviation Africa and its newly opened Flight Academy.