Few can say that they have had the privilege to get up-close-and-personal with Formula One (F1) vehicles. But Singapore Airlines (SIA) cargo pilot and self-professed F1 aficionado Toh Lim has ferried the precious cargo multiple times throughout his SIA career.
“The first time I flew the F1 cargo was just after I qualified to become a full-fledged first officer,” Toh Lim says. That flight, between Melbourne and Singapore, was in 2012. “I got to see the cars up close. Now they’re all boxed up within containers, but back then I could still take a peek. Usually you’ll have the logistics guy from the team – be it Ferrari or McLaren – accompanying the cars, and it’s pretty fun talking to them as well.”
Another journey saw him shepherding the vehicles from Austin, Texas, to Campinas, Brazil. “I remember the flight very clearly because we actually emptied the entire Austin airport of its fuel,” Toh Lim recalls with a laugh. “It’s a regional airport and smaller planes don’t need so much gas.”
F1 cars aside, Toh Lim has also had a long-held love for airplanes. Before joining SIA, he worked as a technician with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), signing on after completing his National Service. “I was always fascinated by how this machine can get up in the air and go from a speed of zero kilometres per hour to the speed of sound and back again,” he says.
After his stint with RSAF ended, Toh Lim worked on getting his part-time degree while being an account manager in sales. Then, in 2008, at the age of 31, Toh Lim learned about an SIA recruitment drive. He realised that the airline had loosened the previous eyesight requirements that would otherwise have prevented him from applying for the job.
“I decided to just go for it, but I was right at the limit for the cut-off age for becoming a pilot, so they asked me why I was pursuing this now,” he says, adding that one of the things they check for at this stage is making sure that you are “110% committed” to the role. “I remember I told them that I was looking for a career, I wasn’t just looking for a job.”
Thankfully, Toh Lim made it through the interview stage and was chosen for the pilot training programme. He feels that his RSAF training definitely helped him acclimatise to the job. “I already knew the technical aspect of working with aircraft, so when I got to the airline, I was familiar with certain things – though the navigational aspect was totally different,” he reveals.
Toh Lim flies the Boeing 747-400. “The plane is really the queen of the skies – she’s so nice to fly and she’s very forgiving,” he says. He adds that when it comes to the necessary training required, flying a cargo aircraft is no different from flying a passenger aircraft. “We go through the same manual, training and checks.”
The main difference, he reveals, comes in terms of the aircraft’s layout. “When you enter a cargo aircraft, you don’t see seats – the whole place is empty space for cargo,” he says. “There’s a ladder to go up to the upper deck, which is where we operate the plane from, and the front is the flight deck.”
He believes that helming a cargo aircraft poses its own set of challenges that are different from those encountered by pilots flying passenger planes. “Let’s say you encounter turbulence. With cargo, we wouldn’t know if they are in a distressed state.” Toh Lim says. “So that is more of a concern to us, and we have to be extra careful to ensure they remain in good condition.”
Indeed, besides ferrying F1 cars, Toh Lim also counts transporting animals and expensive art collections as a part of the job. “I’ve flown really expensive, championship horses that have been worth tens of millions of dollars,” he says. “And I just did a flight earlier this year carrying, according the curator who was on board, priceless art pieces from Amsterdam to Melbourne.”
Aside from this, Toh Lim’s job also allows him to engage in humanitarian missions. One of these was embarking on a relief mission to the Philippines in 2005 in the wake of a powerful typhoon. “We had to get supplies in there fast, so there was this small window of time we could make that happen. We checked the weather and made sure it was safe. When we got there, everyone was very thankful,” he says.
Another trip that left an impression on Toh Lim was a relief mission to Fiji. “They don’t normally have big aircraft going in, so when we went in with a 747-400, they were quite impressed!” The mayor of Fiji even came down in person to thank Toh Lim and his fellow crew for their efforts. “It was a very meaningful experience, being able to do some good,” he concludes.
In terms of advice he has for aspiring pilots, Toh Lim stresses the importance of always being prepared. “It’s not an easy job and it takes a lot of determination and hard work” he says, adding that the challenges can be particularly acute for those like him who join when they are slightly older. “If you are 30 and you have a family, you have to sacrifice a lot,” he says. “Family support is very, very important, or else you cannot do this job. Of course, first of all, you must have the passion.”
All that being said, Toh Lim is thankful for the constant excitement, learning and new experiences that flying with SIA brings. “There’s no flight that is the same as the last, and I’m still learning something new every day,” he says.
As for who he’ll be rooting for at this year’s FORMULA 1 SINGAPORE AIRLINES SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX? “I’m pretty old school. I used to support [Juan Pablo] Montoya, but that was aeons ago,” he reveals. “Right now, it’s kind of a dilemma! I support [Valtteri] Bottas but my boys support [Lewis] Hamilton, so things get a little bit dicey at home when these two guys race.”
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