Captain George Chiong can still recall some of the most salient early memories he has of wanting to be a pilot.
One of his first was on board a Singapore Airlines flight to Manila. George was fortunate to be exposed to aviation at a very young age, travelling regularly with his mother to visit family in the Philippine capital. “I was onboard a SIA Boeing 727 when I asked to visit the flight deck – the pilots graciously obliged. I remember being fascinated by the rows of dials and gauges, the radio chatter and even the drone of the engines. I’d even been given my own Junior Jet Club pilot wings and logbook. I didn’t realise it then, but looking back over the years I learnt that I was happiest whenever I was flying,” he says.
Later on, when George graduated from university he and his family took a trip to the west coast of the US, where he visited the Boeing factory in Seattle. “It was the year they rolled out the B777, and I remembered thinking that I would give two arms and two legs to fly the plane,” he recalls.
With Singapore Airlines launching non-stop flights to Seattle in September, George is excited that this second memory will soon come full circle: as an Airbus A350-900 pilot, he’ll likely have the opportunity to fly there.
But it took seven years in a completely different profession for this accomplished pilot to realise his dream of being 35,000 feet up in the air. Unfortunately, myopia had restricted George from becoming a pilot earlier on. So in 1997, he graduated with a law degree instead, working in one of the “big four” law firms in Singapore, where he eventually specialised as an insolvency and business restructuring lawyer.
Still, the passion for flying never really left him: during his university days, he completed an internship with a law firm in Auckland, where he clocked up 60 hours of recreational flying over New Zealand’s lush landscape in just three months to obtain a private pilot’s licence. “I would fly up to six sorties in a weekend, weather permitting. The first solo flight was nerve-wracking. It was only after shutting down and walking away from the small plane that the elation hit me,” he says. During his days as a lawyer, he would still make time on the weekends to fly at Seletar Airport with one of the local flying clubs.
In 2003 George was leafing through the newspaper when he chanced upon a recruitment ad for Singapore Airlines’ cadet pilot programme and discovered the eyesight requirements that had previously ruled him out had now been relaxed. “It came at an opportune time, as I had just turned 30 and was aware that I was near the cut-off age for applicants without professional flying experience, so I applied,” he says.
Even after receiving an official offer from the airline, George had reservations about the career switch. “It is nice to fantasise about your childhood dream job but when it hardens into reality you wonder if you have the chops to make it, and if it is foolhardy to switch to a completely different profession in your thirties.” He therefore reluctantly declined the offer.
It was a very supportive boss at the law firm who gave him the final boost of confidence to make the career switch. “Our team was very close-knit, so it was difficult to leave. One of my bosses took me aside and encouraged me to just go for it. He was one of the initial Singapore Air Force pilots recruited during national service, but he had cold feet when offered a permanent contract when he finished his compulsory stint. And he said he always wondered how that would have turned out. So I knocked on the door again and I’m thankful SIA accepted me.”
George says there is a growing group of SIA pilots who are, like him, embarking on a second career. “I actually flew some years ago with another ex-lawyer, which was nice. Co-pilots of mine have also been former doctors, architects, engineers, teachers and policemen – from one uniform to another!”
One of the biggest differences George now realises between law and flying is the greater flexibility in his work schedule. “As a lawyer, there is hardly any downtime – you’re always on the phone with clients throughout the day or in court, and the real work begins at the end of the business day when the phones stop ringing. As a pilot, once you shut down the plane’s engines, your job is mostly done and you can take a real break – often at interesting destinations,” he says.
But at the same time, the irregular hours of being a pilot mean he has at times been away for significant occasions such as loved ones’ birthdays. “Having said that, the company will try to accommodate as much as possible when there are urgent family situations.” Fatigue and jet lag can also be challenging, he adds, although as a night owl he copes well with overnight flights.
There are also skills George has learnt through practising law that he takes with him into the cockpit. “Learning how to be calm under pressure is one. A mentor shared with me about the three Cs – the most important attributes a pilot can have is to be calm, composed and confident, and that gets you through your day.”
“The traditional media stereotypes of the pilots are much misplaced, as are those of glamorous lawyers. Having had the privilege to work in both professions, I can say that they both call for extreme diligence, preparation and professionalism,” he says. “It is said that a lawyer, when cross-examining a witness on the stand, would never ask a question he doesn’t already know the answer to. Similarly, a pilot cannot never be over-prepared. He must always think ahead of the aircraft and environment, anticipating what could happen and what can be done to mitigate these situations.”
George says flying with SIA has allowed him to visit places and have experiences he had never dreamt of before. “If you love travelling, this is the perfect job. Some exotic places I have been to include the Maldives – incredible – as well as cities in India such as Amritsar and Ahmedabad. The world becomes a smaller place when you are a pilot.”
He has also witnessed some extraordinary landscapes: “Every flight is different. You get a view of the world that not many other people do. Sometimes, something as simple as a sunrise viewed from the cockpit is purely magical. On a clear day, flying over the snow-capped Alps… you can’t beat it.”
Still, he believes the most satisfying part of being a pilot is bringing the passengers and crew from point A to B in the safest, most efficient and comfortable manner possible.
“I’m just very grateful to live out my dream and do a job that I love.”
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