With a swift slam of the wafer thin airframe door and an encouraging “adios amigo” from my zealous, five-foot-nothing flying instructor, I was left sitting alone for the first time in my tiny, two seater aeroplane, in the middle of the oppressive summer heat of the Australian bush, far from Hong Kong. Everything I had spent hours learning vanished from my very nervous mind, which was racing faster than a Zivko Edge 540 at a RedBull World Championships Air Race. “What does this button do? That wasn’t there before!” And yet, this was my moment: my very first solo flight as a young 15-year-old pilot. And I was born to do it.
You’re probably wondering how I arrived at that life-changing moment.
The story begins in 1964, when my father was daydreaming in class and was told by the teacher that he wouldn’t be paid to stare out of the window. Little did that teacher know, my dad in fact would make a career of it – as a world-class pilot. At the age of 20, he was named Australian Pilot of the Year and would soon become an airline captain. He absolutely loved flying and woke up every morning thrilled to go to work. He saw the world as a series of overnight stays in motels and city lights though the windscreen on a red-eye. He learned about different cultures from the accents of Fijian air traffic controllers and late night Malaysian dinners at a Kuala Lumpur eatery after a long-haul flight. He made lifelong friends who shared his gusto for adventure as well as many inside anecdotes, like the time “the left aileron failed at 10,000 and we had to go 10 o’clock and 70 knots on the electronic countermeasures”. Pilots are a very special breed and they thrive in herds.
My dad is an aero-fanatic; he loves planes and everything related to them. And according to New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell, he is definitely an expert in his field, having gathered nearly 20,000 hours of flying (the equivalent of more than two full years spent up in the air). Family pictures don’t line his mantelpiece; instead, vintage photographs of twin engines. His pride and joy isn’t his three children but his beautiful, maroon and white 1980s Cessna four-seater which flies like a hot knife through butter. I am not allowed to touch it with a 10-foot pole.
My part of this journey began in 2001. Fate allowed me to be born in Hong Kong in a mutli-cultural family. I was born at 3.5 kilos, blood type O and tested positive for the “Hipwell Flying” gene. From the age of three, I was immersed in this aero-obsession during my annual vacations to Australia, where my dad lived. My first memory is eating yoghurt off an aeroplane-shaped spoon. At 11, during a flight in the Cessna, my dad handed me the controls. We were in a very safe area and nothing could happen to his precious baby – the Cessna, that is. I fell in love right then and there. I felt the freedom and the control. All there was in front of me and behind me was the deep blue sky and silence, except for the roar of the engine. It was an incredibly transcendent experience. It was safe to say that I had the aviation blood coursing through my veins.
In Australia, you can become a certified pilot at 15 – before you’re even allowed to get you driver’s permit. And who needs to drive when you can fly? Traffic is a nightmare anyways, and pulling up in a plane is so much cooler than your mum’s old minivan. I began training for the pilot’s license at 15 and was able to complete it in time for my sweet sixteenth (yes, amidst all this I still was a bratty, moody teenager). The process was long and arduous. It was a combination of my dad’s mansplaining, outdated diagrams and unopened manuals as thick as the entire Harry Potter saga. There were times when I got the hang of something pretty quickly, and other times when nothing clicked. For one thing, I still don’t understand how aeroplanes can fly. They literally defy gravity. I mean, how does that even work?
But my training really took off when I met Richard, my flight instructor. He combined Danny De Vito’s hairline with Maverick’s can-do spirit and flying skills, and a vernacular and build that closely resembled Yoda’s. And he came with his very own two-seat, state-of-the-art Tecnam aeroplane. I hit the jackpot of flying instructors. We soon became co-pilots instead of teacher and student. He was incredibly trusting of me – at times a little too much; I nearly busted the Tecnam’s tyres on botched landings and almost sent us into a nosedive far too often. I’m surprised the thing still flies after I was done with it. But that plane became my best friend and I began to truly understand my dad’s aeromania.
As the pages of my log book filled up, I felt closer and closer to my dream of getting my license. However, I had several patches of turbulence to fly through before achieving it. The first was a series of four theoretical tests on basic aeronautical knowledge, radio use, air legislation and human factors. And next was a solo flight. A SOLO FLIGHT. As in just me, myself and I with just the blinking controls for company in the middle of the sky. I was able to pass the tests with flying colours (pun intended) and I was patiently waiting for the day when Richard would give me the green light for my first solo, but I never thought it would come so soon.
After a morning of routine circuit flying with Richard on a still, sweltering day, my life was changed forever. Richard told me to stop the plane in the middle of the runway, and I thought to myself, “I’ve finally done it, I’ve scared him so badly with my terrible flying that we need to call it a day or else he’s gonna be sick everywhere.” What happened next wasn’t exactly along the lines of that. Richard did get out of the cabin but he turned to me and said “adios amigo” and slammed the cockpit door shut. I was ready for my first solo.
It was just me and 30 metres of runway ahead. I revved the engine and let the tiny plane ravenously swallow the stretch of runway in front of me. My panic was left behind on the ground as the nose pitched towards the sky at my direction and the wheels lifted off the dusty surface, leaving a swirling cloud behind me, like a magician off to another realm. I’ve never felt more at home. I was grinning like the Cheshire cat the whole time – and there’s the GoPro footage for proof. I looked ridiculous, nothing like the suave, renegade pilot, aviators perched on the bridge of her nose, clad with a leather jacket, which I had hoped to be. But I definitely felt like it. I had no inhibitions and the world was my oyster. The houses and cars were getting smaller and smaller as my confidence grew more and more. For the first time in my life, I felt proud to be a teenage girl. I had worked so hard and my efforts had paid off. I was the queen of the skies. I, a young Hong Kong girl, had just achieved her dreams.
What I was most proud of was not the fact that I knew how to fly a plane, but that I was the only female voice on the communication radio. I was also the only female member of the local flying club. I was busting the glass ceiling with my Tecnam and I was breaking stereotypes for teenage girls worldwide. In my life, I have often been undermined or sidelined by my male counterparts, and this achievement has allowed me to push past it all and lay the groundwork for my future endeavours. I am here to make women like Amelia Earhart proud.
Feminism may be enjoying a moment right now, but only in the adult world. The teenage world operates under different legislation. High school, especially at international Hong Kong schools, is a breeding ground for competitiveness and teens – girls in particular – need to constantly prove themselves. Plagued by Hollywood’s stereotype of a self-centered, materialistic, moody teen girl, real girls need to work overtime to earn the respect of others while juggling all the throes of high school life. It is harder than it looks. And I’m not being over-dramatic. We have just as much to offer as our male peers and we’re here to prove it. The sky is not our limit and I have demonstrated that through my aeronautical journey. We can earn our wings and have a hell of a time doing it.