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No complacency for this SIA pilot despite A380's advanced features

Published on Oct 17, 2012 6:48 PM
 

Every one remembers their first - first day at school, first love, first job.

And so it is no surprise that Singapore Airlines (SIA) pilot Captain (Capt) Ignatius Khoo remembers his first solo flight with unwavering clarity after 17 years.

The Beechcraft F33A Bonanza with a single propeller aircraft with retractable landing gear was the plane he was tasked to fly alone, he recalled in an interview with The Straits Times Online. It appeared that one of the three landing gears had not been lowered, and after running through the checklist, he decided to swop the light bulbs among the indicators to first verify if it had just been a blown bulb problem.

That's when the fun began: He dropped one of the bulbs, and was frantically scrambling to find it.

'As you can imagine, in a light aircraft bouncing about in the warm Australian thermals on your first solo flight, it was indeed a somewhat worrying moment for me,' said Capt Khoo wryly.

And yes, he retrieved the dropped light bulb, made the swop, and landed smoothly.

Today, the 44-year-old pilot has moved from flying a lightweight aircraft to the world's biggest commercial plane - the Airbus A380.

The A380 is also one of the most technologically advanced commercial planes right now; however, this does not detract from the importance of the human touch, asserted Capt Khoo.

'People think because this is a highly-computerised aircraft, flying the plane is super automated, with automated take-offs and landings,' he said.

'The fact is that all take-offs are manual, and 99 per cent of the time we do manual landings. The few occasions we do automatic landings are when we land in fogged conditions, with near-zero visibility, or if operational requirements need us to do one.'

Rigorous and frequent tests keep the pilots on their toes so that perfect take-offs and landings become the norm, as well as prepare them for diverse scenarios.

He explained: 'SIA's pilots are constantly spending time training in simulators throughout the year to stay prepared for all possible emergencies, such as engine failures, flying through a hailstorm and even animals running onto the runway. Pilots - veteran and otherwise - will even turn up at the training centre as early as 2.30am just to train and go through emergencies.'

Dynamic challenges

'Flying is a dynamic profession by nature and you constantly encounter a myriad of new and varied challenges,' he added.

He stated unequivocally: 'Being a pilot means being on top of your game all the time. This is one of the few jobs where you can't have an off day.'

The tip-top preparedness once helped him on a flight to Europe. 'Just before descending, we got a message indicating a loss of hydraulic pressure. We found out after a thorough check that due to system degradation, we couldn't land the typical way. Instead, we had to employ gravity extension,' described Capt Khoo.

This is a method where gravity is used to deploy the landing gear into the down-and-locked position. Once in position, the landing gear is mechanically locked, and safe to use and land on.

The landing turned out to be uneventful, although the plane was closely followed by 10 emergency vehicles activated by the airport authorities.

Surely the captain is a good pilot and his calm efficiency and professionalism must have helped? Smiling, he said: 'A modern aircraft like the A380, although complex in design, offers a high degree of redundancy in critical systems, so even if an important aircraft system fails, the secondary systems will kick in.

'This makes the A380 one of the safest aircraft flying today.'

Safety, safety and safety is the top priority on this SIA pilot's mind. As he said: 'The primary task of the captain is to fly the aircraft from the point of departure to the destination safely.'

Yet, there are some things that no amount of extensive training can quite prepare you for. Capt Khoo remembered how he recently received a passenger request asking for the exact location of the plane three-and-a-half hours into the flight. The passenger had been hurrying back to Hong Kong from Europe for the birth of his first child.

'However, his wife delivered while he was still in the air. So he wanted to know where he was when it happened!'

Understanding the sentiment of such a request, Capt Khoo willingly dug up the flight plans. He reckoned the plane was in Chisinau airspace in Moldova.

So there are the big things - like landing a plane full of passengers safely in the face of a technical fault - and there are the small things, like going out of the way to accommodate a passenger.

But all that is all right for Capt Khoo because the passion for flying drives him till this day. The father of three first aspired to be a pilot when as a child, he would hear planes flying over the family home which was near the Paya Lebar airbase.

'Sure, it can be tough work, but there's no greater joy than lining up the A380 on the runway on a nice, clear morning, all 569 tonnes of it, and powering up my Trent 972s with 72,000lbs (32,658.65kg) of thrust per engine and just going down the runway and taking off...'

Capt Khoo's face then lit up as he continued: 'I mean, there's no greater joy!'

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