As a child, Oliver Racz was always drawing buildings and streets from a bird's-eye view. [China Daily]
Hungarian's maiden flight to country as a 9-year-old forges a lifelong fascination with jets
When 9-year-old Oliver Racz climbed aboard a commercial jet for the first time to come to China, his dream to fly was well established.
"According to my parents, the first thing I ever said - before 'mama' and 'papa' - was 'There flies the helicopter!' This was almost at the age of 3, when my parents were beginning to be worried that I would not talk. I was definitely into airplanes at a very young age, I guess."
That first flight for young Racz was in 1991, and although the Beijing-based flight instructor from Hungary has been in many planes since, that day is still vivid 20 years later.
"At that time cockpit visits were quite normal and I did get in the flight deck of a Boeing 747-200 - classic instrumentation with lots and lots of dials, and a three-man crew with a flight-engineer station," he says.
"From that time on if I was not drawing airplanes taking off or landing, I was drawing buildings and streets from a bird's-eye view."
That's no surprise to anyone who visits Racz's social-networking pages. While his friends might have pictures of themselves standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or alongside Mao Zedong's portrait at Tian'anmen Square, his profile photos are mostly aerial views from his travels: Looking through the clouds at a rainstorm over Fort Pierce in the US state of Florida. The startling blue curves of the Crooked River seen from 7,000 meters above the state of Oregon. Sun gleaming off tundra ice somewhere above Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic.
"My life revolves around flying," Racz writes on his home page at CouchSurfing.com. "There are always a lot of new things to learn and one can never know enough about flying."
Racz could say the same about China.
"The first time I came I was a little lad," he says. "It wasn't my idea, but I wasn't against it."
His father was the military attach at the Hungarian embassy. Racz's parents decided that culture immersion would be good for their son, who promptly found himself enrolled in a Chinese primary school.
"I liked it," he says. "Having to learn the language was not such a big problem for me. What was more difficult to get into was the different method of teaching." Students were not taught creative thinking or correlation, he says.
In drawing class, he remembers, "the students who could copy a picture best got the best grades. And when we read poetry, we would be taught the book's interpretation of the poem, but we were not encouraged to try to think about our own interpretations".
After two years in a system of learning by rote, the boy was moved to the Pakistan embassy school for several reasons.
"My older sister was already there," he says. "And the Pakistani school was styled like a British curriculum, so as a European it was more familiar to me. Plus, my parents decided that I had acquired some basic Chinese and now it was time to learn English."
The family went back to Hungary in 1995, but Racz had not had his fill of China.
"It was sort of strange, but I found it much more difficult to go home than I did to come to China in the first place," he says. "Back at home I found I didn't really fit in any more. I always wanted to talk about different cultures and travel, but that wasn't relevant or interesting to other kids."
So when his father was reposted in China in 2001, just after Racz had finished high school, he was eager to come back to Beijing with his parents.
"This time, the choice was mine," he says. "I had good memories of China, and I wanted to learn Chinese better anyway, so it made sense to me." Racz was accepted at Beijing Language and Culture University.
"At university the teaching method was better than what I remembered from primary school," he says. "They are more used to foreign students there, too."
But all the while, his dreams of flying persisted.
"Before we moved back to Hungary in 1995, I met the new military attache who would replace my father in Beijing," he says. "He had flown gliders at a young age. He recommended that I take up gliding back home if I was really interested in aviation."
Racz did, signing up for lessons at age 14 and making his first solo flight on his 15th birthday, "the first day I could legally do it!"
He joined a flying club as a teenager, but flew only gliders. "I was worried about the stereotype - that you had to be some kind of superman to be a pilot," he remembers. "You had to be a genius at math and physics."
But in 2005, another cockpit visit during a flight back home from Beijing convinced him that flying would be his profession.
"I spent three hours of the 10-hour trip in the cockpit, chatting with the pilots, and they said, 'Don't listen to all that stuff'. They made me realize that I could probably become a pilot. I had to at least try."
A year later, Racz was off to a flight training school in the US, and from there things just flew. Now armed with both commercial and flight-training licenses, Racz instructs would-be Chinese pilots.
"We are supposed to be teaching in English," Racz says. But the demand for pilots is growing faster than it can be met, and Racz sometimes finds it's necessary to use the Chinese he has learned over the past two decades.
"It's hard to explain aerodynamics in a language somebody doesn't understand," he says. "And when you are in the air, there's not a lot of time to be constantly translating."
But the language barrier is a challenge the Civil Aviation Administration of China works hard to meet, he says, and learning English is central to planning for future pilots.
Now, Racz hopes to be hired as a first officer by a Chinese airline, the first step to a captain's seat.
And while he has "a bit of an obsession" with a bird's-eye view, he also enjoys photography and seeing China from a bicycle. He's traveled to more than 20 of China's provinces and made time to cycle through many of them, including a 2004 journey from Dequin, near the Tibet autonomous region in northern Yunnan province, south to Guizhou province.
"I got stuck in Guizhou in heavy rain for four days when the road washed away," he says. "It was very rural, and I had a great time staying with villagers on the way. Foreigners were so unusual there that people were almost fighting to host me. The hospitality was wonderful."
"You can see much more of the world if you slow down and stop to chill at places where a bus would just pass by," Racz says.
Now he's planning a 10-day cycling trip next year from northern Sichuan province through southern Gansu province and then on to Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Until now, he's only seen those western parts of China from 9,000 meters above ground.