Caleb Egbago’s life is up in the air — just not in the way he planned.
The 25-year-old had already secured his private pilot’s license in his home country of Nigeria, when he decided to take a chance and pursue his commercial license in Canada.
In October 2017 he touched down in B.C. and began what was supposed to be a one-year program at Blue Bird Flight Academy in Chilliwack.
Three years and $40,000 later, though, Egbago says he’s no closer to piloting a commercial flight.
“The last time I flew was November,” last year, he told CBC News.
“[In January] they told me they were going to let me know when the aircraft is available and when there’s an instructor. That went on for a while — about a month — and I didn’t get the call.”
Egbago and three other international students say they want a refund, claiming ongoing delays in their pilot training eventually led them to attend different schools. The students also allege that Blue Bird administrators stopped responding to their communications as recently as early June, that the school didn’t have enough aircraft as promised, had an unclear, unscheduled system for instructor holidays, and often repeated student training without explanation.
Egbago says if the company doesn’t refund his money, he’d like to see it shut down.
“They are going to keep getting other students,” he said.
Students allege instructor shortages
All four students allege the delays stem, at least in part, from a shortage of instructors.
Moses Ajala, 18, also from Nigeria, says he completed his Private Pilot License (PPL) training with Blue Bird in August of 2019 for roughly $25,000.
He could have stayed to pursue his Commercial Pilot License (CPL) but left because he didn’t like how the school operated, particularly when it came to instruction.
He says the school owes him a refund because he was told he could get his PPL and CPL in one year, as outlined in his letter of acceptance, but it took nine months just to complete the former.
“There were times where my instructor went on holidays and I was, like, at home doing nothing,” said Ajala.
“[Then] he comes back, we do the training all over from the start — I realized I was repeating training I’ve done already.”
Moazzam Chaudhry, 19, originally from Pakistan, claims he was told he could complete his CPL and PPL in one year, but soon realized the school lacked students, instructors and even sometimes the aircraft needed to train.
Egbago, too, says he was left waiting for a plane that could fit him. He stands six feet, three inches tall, and weighs 235 pounds.
“Because of my size, I can only fit into the [Cessna] 172,” he said. “The school promised there are two  aircraft, but when I came there was just one.”
A contract signed by Egbago and shared with CBC News says the student would use a Cessna 172 for training. The document does not indicate how many Cessna 172s would be available.
School denies allegations
The school’s director and operations manager Jaspreet Sodhi, 28, denies the allegations.
He says the school is currently not offering flight training because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, prior to that, he says, the company had four aircraft — two Cessna 152s, a 172 and a Piper PA-34 Seneca — and maintained a ratio of seven students per instructor per aircraft (That’s 28 students being taught by four instructors).
The school has no planes right now, and all the instructors have been laid off because of the pandemic, Sodhi said via email.
He said most of the training delays were because of the students, for various reasons. He did not directly answer questions about whether training was repeated or about how instructors’ vacations were communicated to students.
Sodhi concedes that Ajala’s instructor went on vacation last year, but says Ajala was allowed to fly solo. He denies that Ajala was left with nothing to do.
He also says the school won’t refund a student’s money simply because they didn’t complete their training.
“If someone did not obtain a pilot’s license, that is at their own expense because we provided the service and the training as per our contract and our policies,” said Sodhi in an interview.
CBC News asked Sodhi for an interview with the school’s owners, but was refused.
It’s not clear who owns the school. Sodhi denies he is the owner. He says it is a family company with shareholders, which seems to be confirmed by B.C. Registry Services documents.
The students, meanwhile, had growing concerns. Thaddeus Mutuku, from Nairobi, suspected the school had shut down a few months ago with no notice.
“None of the students were communicated to, which is quite unprofessional,” said Mutuku, 23, “Not in email and not on call. Nothing.”
Egbago, too, says the school shut its doors in January with no communication. When officials didn’t return his calls, he says he went to the site and saw it had been cleared out.
Sodhi says the school re-opened on January 9, but that student’s couldn’t fly because snow hadn’t been removed from the airport taxi and runway area.
According to B.C. Registry Services documents, Blue Bird Flight Academy changed it’s name to Sky Hawk Aviation Inc. in May. The registered office listed on the document matches one listed for Blue Bird Flight Academy.
Sodhi, who is named as a director of the new company, acknowledges the change but denies he has abandoned students.
He says “the school was never cleared out,” but when CBC News was there on Monday, its main floor has been stripped of all decor and appeared empty.
“The company remains the same,” he said.
He claims the school emailed Egbago and Mutuku in June and July, respectively, but neither student responded. Egbago says he attempted to meet Sodhi after that message, but to no avail. CBC News asked Mutuku about this but did not hear back before deadline.
Sodhi says Chaudhry met with his instructor in January 2019, collected his training log book and “was never seen after that.” Text messages show, however, that Chaudry was texting Sodhi in January this year. Sodhi does not appear to have replied.
Ordered to pay refunds
Students have sued Blue Bird for refunds in the past — three times since 2016 according to B.C. court documents.
In a 2018 settlement, the company agreed to refund $9,947 in tuition fees to a Ghana man who said his study permit was declined.
That same year, the company was ordered again to pay more than $6,058 to another student who alleged he had been planning to attend the school to get his PPL, but was “issued a termination letter… without any valid reason”.
In 2019, the company was ordered to pay $5,164 to another international student who withdrew from the school. Documents filed this year in Surrey Civil Court, meanwhile, show Blue Bird Flight Academy sued that student for $6,362.42 in unpaid rent, as well as unpaid exam fees, training equipment, and the unpaid balance on a MacBook Pro the student had purchased from the school. The case is still before the courts.