Singapore Airlines (SIA) Captain Felix Tan conquered Mount Everest in 2016, becoming the first SIA pilot and the 13th Singaporean to achieve this remarkable feat, as well as the third Singaporean to scale the mountain via the challenging northern route.
“I made my first attempt in 2015, but it had to be abandoned because of the massive earthquake that occurred in Nepal,” Felix reveals. I had reached the Advanced Base Camp, but the earthquake resulted in quite a lot of casualties on the southern route. The government cancelled all our climbing permits and everyone had to descend.”
In 2016, Felix, undeterred by the previous year’s setback, decided to return to attempt the feat once again. “I felt that the chance to conquer Mount Everest was taken away from me the previous year. Fortunately, this trip went smoothly and I was able to reach the summit,” he says of the arduous climb, which took a total of two months to complete, including an initial month spent in the Himalayan mountains acclimatising to the altitude. “It was the most physically and mentally intense activity I’ve undertaken in my entire life.”
Felix feels that his climbing experiences have made him acutely aware of the importance of being well prepared in order to rise to challenges. According to him, thorough preparation and having good judgement are qualities that are equally essential whether you’re summitting a mountain or flying an aircraft.
“We climb mountains we are prepared for,” Felix stresses. “I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to climb Mount Everest the next day. It required a build-up and accumulation of proper preparation, skills and fitness training and experience, and those aren’t things that happen overnight.”
Climbing has also instilled a sense of discipline in him, and, according to Felix, has reinforced the importance of assessing risks and deciding how far to push the limits. For instance, when choosing the path he was going to take to summit Mount Everest, he selected the northern route over the southern route after carefully evaluating the risks that each presented.
“I gathered information from climbers who had summitted using both routes and decided that it was safer to climb from the north,” he says. “The south has a greater risk of avalanches and ice fall, and I wasn’t comfortable with that as it was outside of my control. I didn’t mind taking a more difficult path if I could be the one making the call as to whether or not I stay alive.”
Felix also stresses that both climbing and flying require an immense amount of discipline when it comes to making decisions regarding safety. “If the weather in the destination isn’t good, I have to decide whether I divert or push on. It’s the same with deciding whether or not to continue with a climb when conditions may not be ideal or to call it off,” he says. “You have to weigh the risks, and I believe that the high-risk nature of mountain climbing has made me more aware of the importance of having good judgement in these situations.”
While Felix initially wanted to become a pilot after university, he was unfortunately too young to apply for a job with SIA immediately after graduation – the minimum age requirement at the time was 26, and Felix was 23 (this requirement has since been relaxed).
Felix instead took up a job as an underwriter (he studied business at university, with a concentration in insurance) and worked for around four and a half years in the insurance industry, eventually finding his way to the Singapore office of German company Allianz.
In 1999, he was finally able to apply for the SIA training programme, and was accepted. “It wasn’t just that I wanted to become a pilot. In particular, I wanted to be a pilot with SIA,” Felix reveals. “As a Singaporean, we have certain associations with the national flag carrier. I wasn’t looking for a general aviation job – I specifically wanted this job.”
While leaving Allianz wasn’t an easy choice, it was a conversation with one of his mentors at the company that gave him the confidence to apply for the job. “He was somebody I could really talk to and I told him about my plan of wanting to join the airline. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had a commercial pilot license,” Felix reveals. “It was a hard decision because Allianz was treating me very well and had put me on a fast-track development programme, so there was quite a bit to give up. But he really encouraged me to fulfil that desire to fly.”
Felix counts the dynamic quality of the job as one of his favourite aspects of being a pilot. “You’re constantly flying to different countries and there’s a lot of variation – from airport conditions to weather conditions. It’s what keeps me going and keeps things interesting,” he says.
When he has a stopover overseas for a couple of days, he likes to go indoor climbing at a rock-climbing gym. “I’ve done it in places like Melbourne and San Francisco,” Felix says, adding that he’s also gone outdoor climbing in Taiwan, the United States and Huaraz in Peru, as well as China’s Szechuan province where he trained for his Mount Everest summit.
“The nature of the job, whereby you get a few off days after flying, allows me to fit in my climbing and my training and concentrate on that for the few days I’m off,” he says. Felix plans to go climbing in Yosemite National Park in the US this July before taking on Ama Dablam – a Himalayan mountain with a summit of 6,812 metres – at the end of the year.
Aside from his flying duties, Felix is also a line instructor and is responsible for helping to train the next generation of pilots. One of the major aspects he emphasises to trainees is the importance of adopting a passenger-first mentality. He also has some words of advice for younger pilots who are undergoing their initial training period, which, Felix admits, is an intense experience. “You’re expected to complete the training within a certain amount of time and in order to meet that expectation, you have to be focused,” he says. “Sometimes that may mean having to make certain sacrifices, but it’s worth it… it’s definitely worth it.”
Indeed, after serving with the airline for nearly two decades, Felix still derives immense satisfaction from his job – even when he has to wake up at four in the morning to helm an early route. “After more than 19 years, I still don’t have to drag myself to work.”, he laughs.
On the whole, Felix counts himself lucky to serve as a pilot with SIA. “To be at the helm of an aircraft and handle it through take-off and landing is a privilege,” he says. “Every time when we come in for final approach and landing, it’s always an intense moment where your adrenaline is high. That moment is what a lot of pilots live for.”
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