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This Is Your Captain Speaking... in a Foreign Language

When Jorge Barra Viegas arrived from his native Brazil to work in China as an airline pilot, he thought of the journey as a return to the home of his ancestors.


Some anthropologists say Chinese people walked through Russia and then onto the American continent.


They are believed to have pushed right down into South America to form the first Indian tribes.


And with his Asian looks, Viegas jokes that sometimes people believe him when he tells them he is from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.


"Because I have this Amazonian blood, I have the same black hair and eyes as you," said Viegas, 42. "When I arrived here, I felt I was coming back home after 4,000 years."


"About half a million Chinese currently live in Brazil. Some Chinese can speak to the native Indians after being in Brazil for just two years. They learn the Indian language much faster than they learn Portuguese."


Viegas, who moved to China in 2004, is a captain with Shenzhen Airlines, based in South China's Guangdong Province.


Recruiting from overseas is becoming an increasingly common practice of China's expanding airlines, from the State-owned Air China to smaller, privately owned ones, to solve a shortage of cockpit personnel.


In fact, by the end of 2010, foreigners will account for up to 10 percent of the captains at private airlines, which have particular problems with recruitment.


According to figures from the General Administration of Civil Aviation (CAAC), there are at least 11,000 pilots and first officers working in China's civil aviation sector, piloting more than 800 airliners. By 2010, the number of passenger aircraft will reach 1,250, requiring at least 6,500 more cockpit crew, CAAC estimates.


Shenzhen Airlines chose to tackle the shortage by hiring 40 pilots from Brazil, the largest single hiring of foreign pilots in China. Couped with the group recruited earlier from Europe and Russia, the airline said foreign pilots already account for more than 10 percent of the total number.


Spring Airlines, a private airline founded last year that currently has no foreigners in the cockpit, is planning to hire enough to account for one-fifth of its total in the next five years. It currently has only three planes, but plans to add another three before March next year.


"By then, the current 50 pilots will not be enough, so we plan to hire at least 10 foreign captains through a US agency this year," airline spokesman Zhang Lei said.


A few other private airlines, such as Okay Airways and United Eagle Airlines, are facing the same problem and also have chosen to recruit foreign pilots.


"We have already hired a few foreign pilots," said Han Jing, Okay spokesman, but he declined to reveal the exact number.


United Eagle Airlines has recruited four pilots from Europe who started work in July.


"Nowadays, every private airline is improving its recruitment packages to find pilots," said Hu Wenbin, United Eagle spokesman.


The airlines that started up within the past two years have not had enough time to develop cockpit recruitment programs domestically, as the more established airlines have.


Domestic pilots and co-pilots mainly come from two sources: They either graduate from flying schools or come from the military after being discharged.


After studying for four years, a flying school graduate is eligible to work as a co-pilot, but it takes him at least five years to become a captain. Therefore, the whole process of fostering a pilot takes at least nine years.


The second channel enables airlines to recruit more quickly. "However, it still takes at least a year and a half to train a retired military pilot on how to use the automatic piloting system of a commercial jet and to teach them English language skills," said Zhang Lei, the Spring Airlines spokesman, adding that for airlines that is still a long time.


Most private airlines lure experienced pilots from State-owned airlines and are willing to pay a transfer fee of between 700,000 (US$87,500) and 2.1 million yuan (US$262,500) as compensation. That is the standard set by the CAAC for each pilot, but "the actual transfer fee we pay is more than the maximum limit," Zhang said.


In one case, the transfer fee was reported to be 12 million yuan (US$1.5 million).


The cost of training one pilot for four years is about 700,000 yuan (US$87,500). By comparison, recruiting foreign pilots or co-pilots costs only the salary, which averages about the same.


"In this situation, hiring foreign pilots is an economic way of solving the shortage," Zhang said.


Of course, foreigners do have to learn Chinese. For Viegas, that does not seem to be a problem. Besides Portuguese, Brazil's principal language, he has already learned to speak English, Spanish, German and French.


Two years before he decided to work in China, he took his first Chinese language course, but gave it up because "it was too difficult."


And yet the idea of working in China still appealed to him. He was a captain for VASP and experienced in flying Boeing 737s. In 2004 a friend working for Jet Cargo asked him whether he would like to work in Shenzhen.


"I asked a few people where Shenzhen is, but nobody knew," he said.


When he learnt Shenzhen Airlines was planning to double its fleet, he decided to take a look. He sent his information to an agency.


"I got my first flying licence in 1980," he said. "I have been working in the civil aviation sector for more than 20 years, as a pilot or an instructor."


At the interview with the airline, he learnt about China's aviation growth plans, which made him even more determined to join the airline. Plus, the salary Shenzhen offered was "satisfying," he said. It was more than he had earned in Brazil, but less than what could be expected in Europe and Japan.


Viegas had to take a few more tests to get his pilot's licence in China, but he passed them all. Next came 40 hours of training with Chinese instructors, Viegas' first flight in China was from Shenzhen to Chengdu.


"I will always remember the flight because it also happened to be on my birthday, October 9," he said.


Although his Chinese is improving, the airline always assigns Chinese pilots good at English to work with Viegas. "I feel comfortable working with them," he said. "There is no difficulty communicating."


His Chinese colleagues feel equally comfortable with him.


"He is a nice captain, not as dominating as some Chinese pilots who are used to giving orders," said Wang Wengang, one of Viegas' co-pilots. "But when a situation arises that requires a captain to make a decision, we can count on him."


In turn, Viegas is learning from his Chinese colleagues, mostly useful Chinese words and sentences. Added to what he learns on the street and from programs on TV, he is now able to communicate reasonably well.


As a bachelor living with his mother, he has a life that's less complex than those of many other Brazilian pilots in China, who have to support their families. Viegas swims, rides a bicycle, plays piano for two hours a day, or goes to barbecues with friends.


"Life in China is more relaxed than the one I had in Brazil," he said.


One of the good things about living in his community is that there are restaurants serving food from all parts of the world. He can eat Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian, Brazilian and Korean food.


When Shenzhen Airlines hired 40 more Brazilian pilots last month, Viegas knew his support base of friends would grow.


"I was surprised when I saw so many (Brazilian pilots) at a staff meeting last week," Viegas said. "It is really emotional for me to see because the company is really growing."


"My present plan is to keep working here so I can watch the diving and gymnastics during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games," he said.


When he came to China in 2004, he watched Chinese athletes win many medals at the Athens Olympics on TV. He said the performances of divers Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia, and Liu Xiang's gold-medal victory in the 110-metre hurdles especially impressed him.


"China is on its way to being number one in the world, and I am here seeing it prepare for that," Viegas said. "It will be a really emotional thing to see what Beijing will be like in 2008."


For Jorge Barra Viegas, the feelings he has for the country are almost patriotic but that is perhaps not surprising for one whose roots might well have begun in China 4,000 years ago.


(China Daily September 15, 2006)

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