PERSPECTIVE: Many in Singapore may think that flying in Singapore is reserved only for those working for the airlines and the military. A lesser known fact, however, is that it's possible to get a Private Pilot's License to fly on your own as well.
30-year-old Yeo Kheng Meng, an Internet of Things (IoT) engineer by profession, shares his journey of obtaining a private pilot license and the General Aviation scene in Singapore.
By Yeo Kheng Meng
Ever since I was young, I have had an interest in aviation.
I joined the NCC(Air) uniformed group in secondary school, although I never really pursued aviation any further, due to my focus on my studies, as well as having no suitable role models to follow.
It was only in September 2017, when my friend Joyce told me that her private pilot friend Roger will be going up to the skies with his Socata TB-10 at Senai Airport in Malaysia.
During the flight, Roger brought us up to the local area near the Senai airport.
It was a short flight of less than half hour but it gave me sufficient interest to set the serious goal of attaining my Private Pilot License (PPL).
I decided to learn how to fly in the U.S.
After the flight, I began to look up my options of obtaining a PPL.
To learn how to fly, one will have to join a flying club or flight school. I found out that most Singaporeans either learn locally, in Johor or in the U.S.
Learning to fly in the U.S. seemed like the best option to me, as the costs of flight training in the U.S. is relatively lower with large training areas. (A full comparison table can be found here.)
The American PPL is also unrestricted, which allows one to fly worldwide on the relatively abundant U.S.-registered aircraft.
During my research, I found a local training company called Flightschool.sg, which provides people foundational aviation knowledge over several months, with the option of going for night classes.
They also have a flight simulator, which allows one to be trained on some basic flight manoeuvres and how to interpret the aircraft instruments.
Aircraft flight training is extremely extensive
In November 2018, I headed over to a U.S. flight school called San Diego Flight Training International (SDFTI), which was based at Montgomery Gibbs Executive Airport (MYF) .
Aircraft flight training, even at the PPL level, is extremely extensive.
Apart from practicing flight manoeuvres, there are also all the legal regulations, airport operations, weather theory to study for, which will be tested in the theory and oral exams.
Before the first solo, the instructor will teach the student pilot the required manoeuvres, stalls, slow flight, ATC communication, emergency handling, and so on.
Only if the instructors deem the student as safe enough, will the student pilot make the solo flight.
Flying solo meant I can no longer depend on my instructor
The first solo flight is considered one of the most important and memorable milestones.
How it works is that a student pilot will first have to demonstrate to the instructor that the flight can be done without any intervention from the instructor.
If the instructor is satisfied, the instructor will wish the best of luck to the student and leave.
When my instructor first left the plane, I initially did not feel any different while taxiing to the runway.
During the takeoff roll, that is when the differences start to feel apparent. Without the weight of the instructor, the plane accelerates and climbs faster than usual.
It was only when the plane lifted off the ground after the take-off roll that I felt the full impact of what I just did.
I am now the only person that can bring myself back to the ground safely. I can no longer look to the side, hoping that my instructor can correct any mistakes or take control, because there is no one there.
There is no room to doubt my abilities, my life is now in my hands!
I would accomplish a few takeoff and landings by myself in this flight. My first landing was a screw-up that needed a go around. Thankfully, I safely accomplished my other landings.
Hours of preparation goes into planning for a cross-country flight
After the first solo flight, the emphasis now is training to make a solo cross-country flight. Plenty of cross-country flights will be made to other airports during this phase.
I made one such flight with an instructor to Hemet-Ryan Airport (KHMT), which is about 50 nautical miles away from MYF.
Hours of preparation goes into planning for a cross-country flight. I had to work through maps and weather forecasts to plan the navigational waypoints through the flight.
After my first solo cross-country landing at Torrance Airport, I took this photo to send to my instructor to assure him that I made it there safely.
There is plenty of learning to be done after getting the license
I passed my checkride about 10 weeks after entering the U.S. It was 10 weeks of hard work of studying and an average of twice-daily flight lessons to finish things as fast as possible before my leave ran out.
After passing the checkride, one of my instructors would say that PPL is a license to learn. And he was right in hindsight.
So one cannot talk about PPL training, without talking about what happens after the PPL.
After returning to Singapore, I chose to join Seletar Flying Club (SFC) to maintain my flying skills. SFC has aircraft that can be rented at affordable rates.
To carry passengers, all pilots must maintain flight currency, which requires them to accomplish at least three takeoffs and landings in the preceding 90 days.
On average, I fly about one to two times a month to maintain this currency, and also to share the joy of aviation with more people.
Pilots can rent the aircraft from SFC, which charges an hourly rate of S$470.
I first started out by getting a taste of flying in Singapore’s training airspace. Even in our tiny airspace, one can still get breathtaking sights of Singapore.
Here is a video of a local flight with a friend of mine, Rahul. We were going through some practice flight manoeuvres in August, 2020.
I had the privilege of bringing Roger on my first passenger-carrying flight as pilot-in-command, in June 2019.
Carrying passengers introduces a completely different dynamic, which one is never exposed to during training.
There is the giving of mandatory safety briefings, the element of distraction, and ensuring they are well on top of the duties of conducting the flight safely.
It's possible to conduct night flights in Singapore
Prior to the pandemic, club members regularly embark on cross-country flights. Favourite destinations include Johor, Malacca and Tioman.
The first international flight I made from Johor Senai Airport to Seletar Airport was one of the legs from Malacca to Singapore.
This was done under the guidance of experienced private pilot Dr Fadzil.
As a side note, it is actually possible to conduct night flights in Singapore, although only over Seletar Airport.
I recently flew with some pilot friends at night in Dec. 2020. It's not uncommon for private pilots to fly with fellow pilots on the same plane, or with friends, due to cost.
One can still learn how to fly without joining an airline or the military
The cheapest way to learn how to fly is to go through the Singapore Youth Flying Club, be an SIA cadet pilot, or go through RSAF training.
However, if one can’t use those routes, the door is not totally closed.
As I have shown, one can choose to do it on your own instead. Earning the basic PPL is enough to satiate my flying dream for now.
Many aspiring airline pilots who did not go through the official SIA cadet pilot programme, or join the RSAF actually saved the entire 6-figure sum necessary for commercial flight training by themselves, just to have a chance at snagging a job as a pilot.
I salute the people who go to such lengths to fulfil their dreams.
The opportunity costs are high, but the reward is worth it
Nothing is impossible, but something difficult to achieve will never come without hard work and sacrifices.
Barring any medical issues, almost everyone can learn to fly if you set your heart and mind to it and are willing to make the sacrifices to earn those wings.
I had to sacrifice a lot of time, money and opportunities to achieve this goal.
With the resources devoted to this, I could perhaps have obtained a Master's degree, or perhaps travelled the world.
However, the feeling of commanding an aircraft in the sky is a privilege few get to experience in this world.
To an external observer, the opportunity costs are high, but, ask any pilot and they will still say it is worth it.
In my time with SFC after getting my PPL, I have made many friends who come from all walks of life.
Air-traffic controllers, airline pilots, accountants, engineers, doctors; all of them are united with a common interest in flying for fun. It is a small and close-knit community, especially in Singapore.
I realised many have the misconception that flying is limited to those working for airlines and the military.
However, General Aviation is actually the most common air traffic in larger countries, such as in the U.S.
With all that I've said, I hope to show that being part of the General Aviation community is something that is achievable to an ordinary person as well.
Top image via Yeo Kheng Meng.