Though he has been a pilot with Singapore Airlines (SIA) for almost 10 years now, Senior First Officer Leonard Lee recalls a time when he thought he’d never be able to become one. A career in flying had always been his dream, but the road here hasn’t been an easy one.
Prior to joining SIA, Leonard had been an investigating officer with the Singapore Police Force (SPF). At the time, he was concurrently pursuing a degree after less-than-stellar GCSE A-Level results. “Unfortunately, during Junior College I spent most of my time tinkering with dirt bikes instead of studying,” he says. The role of an investigating officer was very demanding. Apart from having heavy responsibilities, once every two weeks Leonard had to do 24-hour duty and attend meetings, and then head back to work after just one day’s rest. “In the SPF, all my leave days went towards my exams or attending classes.” Through sheer hard work, strict self-discipline and determination, he managed to graduate with honours.
After five and a half years as a police officer, he discovered that Singapore Airlines was looking for pilots. “I knew it would be the best opportunity to put myself forward and actually go after my dream.” But stepping into SIA’s vigorous interviewing process filled him with self-doubt. “I really thought I wouldn’t get it,” Leonard recalls. “I even went through all three rounds of the interview process without telling my family or my wife – who was still my girlfriend back then.”
Leonard’s love of airplanes started when he was a kid and he used to read extensively about old-school fighter planes. “When the interviewers asked about my favourite planes, that was all I talked about,” he says.
Training a new pilot can be intensive and costly to SIA as the airline funds the training of its cadet pilots. So during the last round of interviews, the interviewers wanted to know if Leonard was fully committed to making a career in flying work and brought up his school results. Leonard asserted his determination and convinced the panel that he had the discipline and grit to make a good pilot. A week after his wedding, Leonard received a call from SIA congratulating him for having passed.
Though newly married, he had to leave his family for outbound training. As expected, the programme was extremely tough, requiring plenty of sacrifice from Leonard and his family. But he understands why it had to be that way. “As a pilot, there are so many external factors beyond your control, like weather and air traffic,” he says. “And as a commercial pilot, the most important thing is, of course, the passengers. Being at the helm of the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft carrying over 400 people, means you really have to consider all aspects of the job.”
“Flying an aircraft requires a lot of self-confidence and self-belief. How you respond to situations as a pilot is not just something you learn in your training process – it also depends on the kind of person you are.” As Leonard notes, uniformed jobs like being a policeman or pilot are very much in the public’s eye. “The way you respond to situations, and how you conduct yourself is very important. You can look the part, but the most important thing is being able to play the part.”
Leonard’s self-awareness and the rigorous training he has undergone have helped him through his decade-long career with SIA. Pilots must always be prepared for any emergency, and Leonard recalls one time when his training really kicked in, when a fault in the plane prevented cabin pressurisation after take-off. Instinctively, he began to execute the necessary safety procedures, quickly bringing the situation under control. Leonard also believes that his experience as a police officer has imbued him with a strong sense of responsibility and independence that has benefitted his current role.
“Being a pilot requires a lot of courage and fortitude,” he advises. “There’s no cookie-cutter answer to how you operate. You have to find your own way within that, and even now I still feel like I’m learning.” Leonard stresses that it is a very dynamic job and environment requiring one to make good judgement calls. Every flight is different, and anything can happen at any moment.
Still, Leonard wouldn’t give it up for the world. It has always been his dream to fly with the national carrier, and he wears the uniform with pride. “SIA is a cohesive organisation. We work like a family, supporting one another to make things work.” When asked how he would response if either of his kids wanted to follow his footsteps and become a pilot with the company, he declares, “I would be more than supportive of it.”
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Do you have what it takes for a career in the skies? Visit singaporeair.com/cadet-pilots-career to find out how you can join us as a pilot