GRIFFITH — YingJie Zhang, Tianzhu Liu and Shuai Li are learning to become pilots at the Griffith-Merrilville Airport and will take that training back to China where they will fly commercially.

Zhang, who calls himself Craig while in the United States, said many people in China want to become pilots, but it takes much more time in China to get the training. Zhang, 21, said he has wanted to be a pilot since he was a boy.

“We come here. We get the knowledge and that’s good,” he said. “I love to fly. In China, the airspace belongs to military. We can’t just go out and do the different maneuvers we do here without getting permission from the military. That takes time.”

Liu, who chose the name Norman, said he is enjoying his time in the United States. He already is contracted to work for Hainan Airlines, the largest privately owned air transport company and the fourth-largest airline in terms of fleet size in the People’s Republic of China.

Li, known as Sam, arrived in mid-July and is just beginning his classes. (It has been a tradition since the training school opened that students adopt American first names because their own are difficult to pronounce, according to Craig Anderson, director of Griffith Aviation Inc., which has operated the airport since 1984. They choose names from movies or someone they like and admire.)

Zhang, Liu and Li are among 45 Chinese men currently learning to become pilots at the Griffth-Merrillville Airport through an agreement between the airport and the Civil Aviation Flight University of China, at which all are students.

Growing need

The Civil Aviation Flight University of China is the largest civil aviation university in Asia and the world’s largest flight training institution. It is under the direct leadership of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, a government agency.

The airport made the arrangement with the flight university in 2007, and the first group of Chinese students began classes in the spring of 2008. Since that time, they have trained nearly 300 Chinese men to be pilots, Anderson said. To date, no women have enrolled in the flight school.

As global economies expand and airlines take delivery of tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners over the next 20 years, there is extraordinary demand for people to pilot and maintain these airplanes, according to Boeing’s website, www.boeing.com. To meet this growth, the 2016 Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook forecasts between now and 2035, the industry will need more than 2 million new aviation personnel — 617,000 commercial airline pilots, 679,000 maintenance technicians and 814,000 cabin crew.

The largest growth is expected to be in the Asia-Pacific region where the demand for pilots is estimated at 248,000, according to the website. North America will require 112,000, Europe 104,000, the Middle East 58,000, Latin America 51,000, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)/ Russia 22,000 and Africa 22,000.

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Anderson said the need for pilots in China and the lack of airspace for training there creates the need for commercial training in the U.S.

“When students come over here they haven’t flown in China,” he said. “They get physicals here. They earn their pilot certificates here. They attend ground school here and earn a private pilot’s license, too. They attend classes for 10 to 12 months from 7:30 a.m. to about 6 p.m. each day.”

Time for flight, time for fun

The students live in an apartment complex in Crown Point. While here, they fly to Midway in Chicago, Michigan, Indianapolis and other areas.

When the Chinese students graduate from the program at Griffith, they will have commercial pilot certificates with instrument and multi engine ratings. All of them already are contracted to work with an airline in their home country.

The airlines pay the cost of the education for the Chinese students in the U.S. Anderson couldn’t release the cost because it is confidential. However, he added, that money keeps small airports like the Griffith-Merrillville Airport solvent.

Ying said his employer, China Eastern Airlines, which operates international, domestic and regional routes, will require him to do additional ground training when he returns home and will convert his certificates to Chinese.

It hasn’t been all hard work and study for the Chinese students. They’ve also visited nearby communities.

Ying said they go to Chicago monthly and stop in Chinatown to buy food and meet other Chinese locals.

“It’s beautiful here and the skies are blue,” Ying said. “In China, it’s rare to see the blue skies because of the pollution. We see the Gary Air Show and the Chicago Air Show. It was cool.”

Li said he didn’t expect to see such a big city like Chicago. “It’s all very interesting,” he said. “Everything is fresh to me.”

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.