When did I know I wanted to become a pilot?
My name is Theodon David Teo and my interest in aviation started at a very young age when I was taken frequently to Changi Airport for family dinners. I remember standing at the airport’s viewing gallery watching aircraft of all sizes taxiing out from the parking bays and taking off into the wild blue yonder. My parents also often took my siblings and I to Air Force Open Houses at Paya Lebar Air Base during our growing-up years. I was intrigued by the static aircraft displays and fighter jets performing aerial demonstrations at low levels. The sights and sounds of aeroplanes large and small thrilled me as a young boy and that was when I knew I wanted to fly someday.
How I began flying
I still recall how I found out about the Singapore Youth Flying Club (SYFC) through friends who were already in it. They told me SYFC was offering the opportunity for youths in Singapore to take up flying training for free. I immediately signed up without any hesitation after completing secondary school education.
I applied for SYFC in February 2009 and a few months later, I was ecstatic that my application was successful, and I would be enrolling with 21 other aspiring young aviators in 170 Basic Flying Course (BFC). The initial phase of the course was packed with numerous ground school lessons and several simulator sessions to prepare us for our first sortie. I realised even at that early phase of BFC, there was a lot that was required as a pilot but that challenge was something which kept me motivated.
There was a dedicated team of instructors and staff from SYFC who mentored us along the way, all of whom had a vast and in-depth knowledge about aviation. I did my first solo in the Piper Warrior II aircraft on 12 December 2009, after 20 dual flying hours with an instructor by my side. We were only allowed to take the aircraft up into the air alone after we demonstrated a high level of competency and safety. I was cleared for solo by my then Primary Instructor, Bernard Leng whom I am, to this day still extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from.
My Instructor Mr. Bernard Leng congratulating me after my first solo on 12 December 2009
Pursuing the dream
That first solo flight acted as the catalyst for pursuing the dream of becoming a pilot. I studied three years for a Diploma in Aviation Management and Services at Temasek Polytechnic and applied for various cadet pilot programmes after completing the diploma and the mandatory two year military service for all Singaporean males.
Unfortunately, things did not go smoothly when I applied for pilot positions in 2015. I was not successful in any of the cadet pilot interviews that I went for. I knew that the competition for cadet programmes were exceptionally stiff, as there are just too many applications for too few slots. However, I still felt a deep sense of regret and disappointment that I was not accepted and could not begin flying again. But one thing I learned was that for future selections, I had to be extremely well prepared for every part of the process which usually consists of aptitude tests and formal interviews.
With some encouragement from my parents, I decided to further my education by enrolling in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Asia. It was a relatively new private University which started its degree programmes in Singapore back in 2011. I took a full-time undergraduate Bachelor in Aeronautics degree (BSA) in 2016 and was expecting to graduate in 2018 after being given some credit exemptions.
Somewhere at the end of 2017, the school announced that there would be an option for flight training as part of the BSA with the first batch of students starting in mid-2018. Students in Singapore could take up a Flight Minor, with the flight training taking place at Embry-Riddle’s main campus in Daytona Beach, Florida to obtain a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Commercial Pilot License (CPL). At the time, ERAU was also in discussions with Singapore Airlines (SIA) for a partnership that would allow students that took the Flight Minor to be offered a conditional offer of unemployment upon completion. However, the ERAU-SIA partnership never materialized.
I thought it would still be a great opportunity to apply for the Flight Minor as ERAU's flight training in the U.S. was reputable and rated highly in the country. An FAA CPL would also open more doors for me to fly in many countries. I was accepted into the Flight Minor along with another Singaporean student and we began our flight training in Daytona Beach in July 2018.
Flight training in the U.S.
The new accelerated 12-month flight training program meant that we were given priority over normal flight students who only flew three times a week. I was scheduled to fly up to six days a week and progressed well through the training.
Throughout my flight training, I thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the outdoors, grassy fields and the Atlantic coastline which was a sharp contrast from the Singapore high-rises. It was also great training on a large and modern fleet consisting of 62 C172s and 10 DA42s equipped with the latest avionics and traffic avoidance systems.
Grassy fields in Central Florida
The Atlantic coastline
Something I did not enjoy so much was the afternoon thunderstorms in Florida. It was a frequent occurrence and it was frustrating sometimes where there would be days on end where we were not able to fly due to the weather. One of the reasons Florida has so many thunderstorms is that many of the ingredients needed to create thunderstorms exist there almost every day: moisture, unstable air, and source of lift.
Afternoon thunderstorms are a frequent occurrence in Florida
ERAU has many agreements with regional airlines in the U.S., and nearly every student gets hired by an airline after they obtain enough hours as a CFI. However, those programmes are only applicable to U.S. citizens or U.S. Green Card holders. The same opportunities do not apply to foreigners like me.
I completed my training according to schedule and obtained an FAA CPL with multi-engine and instrument ratings in June 2019. With airlines putting off hiring new pilots due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been working as a part-time simulator instructor at Flight Experience Singapore since February this year, engaging and instructing customers on the mechanics of flying a replica Boeing 737NG simulator.
With a satisfied customer at Flight Experience Singapore
The shortage of pilots was one of the biggest concerns in the global aviation industry until the start of this year. However, the impact of the pandemic on the airline industry has turned this deficit into a surplus.
The cost of flight training is very expensive, and even more so at ERAU where I had to pay for college tuition fees on top of the flight training costs. I enjoyed every minute of my time in Daytona Beach, but if I were to do it differently, I would probably pick another flight school which costs less and had a better climate. That being said, flight training is hard to quantify for each individual student. There are many variables associated with the training and no two students will have the same flight training experience.
There are many people who are discouraged by the current climate in aviation because of the uncertainty. However, the aviation industry is cyclical in nature and it has been proven time and again that the industry always bounces back stronger. At the end of the day, when you set your mind to doing something your heart tells you to, there will be murmurs from differing perspectives attempting to get you to consider all angles before you actually do it. While it’s good to consider these arguments so you can be prepared, don’t ever let them become such a distraction that you lose sight of your original goal, or to let them cause so much fear and anxiety that you lose heart and give up trying. I know I will continue to keep pursuing this dream, and more importantly, put in the work to achieve it so that I will be in a better position once the hiring begins again.