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Swedish Flight School In SD Trains Pilots For China

Swedish Flight School Trains Chinese Pilots in San Diego

Swedes teaching Chinese to fly airplanes in Southern California. It isn’t a joke and there is no punch line. It's just business as usual at the El Cajon airport, and it’s a window into the workings of the global economy.

Carl Fredrik Lindfeldt is operations director for the Scandinavian Aviation Academy, which is based at Gillespie Field. During a visit to his office, he talks about the school’s Chinese students, who make up most of the student body.

"The Chinese love basketball,” he said. “So we've gone up to LA a couple of times to see the LA Lakers.”


Lindfeldt says the flight school, whose name is typically shortened to “SAA,” is named after its Swedish parent company, and it was founded in El Cajon 1994.

But why come all the way to San Diego County to train flight students?

"Well, first of all the weather is great! And that's actually a big part of it,” said Lindfeldt. “We are dependent upon -- in the initial stages of flight training -- on good weather."

He adds that the cost of doing business is a lot less in the U.S.

"Fuel prices are much better. In Europe fuel prices are twice the price they are here," he said.


SAA does train some amateur pilots. But the cost of the one-year program, close to $70,000, means the vast majority of students are aiming to become professional pilots. Flight instructor Marlon Olivares says even though these students will eventually fly 737s, and the like, they learn their fundamentals on small prop planes.

"You have to teach them air speed control, feeling for the airplane to find out how much pressure you may need on a takeoff or a landing,” said Olivares. “So figuring out how to the get the feeling for the aircraft is what they're learning here."

The students who come to train at S.A.A. have to find some place in El Cajon to live. I paid a visit to one apartment complex that has practically become the flight-school dormitory.

One apartment unit is shared by four flight students, some of them from Holland. A display of dismembered ties, mounted on the wall, speaks to the custom of having your tie cut in half to commemorate your first solo flight.

SAA rents about 50 units at this apartment development, and reserves them for its students. It even provides students with daily transportation to classes.

One of the flight school’s Dutch students is Metzi Van Hamburg, a rare female flight student. She recalled her first flying lesson.

"And I felt like, Wow! If this can become my job that would be so nice," she said.

Another SAA student is Louis Liu, a Chinese student who's happy to be in San Diego.

"I like it very much!" he said. “And the weather is very good, so we can keep flying every day."

Liu is one of the Chinese students who now make up two-thirds of SAA's students. China Southern Airlines is sponsoring him and paying his tuition. Like so many things in China's economy, aviation is booming, and the airline industry is trying to correct a severe deficit of pilots.

San Diego County airport director Peter Drinkwater said SAA’s student body is a reflection of the global economy.

"I think that's like any other business where the market dictates which country, or what type of students, are going to be here training," he said.

He thinks San Diego should see Scandinavian Aviation Academy as a tool for economic development.

"I think it's something to be proud of that San Diego, in a global economy, and even in a U.S. economy, is able to compete and land these types of contracts,” he said.

“Those students bring money in that goes to renting apartments and eating at local restaurants, attending local activities… and those kinds of relationships can very likely generate other opportunities for San Diego beyond aviation training.”

Scandinavian Aviation Academy currently has 130 students enrolled in it’s flight training program at Gillespie Field.

Corrected: October 4, 2023 at 5:17 PM PDT
Video by Katie Euphrat