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Age Is Just A Number

Hi! I’m Shawn Heng. On 10th March 2020, I started my airline journey on the Boeing 777 fleet with a local airline.

To be forthright, being a pilot never crossed my mind because back in the old days, eyesight requirements for the Air Force were stringent and my myopia degree simply meant that it was not a possibility.

At age 20, I joined the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) as an Air Traffic Controller and served for 17 years. All can be traced back to the movie Pushing Tin, which fuelled my initial drive to pursue a career in aviation.

I am married to my beloved wife, Michele for 11 years and we have an 8-year-old daughter, Desiree.

My Family: Michele and Desiree.

Throughout my career in the control tower, I often imagined what it would be on the other side of the radio, as a pilot. My curiosity was piqued and for the longest time, the idea of attaining a Private Pilot Licence (PPL) remained on my mind. Alas, military career progression, family commitments and cash outlay meant that the thought had to take a backseat.

With time, I explored other avenues on flying and similarly eyesight requirements were slowly relaxed over the years to a point where a commercial license was accessible to myself and I thought, why not? At age 37, it’s now or never, to live the dream or risk regrets further down the road.

After serving out my military bond in 2017, I applied for the part-time ground school programme at Revion Ground School. During that period, I also needed to prepare for the L3Harris selection interview, aptitude test and pass the Class 1 Medical exams.

The part-time programme was the obvious choice as I could:

  1. still hold on to my military job;

  2. ensure minimum disruption to my family; and

  3. re-evaluate my decision should I lack the required aptitude.

Ground school was especially tough as I needed to constantly juggle between work, family and studies. Classes were scheduled on 2-3 weekday nights and 1 weekend daytime (total of 3-4 days) on a weekly basis. My work required me to be on night duties for some days, hence, not much time remained for my family.

It occurred to me that revisions late into the night would be the new norm (from 10 pm to past midnight). Other than a few subjects which were content-heavy and memory-intensive such as Meteorology and Instrumentation, the rest were taught at a manageable pace.

With sheer determination and hard work, I completed ground school in ten months. I achieved first attempt passes in all 14 ATPL papers and Revion was pivotal to this.

Youhao was committed in my learning from the get-go and one could feel the passion and his will for you to succeed. The school took apart the ATPL curriculum and designed a part-time method of delivery that was both time and cost-effective.

Presenting a token of appreciation to Youhao.

With the full support of my wife and enough savings, I bit the bullet and set myself a challenge to see how far I’m able to get with this. I decided to quit and embark on a journey to becoming a commercial pilot although I was approaching the peak of my military career and being so comfortable in my job. Looking back, I was probably a little rash in undertaking this ambitious journey without any employment security.

Drawing the curtains on a fulfilling 17 years, I was grateful to resign as Chief Training Officer in 207 Squadron (an Air Traffic Control Tower Squadron based at Paya Lebar Air Base, Singapore), with the rank of MAJOR and am immensely proud to have trained the next generation of Air Traffic Controller.

207 Squadron, My Home.

Upon completion of ground school, I left the military and Revion organised for me to continue my flight training with L3Harris Airline Academy at Hamilton, New Zealand. Looking back now, my wife was a constant pillar of strength as she took care of the family single-handedly, especially during my time away in New Zealand, for the flying phase of training. My wife gave me wings to fly away from home and I fulfilled my promise, to return home with another pair of wings.

Departure to New Zealand on 4th October 2018.

As an ab-initio cadet, the learning curve was especially steep from the first month of training leading up to the first solo check flight. Although flight training was intense, it was overall manageable with the systematic and progressive training methodology of the academy.

My first flight!

One of the more common area cadets struggles with in the beginning was radiotelephony calls. My experience as an Air Traffic Controller helped me to overcome this relatively quickly and I was able to focus on flying the aircraft. Albeit, more concepts and techniques were introduced to us as we progressed on and my mental capacity was stretched with every flight, always.

My First Solo Flight on 29th November 2018.

Like everyone who has been through flight training, we all have our fair share of memorable experiences. Once, my aircraft indicated abnormally high engine oil pressure shortly after being airborne. Knowing that if the instruments were accurate, there was a possibility of an imminent engine failure. I proceeded to hold off in safe airspace, conducted checks using the flight manual and returned to base, landing safely without further drama.

The next incident was slightly tenser. Due to a burst tyre on landing roll, my aircraft was grounded until maintenance could be conducted. That would not have been an issue if I were landing back at Hamilton airport where our academy base was located. Yet, it was during a flight to Great Barrier Island, located approximately 20NM off the coasts of New Zealand’s North Island.

This resulted in me being stranded on a remote island for a night until maintenance could schedule a flight out to where I am the following day and sort out the Cessna.

With every experience, there would always be takeaways. The most important thing is to always have the aircraft flying safely and in control before troubleshooting any issues while airborne. That is why the academy always focuses on, in my opinion, the most crucial aviation mantra on prioritisation: aviate, navigate, then communicate.

Keeping in mind that anything could happen at any time, I am always kept on my toes during flight. We are all trained to always expect the unexpected. As a pilot, safety is a core competency above all else and we must hold this value sacred. No compromises.

After a year in New Zealand, I achieved a total of 206.7 hours, 136 flights and 314 take-offs/landings. Having flown on four aircraft types, to 14 different airports, exploring almost half of North Island; these were wonderful memories to keep for life.

Navigation Flight to Auckland.

I attained the CAAS CPL on 18th September 2019 and achieved good results; with first attempt passes in all training and check flights.

CPL Flight Test Passed on 18th September 2019.

I forged countless friendships throughout this journey; friends spanning four continents from Oceania (Australia & New Zealand), Asia (Malaysia, Hong Kong, Brunei, China, India, Saudi & Nepal), Africa (Kenya & Ghana), to Europe (UK, Denmark & France).

My 38th Birthday Celebration on 23rd August 2019.

Returning to Singapore with my licence in September 2019 and I began actively sending out resumes and job applications to airlines around the world. I was well aware that at my age of 38, it was an uphill task finding employment as an airline pilot. On another hand, with the excellent reputation and reach of both Revion and L3Harris in the aviation industry, I was quietly confident that I would succeed as long as I kept the faith strong.

My Commercial Pilot Licence!

True enough, I received an email from a local airline for an interview and a simulator assessment for the Direct Entry Second Officer (DESO) programme in December 2019.

By being true to myself & my goals, I stood firmly on my principles and ultimately convinced the panel. Thereafter, with a successful simulator assessment, I received an employment offer from the airline.

Dad and Sister witnessing my airline contract signing on 21st February 2020.

In my free time, I further my passion for aviation by being part of the General Aviation (GA) scene in Singapore. I joined the Seletar Flying Club as a member in November 2019 and hope to help promote GA flying in Singapore.

As I am still serving military reservist, I continue to maintain my controlling currency with my squadron for as long as I can. Not many people can say that they get to enjoy the best of both worlds (as an Air Traffic Controller and as a pilot). For that, I feel truly fortunate.

A proud Dad at Seletar.

Taking to the skies with my lovely wife at Seletar.

Last but not least, I hope my story could inspire others to chase towards their dreams, regardless of age. I would like to end off with this meaningful quote.

"It’s never too late to get started on a new path. Let not your past or the opinions of others hold you back from going after what you truly want. You are the captain of your ship, so steer yourself in the direction of your dreams." – Anonymous



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