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Invaluable Skills of Life

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(Article contributed by Luke LEE, a graduate of STAA, Year 2012)

Hi there! My name is Luke and I completed my commercial pilot licence with STAA in Dec 2009. I'm here today to share my journey of becoming a commercial pilot and getting my first jet job.

First, let it be said that becoming a pilot is not an easy task. It's not just about the long nights you need to put into getting your flying licence and completing your ATPLs. It's also about having the determination and perseverance to succeed in this particular line of work. Getting that first job is not easy. If you even think or feel you deserve to go into an airline right after completion of your commercial licence, then this line of work is not for you. 

However, if you are willing to do what it takes and give up the comforts of your life as you know it, then my story starts in October 2008 where I decided to sign up with STAA to obtain my pilot licence. After 14 months of great fun and of course, hard work in Ballarat, Australia, I obtained my Australian commercial pilot licence and frozen ATPLs. It would be another 6 months before I would come out of my first successful interview. This was a difficult period needless to say. It was a long time to endure and I always wonder about when I would get that first job and if at all.

So, I was finally offered that first job! (and on hindsight, 6 months is not a very long time in the big scheme of life). All I had to do now was accept the job right? Well I had to think long and hard about it and I came so close to turning it down. You see, it was not anything like what I had imagined when I decided to get my pilot licence for I too, fell into the expectations trap. I expected a well paying airline job in Singapore. It was not to be the case. This job was not based in Singapore, it was not to fly a nice shiny jet aircraft and it didn't pay well at all. This job was instead based in Indonesia where I would be an First Officer on a Cessna Grand Caravan C208B turbine aircraft for a company called Susi Air and where I was paid less than the cleaner you see on the streets of Singapore. It was after much consideration that I decided to take it as I came to the conclusion that if I turned the job down, I would probably never attain my ambition of becoming a pilot. 

I never saw my life the way it turned out from the years between 2008 till present. Before I took up this career, I used to sit behind a desk in an office tucked away in a corner of Singapore. Had I decided not to take the job offer, a guy behind a desk would probably be the story of my life. Now I can say with great pride and relief that this is not the case. Instead, I can now say that from the years between 2008 till present, I trained as a pilot and started my first job as first officer on a Cessna Grand Caravan. It was a job that Captain Chira Fernando, the head of training from STAA had once told me I would never regret taking up and I must say that he was absolutely right. I didn't see it coming but I had the time of my life in Indonesia. 

Flying the caravan is great great fun! Its handles very nicely and is a very versatile aircraft whereby you can put it down in just about anywhere. It has short take off and landing (STOL) capability and you can come in fully loaded at approximately 8700 pounds and come to a complete stop in about 600 feet. The experience of bombing the caravan onto the runway and putting it down in that kind of distance is pretty exciting! 

I also had the opportunity to travel all over Indonesia to places like Medan (Sumatra), Balikpapan (Kalimantan), Kupang (West Timor) among others and also to remote areas in Western New Guinea (Papua) where if you were to fly to a strip called Illaga which is around 7500 feet in elevation, you'd be able to see just about the only equatorial glacier in the world to my knowledge. This is also the area where Puncak Jaya (one of the 7 summits and you also get to see it) is located. Combine the sights you see in the air with being able to laze in the clear blue waters of the southern pacific ocean (or the Indian ocean for the matter) after work and you'd get to do something quite a bit different. 

It has also been a privilege to have met the people I've met throughout my 2 years at Susi Air. Almost all the pilots in this company are expats. They come from all over the globe. I really mean all over the globe. Norwegians, Dutch, Finnish, Czechoslovakians, French, Italians, Spanish, Canadians, Americans, South Africans, Singaporeans, Indonesians, Australians and New Zealanders are among the nationalities that make up the cohort and when you meet such a diverse field of people, you certainly learn a thing of two about life and about yourself that you'd never pick up from being in Singapore alone. 

After a year of running all around Indonesia as a first officer, the company made me a captain and based me in Medan. This is of course the highlight of my career thus far. The experience I gained being captain is needless to say invaluable. I found out firsthand what it really means to be the person making the decisions and to be responsible for those decisions. You learn to become decisive and effective quickly and this experience among others will follow me and benefit me everywhere I go. Medan has always been my favourite base. It offers a little of everything. There is the city, there is good food, there are the sights (flying over the beautiful lake toba is a fantastic experience), there are the challenging strips and the Sumatran weather and you get to practice the ILS approach every time you return to Medan Polonia Airport if you want to. 

It would also be here in Medan that I would meet my present employer. This would be Pacific Flight Services. After finishing up a set of sectors and coming back to Medan one afternoon, I chanced upon the pilots from PFS as they were there on business. After they found out that I too was a Singaporean, they put me in contact with the management and I was subsequently offered an interview to which I was successful. 

I've been with this company for almost a year now and it has been a fantastic journey! I started my flying with PFS (Pacific Flight Services) on the Learjet 45. It was needless to say that flying a twin engine jet is very different from the Caravan that I was used to. Things happen very quickly on a jet. It is fast and climbs quickly. If you are not on top of what is going on, a few things can happen and they are all not good. You will over speed, bust altitude, come in too high or too fast or not have time to configure the aircraft for landing. I of course had to go through this transition and thanks to very good instruction and patience from my captains at PFS, it did not take me too long to become comfortable flying the Lear 45. 

In addition to learning the behavior of jet aircraft, I was also exposed to international operations. This is a whole different ball game compared with the regional flying experience I gained in Indonesia. Back then, I had all the knowledge of the fields and what to expect in my head. These days, there is quite a bit more information concerned and it is a different process to prepare for an arrival or departure especially considering that as a charter company, we do not fly fixed routes. We operate to random and unfamiliar destinations a lot. To name a few, I've visited Dubai, Osaka, Taipei, Sydney, Guangzhou, Xinjiang, Biak (which was interesting because I was based there for a bit in my Susi air days), Colombo, Kathmandu and many others. Proper preparation and planning with reference to the Jeppesen plates is essential. If planned correctly, things go pretty much the way you were expecting. However, ATC does like, sometimes to put a spanner in the works and coping with these sudden changes come with experience and as mentioned, preparation and planning. You need to factor in alternate scenarios as well especially when arriving into the bigger international airports. 

All of this, I have learnt from my time with PFS and I will forever be grateful to the company for the opportunity and to my captains for their excellent instruction, effort and patience. 

To top things off, PFS has given me a once in a lifetime opportunity recently. About 3 weeks ago today, I came back from my type rating in Dubai on the Gulfstream 550 and I will be flying that aircraft in addition to the Lear 45 as soon as the paperwork to get the rating endorsed in my licence is complete. 

Of course, all this would not be a possibility had I not taken that first step as a pilot trainee with STAA. Words cannot express the happiness and sense of accomplishment I get from making that decision to obtain my pilots licence in 2008. I am very glad to have made this choice and look forward to the adventures and experiences that this choice has allowed me.