Soaring to new heights: A flight instructor’s journey at the Civil Aviation Training Centre in Hua Hin

Wing Commander Kittichai Changsanoh, Flight Instructor at the Civil Aviation Training Centre attached to Hua Hin Airport

An apex achiever, not a predator.

Khun Chai likes the width of the clean sands of Hua Hin beach, which are good for jogging.  He also likes the mountains, and the clean air that is usually a feature of the local environment, though like me he has despaired of the PM2.5 pollution of the last few months.  If you saw him jogging on the beach, you might look twice because he is a very handsome young man, but he insists he is just an ordinary person.

Ordinary yes, when it comes to his friendly, personable nature and the way he has of putting people at ease with him, but delve just a little further and start to understand some of his vast achievements for one so young, and like me, you will quickly decide that this man is anything but ordinary.

This mild-mannered man, when he is back in his uniform, is actually Wing Commander Kittichai Changsanoh, Flight Instructor at the Civil Aviation Training Centre attached to Hua Hin Airport, and reserve member of the Royal Thai Airforce.  The Civil Aviation Training Centre was the first of its kind established in Thailand in 1961, and is still the country’s largest, though now CATC now has its headquarters in Bangkok and also conducts the practical aspects and lessons of the many professional training courses it runs at Khon Kaen Airport, as well as Hua Hin airport. 

Khun Chai has been an instructor at the Centre since 2019, educating the 100 or so aspiring pilots that it regularly had each year, both Thai and foreigners.  That number dwindled dramatically as Covid-19 closed international borders and the domestic and international aviation industries ground to a halt.  CATC has been slowly but steadily increasing its student numbers as the situation with the pandemic has stabilised, however the current global oversupply of pilots, along with reduced flight schedules, still leaves some people in doubt about pursuing training or upgrading their qualifications in the industry. While CATC Hua Hin specialises in pilot training in both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, CATC also provides internationally recognised Degrees and Master’s Degrees in Aviation Science and Aviation Management and additional training in related professions such as aircraft maintenance and air traffic control.

By all accounts, Khun Chai had a normal childhood. He is the youngest of three sons to a middle-class family of rice growers in Nakhon Pathom, an hour or so drive west of Central Bangkok. Chai recalls a picture of him on a horse on Hua Hin beach as a souvenir of his first ever trip to Hua Hin as a child, and his happiest childhood memories are from a family road trip when he was about 10 years of age, where the family basically circumnavigated the entire country. Khun Chai’s older brothers are both still involved in the family business, one combining this with being a golf professional. 

But fate had a different path in store for Khun Chai.  A former school mate who had been admitted to the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School came back to speak at the secondary school campus Chai was attending in Kamphaeng Saen, and the instant Chai saw this boy looking proud and distinguished in his Airforce Cadet uniform, he was hooked.

Chai’s life has been influenced by having no sisters.  It meant that his mother taught the boys to cook, including his favourite dish of simple, fried morning glory, to iron their clothes and other independence skills which have held Chai in good stead (and made him attractive husband-material, in my opinion!). Good thing too, as at the tender age of 16, Chai left home to attend Military Academy training, first with the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School for two years, then moving on to the Royal Thai Air Force Academy.

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Although Chai puts his high-level achievement in these places down to sheer hard work and dedication to his studies, there was undoubtedly a good deal of innate intelligence in the mix. Chai’s enthusiasm and talent were quickly noted and after just 6 months at the RTAFA, he won a scholarship to study in Germany.  I can only imagine how proud his family was at that moment.

All in all, Khun Chai was to spend almost 7 years studying and working in Germany before returning to live in Thailand, the first year being almost totally dedicated to becoming fluent in German before attending Air Force Officer School, the Luftwaffe Academy, a further year in college and then progressing to the University of the Bundeswehr Munich, where he graduated with a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering.

But the pinnacle of his achievement was still to come.  Upon returning to Thailand in 2007 at the age of 25 and re-joining his friends in the Royal Thai Air Force, Chai again diligently worked his way up the rankings. At the conclusion of his training, he was selected to enter the prestigious fighter pilot stream rather that the general military pilot stream. Again, when living at working at Wing 4 Airforce Base, he had the standing after 6 months of fighter pilot training to be accepted into the F-16 training group which meant he would be learning to fly the Royal Thai Air Force’s most powerful and sophisticated fighter aircraft. Khun Chai was on a highway to the danger zone.

At this point it would be totally remiss of me not to draw the Top Gun comparison. I hope readers are old enough to recall the original (and better) Top Gun movie from 1986. I firmly believe that the producers would have chosen Khun Chai for the lead role of Maverick over Tom Cruise had they had the choice. Both men exude charisma, but Khun Chai wins for the many extra centimetres of height.

You may recall the catchphrase used by Maverick and Goose in the movie, “I feel the need… the need for speed!”.  It prompted me to ask Khun Chai if flying the F-16, which has a maximum airspeed of over 2,000 km/h, had turned him into a demon on the roads. He admitted to enjoying speeds of up to 230km/h on German autobahn, but noted that 120km/h is a much more realistic maximum speed on Thai roads.  Neither of us has great expectations of the skill and sense of drivers here.

So, you might ask, are we there yet?  Have we reached the pinnacle of Khun Chai’s achievement?

I tend to agree with his family that his proudest moment to date has been accepting from King Rama IX the sword awarded to graduates from Officer Academies, whether they be in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police or a Military Doctor. Khun Chai expressed great pride to me in being able to serve his King and his country.

As an F-16 pilot, Chai rose right to the very top in a highly competitive field, which should also be a source of personal satisfaction and pride.  Yet Khun Chai is still humble and describes himself as a normal guy.  He even admits to some lingering self-doubt.  He wasn’t familiar with the term “Imposter Syndrome” but I assured him it is a very real phenomenon amongst our highest-achievers and sent him a link.

Khun Chai’s daily job now, as a flight instructor at the CATC Hua Hin, is slightly more pedestrian, slightly more mundane, but still very fulfilling as it allows him to form interpersonal connections with the aspiring pilots he gets to teach.  It will also allow him the more sedate daily lifestyle he seeks as he and his wife intend to start their family. With his military background he is going to be a strict disciplinarian.  Perhaps he will play bad cop to his wife’s good cop?

Living in the moment is the foundation of Khun Chai’s positive outlook on life. At the age of 41, he still has a career expectancy of 19 more years as long as he stays in peak physical condition, for which his favourite jog along Hua Hin beach bodes well. 

Chai has a retirement dream, for which preliminary steps are already in place.  He has acquired a plot of land in Chang Mai where he wants to develop a homestay-style bungalow resort, complete with a coffee-shop which transforms into a wine bar in the evening.  But Chai will be taking it easy on the wine, after one evening many years ago now in Germany when he cast aside his normal inhibitions with the aid of rather-a-few-too-many and jumped on stage in a club to dance. I could tell this memory was still a strong one.

Another of Khun Chai’s dreams sounded to me like a movie scene. He would love to be able to play the piano, at maestro standard I assume, so he could get up from his table in a restaurant, move casually to the piano in the corner and start playing with such expertise that the restaurant immediately went silent and everyone stopped to listen. There is merit to this dream and Khun Chai has more than proven he has the drive to achieve it, if he so desires.

Khun Chai values strong, personal relationships and couldn’t live without his family. He has recently built a home for his parents and his mother has joined him in Hua Hin but his father is yet to be ready to give up his life on the family farm. Neither a dog nor a cat lover, Khun Chai told me his favourite animal is the eagle.  No surprise really, when it is the soaring apex predator in the air.

If you share Khun Chai’s interest in all things aeronautic, and are aged between the ages of 15 and 55, you can arrange to take part in a demonstration flight through CATC at Hua Hin airport.  You too might find your calling in the skies.