ATWATER -- A burgeoning demand for commercial airline pilots in Vietnam is leading a new demographic of flight students to the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics at the former Castle Air Force Base in Merced County.
Thursday night, 11 Vietnamese landed at San Francisco International Airport and were bused to Castle to begin 10 months of flight training at the academy.
By 10 a.m. Friday, the students were gathered in a classroom and given an idea of what they could expect during their stay at Castle.
"We operate together, not as individuals," said Brian Johnson, chief flight instructor and director of operations for Sierra. "Nothing that we do here is individual. Nothing."
In an effort to motivate the new students, Johnson also gave them a date, June 7, 2013, the day they will graduate.
"It's not easy, but it's very doable," he told the group Friday.
High graduation rate
Dan Yoon, co-owner of Sierra with his brother, John Yoon, said 99 percent of the students who enter the program graduate.
And it's not by chance.
The students who are accepted into the academy are individually selected by officials at Sierra based on their knowledge in various scholastic areas, such as math, science and English. Many of them are expected to help fill a demand for pilots in their home country.
Sierra signed a contract in March with Bay Viet Training Joint Stock Co. to train the Vietnamese students on behalf of Vietnam Airlines, the biggest airline company in that country.
The flight school located at Castle already trains Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and Mongolian students. Dan Yoon said he and his brother are happy to start training Vietnamese students, a demographic they expect to increase at their academy.
"Their country is growing," Dan Yoon said. "They're growing so fast that there is a shortage of pilots."
When the students graduate, they'll go back to Vietnam with three flight licenses -- private, instrument and commercial, Yoon said.
In Vietnam, he added, airline pilot is a highly respected job with good pay.
Capt. Nguyen Nam Lien, chief executive officer of Bay Viet, which provides the pilot training for Vietnam Airlines, said all the students are "highly motivated" and went through a stringent screening process to gain a spot at the academy.
One of those students, 35-year-old Tung Le of Ho Chi Minh City, said he used to work as an airline attendant and is excited about the opportunity to advance his career.
"I really want to be a pilot," he said, adding that he expects a lot of hard work ahead.
Johnson said the training provided by Sierra is unique for every student.
"Every student is different. However, almost every student can be trained. You just have to know where to start," Johnson said.
Training goes fast
Student training at Sierra incorporates both flight simulators and in-flight instruction.
"We are trying to accomplish a very big task in a very short period of time," Johnson said. "These students come in with zero flight experience, and when they leave here they are commercial-rated multi- engine pilots, and they do this in less than one year."
Sierra flight school started in Oakland in 1986 before moving to Castle in 2004. Since it opened, 80,000 students have trained at Sierra.
The one-year program costs about $100,000 per student.
Sierra is an expanding business at Castle, said Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County. The company leases facilities on both the commerce and airport sides of Castle.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.