Born To Fly — For The Love of Aviation

We chat with 5 business leaders, who are members of WOA Flying Club and how they are taking their passion for flying to the skies.
by Charmian Leong

Credit: Athirah Annissa

Singapore barely has enough roads for all the supercars and their respective clubs to indulge in, so anyone can be forgiven for assuming that flying around here as a hobby would be a non-starter. But the reality is that there is a sizeable community of passionate aviators who fly in, around, and beyond the region thanks to flying clubs that do everything from offering flying lessons and arranging group trips to organising monthly brunches and trivia nights for its members.

It was because of this social aspect that member Jason Bay chose the WOA Flying Club by WingsOverAsia. “It’s not just an office and a hangar, and it’s a colourful group,” he says.

“One of the participants of a recent trip to Tioman was the guy who used to fly the Starhub blimp 20 years ago. And at the same table was a young man who hadn’t been born during that time. So there’s a huge range of experiences, but love of aviation brings us together.”

“We call it hangar flying,” quips fellow member Roch Hennessy. “We can sit in the hangar and talk about planes for hours over beers. The day you think that because you’ve made thousands of flights, you can take off in any weather or land an overweight plane — that’s when accidents happen. So I’m always looking to talk to people who have more experience and to also teach those who don’t have as much. I love this sharing and giving back.” We speak to five pilots about how they come alive when they take to the skies.

Roch Hennessy – Managing Director, Moet Hennessy Private Asia Pacific

Credit: Athirah Annissa

Roch Hennessy was born to fly. Well, given his family name, he was also born for a business in cognac production, but aviation had always been just as integral a part of his life as the family’s famous spirit. “I started flying when I was still in my mother’s belly,” he shares. “She was pregnant with me when she took the Air France Concorde from Paris to New York. I was only four days old when we flew back.”

Hennessy grew up in a family that always had planes, as it was the most convenient way to make their frequent trips between Cognac, Paris and Monaco. “My mother always encouraged this passion. She said, ‘You are a pilot in your soul, so just keep flying.” So he did. Hennessy started taking flying lessons at age 16 and after finishing college, he earned his private pilot license when he was 23.

My mother always encouraged this passion. She said, ‘You are a pilot in your soul, so just keep flying’. – Roch Hennessy

Credit: Hennessy flew his 6-year-old daughter to Koh Samui.

When he’s in the air, worldly problems disappear. “I don’t have to think about the supply chain, pricing, hiring, nothing. You empty your head and you’re in flow,” he says. Especially since a clear head is necessary for dealing with flight-related complications, of which he’s had plenty — malfunctioning brakes, open doors, and autopilot failures on night flights.

“Flying really helps your critical thinking, and you learn how to communicate when you have a problem. It also teaches you to know when your feelings can’t be trusted, and to rely on the instruments.”

Not only does Hennessy own a Daher TBM850, a French single-engine turboprop, he is also instrument rated (which allows pilots to fly while relying solely on the aircraft instruments, so they are not restricted to good weather conditions), multiengine rated, and has a commercial pilot license “just for safety and for fun”.

He recently took his six-year-old daughter on a flying trip to Koh Samui and had her sit in the co-pilot’s seat. “I could see the sparkle in her eyes and I was like, ‘Yes, that’s my girl!’ If she wants to fly in the future, I’ll probably get an instructor license so I can teach her.”

Shaun Ting – CEO, Ting Capital Partners

Credit: Athirah Annissa

After a chance meeting with a WingsOverAsia member at an investment conference in 2009 led to a flying trip to Tioman for brunch, Shaun Ting was inspired to pick up flying as a hobby. A few years later, he earned his license and joined the club.

“But I’d say what really got me hooked was when I took some friends from Los Angeles and flew us over the Grand Canyon,” he recalls. “We landed in Las Vegas for lunch, then flew to Palm Springs for dinner. It was eye-opening.”

Just as enticing as the bucket list-worthy experiences was the learning. “Once you start working, you don’t really broaden your horizons. They get narrower because you’re getting better at the one thing you’re doing,” he explains.

“Flying was something totally out of the blue. I had to learn about engineering and aerodynamics, rules and regulations, physiological responses to flight — things I had never studied before. There was a wealth of knowledge to absorb and it was fun to tickle different parts of my brain.”

Credit: Ting (foreground) at AirVenture Oshkosh 2017, the world’s largest airshow.

It’s for the same reason that Ting went on to get his seaplane rating, followed by his boating license, and has recently added foil surfing and skydiving to his list of hobbies. But don’t mistake him for an adrenaline junkie.

“I do investments for a living, so it’s about the risk-reward ratio. I like exploring new skills and knowledge, but I also value safety. I’ve gotten cut and needed 12 stitches from going foil surfing but the if you don’t do anything at all, the only danger you face is from boredom,” he laughs.

“So one of the great things about flying is that it teaches you risk management. You consider weather, mechanical issues and even how you’re feeling. There’s nothing forcing you to fly. So I’m not so much an adrenaline junkie as I am an adventure one.”

Seventeen Hu – Director and Partner, Regalrare Gem Museum

Credit: Athirah Annissa

It’s easy to think about the incredible adventures flying affords, but few stop to think about how much of a commitment it takes to earn that privilege. Seventeen Hu finally earned her private pilot license this January, but what’s more impressive than the fact that she’s one of the few female pilots at WOA Flying Club is that she earned her license in a little over a month.

“I met [WingsOverAsia founder Ng] Yeow Meng through a friend last December and he’s been like a mentor to me. He encouraged me to get my license, so I flew to the US to study full-time,” she shares. “English isn’t my first language and the aviation language is so different that I don’t even know the words in my mother tongue, so it was quite hard for me.”

Credit: Hu fast-tracked her training in the US, where she witnessed the launch of a SpaceX rocket.

She also had to deal with homesickness for her husband and two children, aged nine and 12, and almost quit after failing her first test attempt. “I was alone, and I had never failed in my studies before! But I made the decision to finish what I started,” she says. “Giving up is not in my character. And I wanted my children to see that mommy can still learn new things at this age, and to show them the value of self-discipline, breakthroughs, and hard work.”

Thrilled to be able to fly on her own, she recently went on another month-long trip — this time with friends to holiday around the Bahamas, the Americas, and Argentina, taking aircrafts out from fixed based operators. “Once you fly, being on land is like being in a two-dimensional world. Up there, all your views are in 3D,” she enthuses. Her most breathtaking memory was of the Bahamas and being able to see the Pink Sands Beach at sunset.

Her advice for those considering a private pilot license: “Just try it. And once you decide to learn, don’t give up, because it’s a whole new world from up there.”

Jason Bay – Director at a tech company

Credit: Athirah Annissa

By this point, we reckon you’re familiar with how freeing and calm it is being in the air (unexpected malfunctions notwithstanding). But Jason Bay would like to remind everyone that the reason it feels so liberating is that pilots have trained hard to make the whole process second nature.

“People don’t pay commercial pilots because they have good reflexes, stick and rudder skills, or look like Tom Cruise,” says Bay, who works at a consumer internet and tech company. “It’s because they understand the aircraft really well. If they get a leak at 30,000ft. they know how to troubleshoot that and describe the procedure in detail.”

Bay, who earned his license last March, is enamoured by what he calls the “man-to-machine interface”. It’s why he used to race cars and is also a certified technical diver. “The commonality between all these hobbies is that it involves relying on fairly complex equipment to achieve something the human body would otherwise not be able to,” he says. “And eventually, the machine becomes an extension of your body so you stop thinking of it as this unfamiliar thing.”

Like all pilots, Bay believes the biggest pivoting point in one’s flying career is the first solo flight. “The concept of self-responsibility is never more apparent than when you’re flying solo,” he recalls, revealing how he only began voicing his procedural checklists out loud once he started flying alone.

“Part of the reason was to break the silence, but mainly I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss something because now the only thing protecting me from getting killed is myself.”

And landing, he adds, was one of the toughest things to learn because of the numerous counterintuitive actions that need to be taken in preparation.

“It’s hand-, eye- and foot-coordination, except your hands are moving in the opposite direction from your feet, and that adds a lot of complexity,” he explains. “Everything else in flying is like going around collecting merit badges, but you can’t collect one for landing — you can either do it or you can’t!”

Anne Wong – Head of Public Relations, Tin Box Group

Credit: Athirah Annissa

Anne Wong was so terrified of undertaking her first solo flight that tried to put it off for as long as possible. “I tacked on six or seven extra practice flights and delayed it for about two months before my instructor finally said I had to just go and do it,” says Wong. She finally took the plunge — or ascent, rather — in 2018. “Once I was up there, it was really nice because there was no one nagging at me. But it was still quite scary.”

Curiously, that fear and uncertainty are what thrills her most about flying. “It’s the fact that you can never perfect flying,” she clarifies. “There are skills where, after doing it a hundred times, you know how it’s going to turn out, but flying is unpredictable. The winds are always different, and even though I know how to land a plane, I can’t always land it the exact way I want it to. Maybe I’m not seasoned enough, so I’m trying to get better every time.”

Wong has been flying on and off for six years, but work commitments have made it difficult to clock more hours in the sky. So she prefers “short but beautiful” routes, citing Tioman as one of her favourite destinations. It’s also a matter of comfort, as Wong soberly reveals. “Lots of people think we’re flying in luxurious private jets that look like SQ suites but that’s not what it’s like at all. There’s no champagne and a lot of the time there’s no air-conditioning. It’s more like driving an antique car.”

But the similarities end there. You can’t just cut the engine or pull over in the middle of the sky if things get hairy. “And you can be aimless when you drive, deciding where to go on a whim. You can’t do that with a plane. You have to make a plan and follow it, including the height you’re allowed to fly at, and the direction you’re going,” she adds. “But at least I never have to worry about finding parking.”

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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