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The not so friendly skies
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The not so friendly skies

When flight schools fill up with foreign trainees, authorities get nervous


For most beginner pilots, getting a stamp in their log book -- proof of hours spent aloft as they work toward a licence -- is as complicated as touching down, walking into an airfield office and asking. In smaller centres it's often the local flying club that extends the courtesy, but in a pinch, Transport Canada will accept pretty much any mark with a place name and a date. It's not usually a matter for the police. But after Sept. 11, it all depends who's asking.

Ekansh Tyagi learned that lesson this past summer in Windsor, Ont. The fresh-faced 18-year-old from New Delhi and two of his fellow flight school students found themselves answering pointed queries about why they had journeyed so close to the American border. "They asked me if I was involved in terrorist activities and I just laughed," says Tyagi. "They had a whole bunch of questions." Forget the fact that all three of the apprentice flyers were from India, and Hindu. A dark complexion and an interest in aircraft is enough to raise suspicions these days.  
Five years after the attacks on New York and Washington, business is better than ever for Canadian flight schools, and almost all of it is coming from abroad. Asia's expanding economies have created a huge demand for new pilots, and with American skies still all but closed to foreign student flyers, companies north of the border are happily picking up the slack. Even if it means subjecting themselves -- and their trainees -- to the scrutiny of police, intelligence services, and security-obsessed members of the local community.

Aviation International Canada, the Guelph, Ont., flight school that Tyagi attends, started advertising its services in India a little over a year ago. It now has 29 foreign students enrolled in a one-year course for the licence and equipment ratings needed to fly commercial aircraft. The uptick in activity at the small private airstrip on the edge of the city hasn't gone unnoticed. "They're all young kids between 18 and 25. And people see a large group of, you know, non-Canadians, everyone kind of starts to wonder," says Rique Lytle, until recently the school's chief flying instructor. "Then they see them driving around in a big van with Aviation International splashed across the side and people say, 'What's going on?' "

The school has been receiving regular visits from Guelph police, the OPP, RCMP, and CSIS. Staff pass along photocopies of all foreign applications, even their rejects. Lytle says CSIS has asked him to be on the lookout for odd behaviour, and pay particular attention to applicants from certain countries. The school is only too happy to co-operate. "This is the kind of business that if you have one bad apple then you're done," says Lytle. "If I ever saw anything suspicious, they'd have the name in 15 minutes."

Harvsair, which operates flight schools in the Winnipeg-area communities of Steinbach and St. Andrew's, training some 250 foreign pilots a year, also finds itself under the microscope. "The students are a different colour and people freak out sometimes," says owner Harv Penner. Last year, a cleaning lady called the RCMP after a large trunk appeared in one of the dormitories. It contained clothing and personal effects. Penner tries to make his charges aware of the twitchy attitudes, warning them not to read their training manuals when travelling commercially, for example. And while the police worry about students fading into the Manitoba woodwork, he says his bigger concern is that they work hard and don't fritter away their parents' money.

For the most part, the pilots-in-training seem unfazed by the occasional rude welcome. Devendra Sasne, a 22-year-old from Puna, near Mumbai, who arrived in Guelph in mid-October, says he expected the scrutiny. His first application was rejected by Canadian authorities who questioned why someone with an undergraduate degree in geology and petroleum technology wanted to study aviation. "These guys are doing their job, they need to be strict or they'll be blamed," he says. Indian airlines look favourably on Canadian-trained candidates because of this country's tough standards and difficult flying conditions. But it's still the second choice, Sasne admits. "Getting a U.S. visa is a major issue. That's why everybody comes here."

Adam Penner, operations manager for Harvsair, bristles at the extra government attention that the foreign influx has attracted: "The Oklahoma City bombing proved that you have to watch out for white guys in vans, too," he says. But with the family business now double what it was pre-2001, it's hard to look the gift horse in the mouth. "Before 9/11, I was competing with Florida. And Steinbach isn't known for its palm trees."

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