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The high flyers: How three NTU alumni switched gears to become pilots

They share with Foo Jie Ying the ups and downs of their journey to the cockpit

Soaring in a man's world

Growing up, Amira Mohamed Tamiri had always wanted to be the female protagonist in her favourite Hollywood blockbuster.

“When I was a kid, people thought I was very soft, and just not hardy or tough enough. I would always try to prove them wrong, because I hated being called a weakling,” the NTU mechanical engineering graduate explains.

Her “girl power” inspiration was Leticia Ortiz (played by Michelle Rodriguez) from The Fast and the Furious franchise. “She can race, fix cars… anything a guy can do, she can too. I wanted to be her – on equal standing with the guys.”

Now at 28, she’s proven herself by being the youngest female cadet pilot in SilkAir, the regional arm of Singapore Airlines. Her back-up plan was to be a Formula 1 driver.

“As a kid, you think you can do anything,” she says with a laugh.

While she is busy earning her wings at the Singapore Flying College in Perth, Australia, Amira lets on that flying an aircraft was once just pie in the sky.

The teenage Amira had wanted to join the Republic of Singapore Air Force to become a pilot, but was told to first take classes at the Singapore Youth Flying Club – a route most aspiring pilots take to get their Private Pilot Licence, before moving on to other flying certifications and conversion courses to pilot specific models of commercial or military aircraft.

Amira says: “I badly wanted to join the club, but my parents couldn’t afford the classes, so I shelved those plans.”

Keen on cars, physics and mathematics, she pursued NTU’s mechanical engineering degree programme, not realising it would steer her to the cockpit.

“My background in mechanical engineering helps in my understanding of the whole physics and mechanics behind flying and maintaining an aircraft. But learning how to fly the aircraft was something I had to pick up from scratch. It was a steep learning curve,” says Amira.

It was also in NTU that she experienced “gender inclusivity”, since most of her course mates were guys. “It didn’t matter to them that I was a girl. They were not afraid to ask if they needed help from me. They acknowledged that I could be better than them at some things,” says Amira, who is one of the two females in her batch of 10 cadet pilots.

In March, she completed her first solo flight – a nerve-wrecking but thrilling first milestone as a cadet pilot.

“Being in command of the aircraft with no one to tell you what to do… It’s a really good experience. It’s that similar feeling when you’re finally able to drive,” says Amira, who used to zoom around on a Honda Wave motorbike until it was scrapped.

Now, not a day passes without her on cloud nine as she takes off in a single-engine Cessna 172 for solo practice flights. “It doesn’t matter where I go. To be honest, as the months pass by, I get more and more excited about each flight. Each time, it’s indescribable,” she says.

That she is part of a small but growing number of women taking to the skies makes flying a whole lot more satisfying. “You know what people say about a job not really being a job if you enjoy what you’re doing? I won’t give that up for the world.”

Time flies when you’re having fun.