There are 35 pilot training institutes across the world from where Chinese nationals can take pilot training.

After revelations that former pilots of the British army were training Chinese trainee pilots of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at a South Africa-based institute, it has emerged that pilot training schools in the United States and Canada, too, have trained Chinese pilots and are recruiting pilots from other countries with the objective to train Chinese air force pilots.

Aviation experts and related companies based in the United Kingdom and who have offices in New Zealand, Sweden, and Singapore, have carried out a similar exercise. The Ministry of Defence, United Kingdom, has recently named a South African company, Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), situated at Oudtshoorn town, Western Cape province of South Africa—which is also known as the ostrich capital of the world—in an intelligence threat alert and alleged that the company was recruiting former British military pilots to work in China and possibly help train Chinese military personnel in lieu of lucrative salaries.

The UK agencies are concerned that these military pilots will and have passed sensitive information to the Chinese during these “training courses”. In its response, the said company on 25 October released a statement stating that the British Ministry of Defence was “fully aware” of its work. “We have been in contact with the UK MoD for many years and they are fully aware of the nature of the company’s business. None of our trainers are in possession of legally or operationally sensitive information relating to the national security interests of any country, whether those from where our employees are drawn or in which it provides training,” the statement read.

Over the last few days, information shared by a whistle-blower with The Sunday Guardian, after the UK MOD’s assessment became public, shows that TFASA is not the only agency that is engaging with Chinese pilots. As per UK’s intelligence agencies, many of the Chinese pilots that are trained by these institutes do not disclose that they are associated with the PLA and seek training by posing as would be “civilian pilots”. As per a list shared with The Sunday Guardian, there are 35 pilot training institutes across the world from where Chinese nationals can take pilot training. This list is maintained by the Civil Aviation Authority of China. These institutes are based in Australia, the United States, the Czech Republic, France, and Canada. The Sunday Guardian has accessed the list. (List enclosed, which has been translated from Mandarin to English).

As per the whistle-blower, the Chinese civil aviation industry needs around 5,000 new pilots every year, a number that cannot be matched by its domestic training capabilities. It is here where these training companies situated outside China come into the picture. Out of the 5,000 pilot cadets needed by China each year, roughly 3,000 are trained each year in schools in the US, and another roughly 800 cadets in other countries like Australia, Canada, and South Africa.

As per information shared by the whistle-blower, the Chinese Flight Test Establishment (CFTE), an undertaking of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), have used the service of the United States National Test Pilot School (NTPS) and the Canadian International Test Pilot School (ITPS) to train its pilots. “Both NTPS and ITPS have trained military personnel as pilots and flight test engineers. NTPS and ITPS might claim that they were civilian pilots, but the truth is different,” the whistle-blower, who claims to be an industry insider, said.

Another prominent name that recruited Western pilots for work in China is Rishworth Aviation, a New Zealand-based aviation staffing company that is owned by Empresaria, a company listed on the London stock exchange and has offices in New Zealand, Sweden, and Singapore. One of the Rishworth aviation recruitment ads, which was shared with The Sunday Guardian, was soliciting pilots with military aviation companies for posting in an “Asian” country.

“We are seeking an Instructor Pilot for Advanced Pilot Training (Fast Jet) to be based in Asia. Attractive package on offer that includes insurance, health care, child education, accommodation, and tickets for the international shuttle. Ongoing interviews are regularly conducted. Requirements: 2000+ flying hours, 500+ flying hours as an instructor, Military aviation background fast jet, Current aviation medical,” the ad reads.

Emails were sent to NTPS, ITPS, and Rishworth Aviation seeking details regarding how many Chinese nationals have taken pilot training from these institutes since 2010, and how many of these Chinese nationals were from a military background and how many pilots from China are taking training currently and whether any recruitment was done of pilots to train Chinese pilots.

Lucy Sharp, Chief Marketing Officer, Empresaria Group, while responding to The Sunday Guardian’s queries, said, “Rishworth Aviation does not provide any pilot training. Rishworth Aviation is an aviation recruitment business. Rishworth Aviation have placed trainers into commercial Chinese organisations; however, they have not placed anyone into the People’s Liberation Army or any Chinese Government agency.”

In its response, David Clementi, Chief Operating Officer of ITPS, stated that ITPS has never provided its training to Chinese military or Chinese military personnel. “ITPS has solely provided its training to civilian trainee test pilots and flight test engineers in the employment of Civil Aerospace organizations such as the Commercial Aviation Corporation of China (COMAC) and Chinese Aircraft Industries—General Aviation (CAIGA). International Students who attend ITPS do so under a Study Permit issued by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Canada Border Security Agency (CBSA) provide security advice to IRCC to make sure applicants are not a threat to national security. Furthermore, ITPS works closely with Global Affairs Canada in securing its training contracts. ITPS doesn’t not currently have any trainees that are Chinese nationals nor has ITPS provided any of its services to China since early 2021.”

No response was received from NTPS till the time the story went to press. Earlier in June this year, to confirm inputs that it had received, The Sunday Guardian had reached out to TFASA, seeking its response on whether it was training Chinese pilots.

The company had told The Sunday Guardian that it was registered with the NCACC (National Conventional Arms Control Committee of South Africa), which allows TFASA to market to and train military personnel from other countries, but it was not currently training any military students in South Africa.

TFASA confirmed to The Sunday Guardian it did train six test pilots and three flight test engineers from a civilian aircraft company in China, CAIGA South, which develops light business jets and Cirrus SR2X sport aircraft, between May 2021 and March 2022. The company further stated that it has only trained South African and Chinese nationals in South Africa. None of those were military personnel which TFASA claimed can be confirmed with the South African National Intelligence Agency.

AIFA (AVIC-International Flight Training Academy), the biggest aviation training organisation in South Africa, of which TFASA is a shareholder, was formed after the acquisition of Cape Flying Services in April 2011. AIFA is backed by AVIC-International, a Chinese state-owned conglomerate with aviation products and technology import and export as its core business. Headquartered in Beijing, AVIC-International has 7 specialized companies and 10 regional subsidiaries in China, and 56 overseas branches worldwide.