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The Peak Exclusive Interview: Keen to fly your own plane? You’d want to know Ng Yeow Meng

Growing up in a humble household, Ng never thought he could one day pilot his own plane. Today, the chief of Wings over Asia has transformed a hobby into a lifestyle for the region's plane owners.

Barely 400m above the green canvas of Malaysia’s lush plantations, a red-streaked aircraft hurtles southwards at an exhilarating 320kmh – faster than most F1 racers will ever clock. The time: 11.26am. Four minutes before we’re shut out of Singapore.

“I apologise,” says our pilot, as he nudges the throttle again. “Singapore’s airspace is closing for the air show. There’s no room for negotiation – the authorities are very strict.”

The Kodiak K100 bounces in midair, buffeted by thermals and air currents. Unperturbed, the man deftly outmanoeuvres them all. Minutes later, the plane pads down onto a runway in Seletar Airport. We’ve made it.

No sweat for our pilot, who happens to be Ng Yeow Meng, the man that business magnates trust with their planes. As the keystone in Asia’s tightly knit community of passionate flyers, the founder of private aviation concierge service Wings Over Asia is transforming the face of Seletar into both an ultra-luxe hub for Asia’s well-heeled aviators, as well as a top-notch destination for private flyers.

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This all stems from Ng’s passion for flying, which began in childhood. The 42-year-old hops out of the cockpit, but it’s a grinning boy who helps us disembark. His cheer is infectious. Just minutes ago, my white-knuckled co-passengers were turning shades closer to the pale leather seats in the $2.5 million aircraft. It was Ng’s obvious enjoyment that kept them going.

“When I am flying, it’s like all my worries and stress are left behind on the ground. It’s just me and the plane. It feels like a true state of zen,” explains Ng, in the tranquil tones of a man who is living his dream.

Better still that he’s found a perfect blend of business and leisure, in a multi-billion dollar industry poised to be the next feather in Singapore’s cap. The $10 million, 72,000 sq ft headquarters of his lifestyle and concierge brand, Wings Over Asia, opened in June 2016 off Seletar Airport.

A rendering of the new Wings Over Asia headquarters, to be opened in May.

Getting to this point, however, was a combination of luck, opportunity and dedication.

EARNING HIS WINGS

Ng never thought he’d be here. Flying had been a pipe dream for the eldest son of a vegetable seller and a factory worker.

“Back then, we could only dream of being an airline pilot or an air force pilot,” he reminisces. The family’s tough financial situation didn’t allow for private lessons. Even so, the young Ng began buying and assembling Tamiya model planes, despite the high cost of the spray paint. “I would slowly save for the paint. Some planes took a year to finish.”

His lucky break came only decades later at the age of 23, while he was in his first job at a General Electric aircraft engine plant in Ohio, the US. The engineering graduate took up a management trainee post in the software arm, and had to clear the grounds by 5pm each day due to his restricted security clearance as a foreign national.

“So there was really nothing to do, right? There are cornfields and nothing else (in Ohio),” Ng says with a laugh. “Especially in the summertime, when the sun sets at 9pm. So I thought, okay, let’s go flying!” He drove right into a nearby airfield in the company car, filled out the paperwork for flying lessons, and at last took to the air.

There are cornfields and nothing else (in Ohio).. so I thought, okay, let’s go flying!”
Ng Yeow Meng

“It was really cheap to do (flying) there,” he enthuses, rummaging through a sheaf of documents on his faux-leather desk, and coming up with a laminated 16-year-old receipt from an airfield. “Only about US$50 each time,” he says triumphantly, as though he’d found a steal.

After five months of twice-weekly lessons, he earned his pilot’s licence and the dream was essentially realised. He could have called it a day then, but the adventurer in him was just getting started.

THE FRIENDSHIPS

Ng eventually found that flying in Singapore was a whole different ball game. He returned to Singapore in 2001 to set up a business consultancy, and wanted to resume flying. The aircraft usage and handling fees, however, were significantly higher, compared to neighbouring Malaysia. Ever the thrifty soul, he’d ride up the causeway on his Suzuki 125 motorcycle, weathering the elements to get his flying fix.

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Lower cost is the chief reason why aviators might favour parking their craft in Malaysia, over Singapore. Ng sought to remedy that shortfall here.

Over time, Ng befriended a scattering of like-minded aviators across Asia, who were in turn parts of loosely connected social circles. Many were personable characters with fascinating stories. He cites the example of a Singaporean business owner who would fly to Ipoh solo, just to check on his mines.

Yet, there was a lack of a true community where everyone was aware of regional events, or could organise activities. “Members of flying clubs in the region were simply buzzing around the airfields, then going home,” says Ng. “After a few years, this can get really stale and the flyers will think, ‘What do I do next?’ Flying alone is boring.”

Seeing a need to address this, he applied his computer programming knowledge to create a Wings Over Asia blog, which evolved into a Facebook- like social website where members could interact freely. Through this platform, the Wings Over Asia flying social network was formed, and it quickly grew by word of mouth. (Facebook, by the way, surfaced two years later, in 2006.)

“The site was the first step in breaking down geographical barriers among members,” says Ng, whose early efforts were focused on equipping the members to venture outside their home airfield. “Then, in the late 2000s, Wings Over Asia made a big push to organise flying tours and weekend getaways.”

Even new fliers joined in, as they felt safer flying in numbers to distant locations such as Hua Hin in Thailand. The community grew to over 1,000-strong, with up to a hundred very active members who frequented events.

Slide / swipe to see some of WingsOverAsia’s members and events.

THE OPPORTUNITY

As his network and Asia’s aviation scene grew, Ng turned his attention back to the lack of infrastructure on home ground, particularly in the private aviation support sector. While Changi Airport racked up accolades as a world-class airport, the range and level of services in Seletar remained stagnant.

Sensing a golden opportunity that was also closely linked to his hobby, Ng wrapped up his consultancy and established Wings Over Asia as a full-fledged business in 2009.

“Don’t think so much about achieving your dream. Just head in the right direction, earn your way to the opportunity, and hang out lots in the relevant domain. The doors will open.”
Ng Yeow Meng, on achieving dreams

The company has since upped the luxe factor of private flights into Singapore. For example, his clients and their guests receive a red-carpet reception, then step into a BMW which ferries them to Customs. No more plodding around on the runway asphalt. That same car sends them all the way to their hotel in town, which is crucial, considering the lack of cabs typical in Seletar. In the meantime, Ng’s team expertly parks and maintains the aircraft, readying it for its next use.

Little gestures are not spared, either. Guests from Malaysia will find bottles of Vitamin Water stocked in the runway vehicle. “We noticed that there was a trend in Malaysia of this (beverage) being very popular,” says Ng. The office fridge is full of the drink cartons. “By the bottles, the Seletar Airport Customs officers can tell who Wings Over Asia fliers are!”

Now into its eighth year, the $30 million company is becoming the one-stop concierge and solutions provider for business fliers and aviators. The new and cavernous facility is replete with offices, two state-of-the-art plane hangars, a rooftop lounge and, of course, a restaurant with a full bar service.

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The twin hangars feature contemporary lighting and ventilation systems. Ng was insistent on adopting the latest fittings for the facility.

But the hoops Ng had to jump through as a trailblazer were countless, with much energy spent making sure new processes were compliant with laws and regulations. He’s said to have been a key influence on the improvement of operating procedures for small, personal aircraft based in Singapore. Prior to his involvement, the authorities viewed them as unpredictable entities and, consequently, an inefficient use of limited airspace and airport resources.

“Flying is the most regulated of all the modes of transport – even a simple coffee machine may take months before approval to install it on a plane is granted,” he explains.

THE PASSION

As the worn-out faux leather on his office chair hints, Ng spends a great chunk of his time pushing those envelopes from within a building. “It’s the great irony. Other pilots, even friends in commercial, envy me because I have access to so many planes,” says Ng broodingly. He sometimes flies delivery or is simply trusted with keys to a friend’s plane. “But the reality is, I’m so busy that I fly maybe only two days a month.”

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A stopover in Taba, Egypt. Flying delivery missions is one of the rare times Ng gets to take a break from growing the brand.

But there are, of course, benefits to being able to pilot a great variety of aircraft, if he can find the time. “On the weekends, I could wake up and decide to visit a nearby beach or have a good lunch (out of Singapore),” he says. Think hor fun in Ipoh, or a trip to Tioman on a whim.

“It takes perhaps a few minutes to file a flight plan (with the authorities)… I could be off in a few hours, then be back in Singapore by the afternoon, and still have the rest of the day for family and friends.”

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He also makes an annual trip to destinations such as Japan with the wife and another couple, stopping where required to refuel and to soak in the freedom being your own pilot affords.

But the dream has progressed far beyond flying for personal enjoyment, to empowering fellow aviators to do the same. On top of the leisure activities, the club frequently runs well-attended seminars to update its members’ technical skills. The website has a wealth of information on flight protocol and updated information for most stops in Asia. All this would not have materialised if Ng had been content with flying as a hobby.

(click to expand) Ng decodes the pilot chatter of the standard landing procedure.

On a wall in Ng’s original office, a cheerful boy on his pedal-powered flying chair dominates. It’s a full-colour drawing in the style of Hayao Miyazaki. “The Passion Doesn’t End When You Land!” reads the caption. It’s the company’s saccharine-sweet slogan but, as we look over the desk at the man who’s championed the cause for years, we realise it’s perfect.

WOA-SeletarLounge

Custom-made wallpapers and model planes hanging from the ceiling in the old club lounge speak of the enthusiasm of Ng and his crew.

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HIGHWAY TO EUROPE

While some families have road trips, Ng plans air trips. His plane, a turboprop TBM900, has a top range of 3,200km, which means he makes several stopovers on the way to the UK. All the better to see the world, we say.

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01: SINGAPORE – BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA
Duration: 2 hours
Stopover: 1 hour to refuel.
Notes: Friendly, fast, efficient service. The natural landscape is beautiful.

02: BANDA ACEH – COLOMBO, SRI LANKA
Duration: 3 hours
Stopover: Overnight.
Notes: Expensive airport for ground handling, but people are friendly and food is good. Stayed at famous Gall Face Hotel, which faces the Indian Ocean.

03: COLOMBO – AHMEDABAD, INDIA
Duration: 3.5 hours
Stopover: 1 hour to refuel, another hour to sort our paperwork, despite having a handling agent.
Notes: Bureaucratic process delays are common. Fuel is delivered only with advance booking, no cash or credit card.

04: AHMEDABAD – MUSCAT, OMAN
Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes
Stopover: 1 hour to refuel
Notes: A charming city with sporadic greenery amid the desert brown mountain landscape by the Indian Ocean. People are super friendly and helpful.

05: MUSCAT – BAHRAIN
Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes
Stopover: Overnight
Notes: Efficient and fast service. I usually plan for a night arrival and landing so I can catch a quick dinner and go to bed. I like Movenpick hotel that is next to the airport, which is very convenient.

06 BAHRAIN – AQABA, JORDAN
Duration: 3 hours
Stopover: 1 hour to refuel (sometimes a night stop).
Notes: Personally, this is the most boring part on the journey as we see endless desert for the entire flight. However, arrival into Aqaba is always fascinating as it sits at the top of the Red Sea and, when approaching land, we see Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all at once. On occasions when we can afford a night stop, a visit to the ancient city of Petra is fascinating. It is quite warm in summer at over 40 deg C, but in winter, it’s perfect!

07 AQABA – CORFU, GREECE
Duration: 3.5 hours
Stopover: 1 hour to refuel (sometimes a night stop).
Notes: Lesser known, but astonishingly scenic seaside town. It is not overcrowded with international tourists. The Europeans like it here and the island is very tranquil. Restaurants and boutique hotels are charming, not to mention the sumptuous Greek food and local wine.

08 CORFU – GENEVA, SWITZERLAND
Duration: 2.5 hours
Stopover: 1 hour to refuel.
Notes: Just the view of the snow-capped Alps is worth flying over. Landing in Geneva takes careful planning, if visibility is less than ideal due to the proximity to high terrain. But a clear day offers breathtaking views on approach to land and departure.

09 GENEVA – BOURNEMOUTH,UK
Duration: 1.5 hours
Destination: Wings Over Asia member John Gidden’s hometown, where he spends the summer.
Notes: We either stay at a guest house or John’s cottage in the well-preserved New Forest. There’s an English pub with excellent draft beers and sumptuous fish and chips by the Lymington Harbour, whose yacht clubs have produced many Olympic sailing champions like Ben Ainslie. It is always a delight to go for a morning jog, with wild horses roaming around and being surrounded by apple trees. The trails through the woods remind me of those found in Enid Blyton stories. It recharges me and clears my mind before I head back to the hustle and bustle of Singapore.

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