Seoul Plane: Observations on General Aviation in South Korea

July 10th, 2014 by Martin Rottler

It’s 80 something degrees with a humidity level to match, probably higher on the airport ramp and I’m already sweltering in a dark suit and tie. If this scene were unfolding in Ohio, I’d be looking out the window of the OSU flight school and finding myself happy to be inside and under the outlet of a powerful air conditioner. The thing is, I’m not in Ohio. I’m 6,700 miles away, standing beside a Cessna 172 on the flight school ramp of Hanseo University in Taean, South Korea (2 hours from Seoul), shaking hands with a Korean flight instructor who I’m pretty sure thinks I’m way more important than I actually am and is quite nervous. It’s hot, it’s humid, and I’m sweating through several layers of formal meeting clothing, but I’m not going to say no to an opportunity to fly a Cessna 172 on the opposite side of the world from where I normally fly. On tap for that hot summer day in 2013? A leisurely 30 minute flight along the Korean coast, returning to the Hanseo airport.

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Fast forward to today, and I find myself back once again in what has quickly become my second home for the third time in three years, doing a second stint as a Visiting Professor for Korea Aerospace University‘s International Summer Program. A fantastic opportunity for college students, this year’s program brings together 50+ students from 17 nationalities and 10+ universities for college courses, cultural experiences and behind-the-scenes tours of the Incheon International Airport and Korean Air.

In my time here over the past three years, I’ve quickly developed many relationships with current and future aviation professionals across all levels and parts of the industry. It’s given me a unique view into the aviation world here.

It’s a Small World

In a country where even the farthest reaches of the peninsula are four or five hours by high speed train from Seoul, GA as a hobby is virtually nonexistent, save for a few small flying clubs, including one at the Osan Air Base catering to mainly Americans. Fifteen years ago, there were only two airlines based in Korea: Asiana and Korean Air. Today, the two behemoths have been joined by six Low Cost Carriers, operating mainly 737s and A320s. The US aviation industry seems like a small world at times but South Korea’s makes it look giant in comparison. Friends, classmates and air force service-mates can often end up working for rival companies. This can be both good and bad–a recommendation can get you a good job in a tough market, but it also becomes very easy for sabotage to occur if you mess up. There are two large aviation universities here, Korea Aerospace University and Hanseo University, with a few smaller programs that have started up in the past decade.

Flight Training Challenges

The path to a Korean Private Pilot License is quite different than the one in the USA. A student at a university here typically flies their first solo here in 45-50 hours and only after mastering many of the PTS maneuvers to a PPL standard prior to sign off. In speaking with some instructors, this seems to have a somewhat chilling effect compared to the US, where a first solo can energize and motivate the student. Senior instructors with a military background can sometimes take a very heavy hand in a figurative and literal sense to students who are unable to perform in the cockpit. This would be seen as very inappropriate in the US, but at this point in time there is very little practical or cultural recourse in the aviation system here.

In light of the very real human factors challenges faced by many airlines here, South Korea represents a very unique and fascinating place to explore the aviation world. I look forward to many more visits and continued work here as airplanes take off and land at the airport just outside the classroom window at KAU!

Martin Rottler

Martin Rottler is a lecturer at the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies, in Columbus, Ohio and a Partner at First Segment. He is a commercial pilot and certificated flight instructor and has worked in general aviation, the airline industry, and international aviation. An avowed "avgeek" from a very early age, Martin maintains academic and personal interests in aviation education, outreach, flight training, and international aviation. He can be found via Twitter at @martinrottler. The views presented on this blog are Martin's and do not represent those of The Ohio State University, the OSU Center for Aviation Studies, or any other organization.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • FrostedCW3

    Thank you Martin. If I’d had to go through what those students have to withstand, I wouldn’t have my PPL right now. (As it was, it took me many years to just get up the funding to learn to fly. Then, 9/11 got In the way, and delayed me for another year.) Isn’t the Korean government looking into improving their “cultural divide” problem in the airlines over there? That might be part of the overall problem for their students.

  • Indy

    Thanks for sharing. I just returned from a 1-year assignment in Korea and flew with the Osan Aero Club. I, too, had heard that GA was virtually non-existent in Korea and was surprised to see some GA around Seoul and other Cessnas in the air that were not fellow Osan Aero Club members. Hopefully it continues to grow.

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