Confessions of a flight instructor

Thousands of metres above ground, a small white speck - a Diamond 40 propellor plane - glides gracefully across the sky.

There are no aerial acrobatics or complicated moves.

The aircraft's gentle movements hide the fact that at its controls is a nervous 16-year-old on his solo flight, rattling away procedures in his head.

But no one is more nervous than flight instructor Tan Shze Ling in the operations room of the Singapore Youth Flying Club (SYFC) at Seletar Airport.

She monitors each manoeuvre on the screens almost unblinkingly.

After all, her students' solo flights are the culmination of months of lectures, familiarisation and repeated practice.

In her six years of flight instruction, Miss Tan has seen her fair share of daredevils and immature students in the 16 to 17 age group she teaches.

There are also those who vomit as soon as they take to the air and those with poor hand-eye coordination.

It is her job to sieve out those who come to "look and see" from the truly passionate.

Says Miss Tan, who is in her 20s: "We go through many rounds of checks and preparation before we ascertain that they (student pilots) are sound and confident for a solo flight.

"But even then, anything can happen - the first solo flights are scary moments for instructors."

So far, Miss Tan has not encountered any life-threatening situation, which she says is the result of careful evaluation of the students.

"Each risk is calculated and behaviour noted. We won't allow someone who is distracted to fly because there are a lot of things to remember."

Because a high level of commitment is required, not all students make the grade.


Students have to undergo three phases of flight training before they can attain their private pilot licence (PPL).

They have to go through around 50 flights.

She estimates that only 30 per cent of students get their PPL. Many give up due to their hectic schedule.

"They often have to skip classes or lectures in order to come for flight instruction," says Miss Tan.

"Some might be worried about school work, and in some cases, their parents might not be supportive of their flight training."

She knows this as she was a student pilot in SYFC years ago. She calls managing academics and flight school a "juggling act".

Those who are constantly distracted will not make it as pilots as they might forget an important step, she says.

For all the effort, there is not much one can do with a PPL, Miss Tan admits.

A licence-holder can only fly Singapore-registered small aircraft, and cannot do so for hire or reward. Planes and fuel are expensive too.

"The airspace we have here is limited too. You can't fly very far before you hit an invisible wall and have to turn back," she says.

Some students do go on to become air force or commercial pilots but they are in the minority.

But what the student does with the licence does not matter much to Miss Tan.

What counts is that they come to develop a passion for flight and aviation.

"I fell in love with the sensation of flight here.

"No matter what problems or complications you might have on the ground, you leave them behind when you are in the skies."


1 - Bring extra air sickness bags on the plane, especially for the first couple of lessons.

2 - If a student makes a mistake in the air, point it out immediately for safety reasons. Explain their mistakes later on the ground.

3 - Err on the side of caution. Always run through procedures with the student before flying

This article was first published on May 10, 2015.
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