Come Fly With Me: Inside the Raffles Aviation Club

By Varun Karthik (19S06A) and Aaron Tan (19A01B)

Photos courtesy of the Raffles Aviation Club

Somewhere along Airport Road, where the buildings are low and the sky stretches endlessly above, stands a quaint little establishment known as the Singapore Air Force Museum. If you ventured within, past the retired aircraft, up the elevator to the officers’ mess on the third floor – and if you were visiting on the 13th of December 2018 – you would find four figures sitting close before a stage in the cozy hall, the site of the Aviation Safety Competition 2018.

As we enter, Cheng Yong, Shang Yi, Aswin, and Tzao Kai, representing the Raffles Aviation Club, sit silent, intent, about to give a presentation on a hypothetical scenario – where a fuel leak is discovered right before a commercial passenger plane is supposed to take off. “About”, in this case, being used rather liberally, for when we enter the room at 1.04pm, they, among five other teams, are set to present last. Even with two hours to go, there are signs of anxiety. Heels tap, cue cards are consulted, water is sipped from plastic bottles in tiny gulps. “We’re nervous, but we’re ready,” Cheng Yong whispers to us, trying not to disrupt the team currently on stage presenting.

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We sit through presentation after presentation, furrowing our brows at esoteric formulae, hearing abbreviations like GPU and ATC (Ground Power Unit and Air Traffic Control, for the more intellectually curious among us), as we desperately try to understand what was going on before eventually giving up – not unlike a typical lecture in school.

3pm. It is their turn now. Together they stand. One by one, they shuffle to the aisle. Cue cards in hand, anticipation weighing heavy in their hearts, they head down towards the stage.

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***

The existence of the Raffles Aviation Club, to some, might come as a surprise. Apart from an Instagram page, the group leaves few traces of their activity. As they are not officially recognised as a CCA by the school, the Raffles Aviation Club operates entirely upon the imperative of its own members.

Not to be confused with the Singapore Youth Flying Club (though some members, like Tzao Kai, are involved in that, too), the Raffles Aviation Club is comprised of 83 individuals who live and breathe aviation. The interests of its members include everything from aviation photography to planespotting, from model making to model collection, from flight simulation to aircraft and airport design. Their Whatsapp group – their primary platform of communication – teems with activity as they share articles, talk about developments in the industry and constantly learn from each other through their discussions.

As Tzao Kai puts it, “It’s the perfect space for [our members] to bounce information off one another, learn new things, correct misconceptions and further deepen [their] interest in aviation.”

The club’s activities are in no way, however, limited to the Whatsapp group. Its members speak fondly of their staycation at Crowne Plaza held in December 2017. Eagerly, they recount to us how, from their room which offered a direct view of the Changi airstrip, they watched planes take off and land every 90 seconds, barely 100 meters away. When they finally had enough of planespotting, they watched Maverick’s dreams take off in the movie Top Gun. Nonetheless, they are also quick to point out that A) their trip to Crowne Plaza is just one of many plane spotting trips to various airports and various flight exhibitions and B) there is no Iceman vs Maverick type rivalry within the club, only fun banter.

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Fun at Crowne Plaza

83 members is a lot of people, to say the least – larger than most CCAs in the school. But the Aviation Club wasn’t always this big. As with many big things, it started in the twinkle of an eye of a guy with big ideas. In the Aviation Club’s case, this individual came in the form of Cheng Yong, who, as most Boarders do, was getting to know his roommate, Fei Yang, in RI Boarding. Fei Yang turned out, to his excitement and joy, to be a fellow aviation enthusiast. They spent their days living together speaking of fighter jets, grateful that their stars aligned. But fate still had more in store for Cheng Yong.

Towards the end of his term at the Moor block, he also learned of Shang Yi, a batchmate in the same block who was into flight simulators, or so he was told by a mutual friend. Cheng Yong headed upstairs to Shang Yi’s room one night and introduced himself, only to discover that they were both flying the same Boeing 777 on the same software at that time. They then hunkered down in either of their rooms and flew the simulator together in the short period between the end of prep time and light outs (or so they tell us). The Air France 447 also found its way into their conversations – rather morbid events are a recurring theme in Shang Yi’s story.

From there, Cheng Yong got to know more people who shared this interest, and on the 8th of March, 2016, the Aviation Club officially took flight in rather dramatic fashion. A Whatsapp group was formed. No visionary foresight or five-year plan was involved. It was created “simply to bring schoolmates who are aviation enthusiasts together to engage in fun discussions,” Cheng Yong tells us.

But make no mistake. Though the group was formed in 2016, Cheng Yong’s aviation journey had taken off long before.

***

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For Cheng Yong, it all began when he was six, with a lumbering, double-deckered jumbo jet known to the world as the Airbus A380. Singapore Airlines was the launch customer for the A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner, the epitome of engineering excellence by any measure. Cheng Yong’s fascination with the A380, watching with wonder as its massive frame swooped down onto the Changi Airport Runway, sparked a certain fire within him.

He attended the first Singapore Airshow in 2008, and while we were using the internet to play Y8 games or watch cartoons, Cheng Yong was watching Youtube videos about Airbus – and the A380 in particular.

He was then introduced to more aircraft models, variants and types when he started playing flight simulators. Now, he is knowledgeable not just about commercial airlines but also bombers, military transport aircraft, fighters and helicopters.

Cheng Yong also notes that he always been into aviation photography, which is not a surprise given that he manages the Raffles Aviation Instagram page and is in the Photographic Society as well. While not all the shots on the Instagram page are his, he edits nearly every photo. The accompanying captions for the photos include not just the airline and the airplane model but almost always, little tidbits of trivia about things like the airplane model, the current usage of that particular model in comparison with other competing models as well as current fate of the airline.

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Cheng Yong (left) embarks on yet another planespotting trip

Cheng Yong is also undeniably the chairman of Raffles Aviation (though officially, they don’t have one). The de-facto leader of the club, he continues to play a huge role in organising the club’s excursions, activities and competition entries.

Chatting with the other members of the club makes it clear that the consultative approach that Cheng Yong takes towards managing the club seems to be working, giving members room to dabble in areas of aviation that excite them personally –  arguably the very purpose of the club.

At the time of writing, Cheng Yong is planning another Crowne plaza staycation for the club following the success of the previous one.

***

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Shang Yi (right) at the ASC 2018

The next time you write a GP essay about the powers of the internet, you might want to consider including Shang Yi as a case-study.

Shang Yi, at the age of 11, first got (somewhat morbidly) into aviation watching Air Crash Investigation on National Geographic. His interest in aviation moved from one screen to another as he read up more about aviation on the internet and watched Youtube videos that piqued his interest in commercial aviation.

When asked more about the reason for his interest in aviation, he tells us that it’s “just cool in general”, before adding that it gives him peace of mind when he flies (which probably explains the recurrence of deadly plane crashes in his story). He also tells us that his friends have now become very knowledgeable about aviation, thanks to what he calls his “bragging”.

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Shang Yi had his introduction to flight simulators in an online video at some point in secondary two, a year before it would draw him and Cheng Yong together. The idea of flying a plane and controlling the various aircraft systems interested him, prompting him to get his hands on Flightgear, an open-source software he downloaded off the internet for free. He mostly flies the Boeing 777, the -300ER variant has the most powerful jet engines (GE90-115B) at the moment, so he enjoys the thrill you get during the power up at takeoff. The fact that he frequently flies on the 777 in real life might have also been a contributing factor.

But that wasn’t it it for Shang Yi’s aviation journey either. A few years ago, he stumbled upon a Youtube channel that pieced together live Air Traffic Control (ATC) recordings from emergencies and special events with a simulation. The way the ATC managed the situation had an impression on Shang Yi, who started listening to ATC recordings on the internet.

Ever the geek, Shang Yi married his love for aviation with his interest in computer programming – he is a member of the school’s Computer Science society – he programmed his own ATC simulator which he released (“on Google Play as Terminal Control: Lite,” he hints) in December 2018. He plans to complete and release the full version by the end of the year.

***

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Take, from your wallet, a two-dollar bill, and hold it under your lips by the short end. Now, blow. The bill, which originally flops down towards the ground, rises up. Stop blowing, and it returns to its original position.

The wings of a plane, too, work in a similar way. Due to its unique shape (known as an airfoil), a wing travelling through air will find that air travels faster above it than it does below it. Thanks to a rule known as Bernoulli’s principle, we know that this means the air pressure below the wing is higher than it is above. Air, as a result, flows and turns across the wing in a way that generates an upward force, known as lift. Lift, well, then lifts it into the sky.

At least, that’s what science tells us. But even with this knowledge in mind, it’s hard to picture how this principle can safely propel a hunk of metal – weighing several tonnes, at the very least – through the air at speeds sometimes exceeding thousands of kilometres per hour.

It might be easier to believe in magic.

As Aswin (who cites the Wright Brothers as his role models) puts it, “The idea of flying really interests me. Perhaps it’s because I can fully appreciate the engineering phenomenon, which we know as flight.”

One of the original five members of the Aviation Club, Aswin played a key role in its growth. The drive to learn easily by sharing, he told us, without having to scour for reliable information at libraries or the internet, pushed them on; the desire to meet like minded individuals, to gain inspiration and insight spurred him to start the club with Cheng Yong in lead. “This would help all enthusiasts to learn and improve,” he concludes.

He tells us that, he hopes to one day join the RSAF as a fighter pilot. “I know there will be no greater satisfaction than doing what I love most to defend the nation that has nurtured me.”

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We ask him about the earliest memory in his aviation journey.

“Probably when I was 3 or 4 years old. I was finally able to understand the concept of an aircraft. While waiting to board, for the very first time, I saw a SQ Boeing 747-400. Everything from its sheer size, airframe, elegance and engines appealed to me.

“So it’s something like love at first sight.”

Perhaps, it’s not too hard to believe that there’s a little magic in this world, after all.

***

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“Personally, I think the feeling is a myriad of emotions all jumbled together,” Tzao Kai tells us. “When [flying a plane solo], it’s just you, the plane and the sky. You’re free from the boundaries that you have on the ground. You’re free to go wherever you want, whenever you want.”

Tzao Kai’s exploits span the elements. Having conquered the waters as part of the school’s water polo team, he now sets his sights towards the skies as a member of not only the 83-strong Aviation Club, but also the Singapore Youth Flying Club, where he holds a CAAS (Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore) Private Pilot’s License.

“And to think that there is nobody in the next 1000 feet vertically and horizontally,” he continues, “That is truly very liberating. As you cruise through the clouds, it seems that life’s worries just fade away. You’ll get the feeling of awe and gratefulness, marvelling at how it is possible to actually be up in the sky.”

“All in all, flying a plane is one of the best feelings in the world, and is really difficult to put it in words.” – Tzao Kai

Like many in the Aviation Club, Tzao Kai’s passion for aviation bloomed at an early age. He speaks of how, since he was young, he had been fascinated by aeroplanes – these, giant, hulking, masses of metal – and how miraculous it is that they are able to soar through the sky, elegantly, like birds. He speaks of how he marvelled at the ingenuity of humanity to create these flying beasts. How, as a child, he had dreamed of flying the Concorde (“It was the fastest commercial aircraft…”).

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Today, just as he did in his childhood dreams, Tzao Kai takes to the skies. Among the 83 members of the Aviation Club, he is one of few who have experienced flight from the pilot’s chair. He speaks eagerly of his experiences, taking us through everything from joyrides on RSAF aircraft, to The Singapore Airshow, where he got to go into new aircraft and interact with fighter pilots from various air forces, to a navigation flight to Malacca. During the latter, which he embarked on with two of his instructors and three of his friends from his Private Pilot’s License course, he flew a private aircraft from Seletar Airport to Malacca for lunch and shopping, then back home – all in the span of a day.

For Tzao Kai, flight was also a journey of self-discovery and self-improvement. He emphasises how his experiences in the Singapore Youth Flying Club (an undoubtedly rewarding but arduous process – Tzao Kai took us through a comprehensive checklist involving medical checks, over 50 sorties across three phases, and written examinations on seven ground school subjects) built his character. In the face of hardships with very little room for error, he learnt the value of persistence, resilience and perseverance.

Fine traits, in fact, to take with him to the Air Force – which he plans to sign on to in a few years.

But for all the time he’s spent behind the control panel, Tzao Kai still hasn’t let go of his sense of wonder. “Up till today,” he tells us, “whenever I see an aircraft in the sky, I am still amazed.”

***

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To most of us, flying on a plane is simply the boring precursor to a much-awaited trip to a new destination. It’s time to kill (usually by sleeping).

Perhaps that’s because we take it as a fact of life, a given. To many, travelling and flying is part and parcel of life. Do it enough times and any curiosity we had in our childhood is eventually replaced with nonchalance and maybe a slight annoyance at the blocked ears.

And so, the fact that we are flying is lost on us. We shrug at the fact that we are up in the sky, tens of thousands of feet away from the ground, gliding among the clouds at unimaginable altitudes only Peter Pan and fairies traverse.

The sheer magnitude of an airplane is also lost upon us. As we ride a vehicle carrying tens of thousands of kilograms of both fuel as well as both passengers and cargo, taking off into the sky at speeds 10 times that of a car, the thing that gets us excited the most is the personal TV on the chair in front of you.

And to put that into perspective, consider the fact that we went from the Wright Brothers’ flight, which lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet at a maximum altitude of 3 meters, to the modern commercial airliners that are mini villages with private showers on board – within the span of the century. In a 24 hour period, approximately 8 million people will have completed an airplane journey. 8 million everyday.

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The Aviation Club at the Singapore Airshow 2018

When these facts hit you, you can see why Cheng Yong wanted to introduce himself to Shang Yi the moment he heard that he was into aviation, why he heads a club 83-strong, even when it doesn’t show up in his CCA record. You can see why the members of the Raffles Aviation Club travel to the furthest corners of the country just to see which planes take off and land. Why they spend time imparting their knowledge to their juniors when they could be chilling like the rest of us. Why they dream of the skies.

Because they’ve been touched by the insanity that is the aviation industry, they’ve looked up into the skies and they’ve touched the clouds; they’ve seen the miracle of human flight. And once you’ve seen it, you’ll always see it.

***

Rapturous applause rises from the audience as the team of four heads onstage to receive the first-place prize from the guest-of-honour. Aswin, then Cheng Yong, then Shang Yi, then Tzao Kai, walk up to shake the hand of Professor Lui Pao Chuen, Singapore’s ex-Chief Defense Scientist, before they pose together for a photograph.

And as they descend, one can’t help but wonder, what’s next for the Aviation Club?

“My vision is for this club to continue growing with new members each year, especially the younger members and those who just joined the school, like Y1s and Y5s,” Cheng Yong tells us. “I hope that the club continues to exist many years down the road, so that Rafflesians who are into aviation will always have a place to bond with like-minded schoolmates.”

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He hopes to continue mentoring juniors for competitions that they took part in and won before, like ASC and National Air Race. The group would also like to continue having occasional aviation trips, and start a weekly meet up session in school if possible.

In addition, Cheng Yong hopes to lead the club through our CCA proposal and eventually start a CCA. “Ultimately, I would like to see this club become a CCA by itself,” he adds, “so that we can gain the support of the school (time, money, resources) to take part in competitions and engage in activities like drone flying, aeromodelling and flight simulation. Also, with our added prominence, we can ensure that any student in RI who is into aviation will be aware of our club and thus have the choice of joining our club.”

“These being said, next year will be tough for my batch because of A-levels, so time will be our biggest enemy here,” he admits.

It’s a long road ahead for the Raffles Aviation Club. Cheng Yong, Shang Yi, Tzao Kai and Aswin will soon leave the mess hall, the Air Force Museum, Raffles. But their journey, and that of the rest of the Aviation Club, will have merely just begun.

For now, we will watch as they revel in the glory of their prize. Watch their smiles and join in their laughter as they chat with the officers in attendance who will share of their stories, as they snap selfies and dream of what’s to come.

Before they go their ways, and take flight.

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