Pilot turned Entrepreneur turned Teacher
“Do not limit yourself. If you eliminate the boundaries, you no longer need to think outside of the box because literally there is NO box.”
Nigel, the Founder at Aero Institute and a former airline pilot, shares with us the possibilities that we can create for ourselves. With a dream of becoming a pilot and promoting the aviation industry to a wider audience, he has taken leaps of faith to follow his passion throughout his career.
During the interview, he unveiled many secrets behind the wheels of an aeroplane and running a leading education business. The writers enjoyed seeing the sparks in Nigel and sincerely hope that his story can inspire readers who have a vision, but are hesitating whether to take their leap of faith.
Why did you choose to study Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial?
I was better at Math and Physics in high school, hence Engineering at Imperial was certainly the perfect choice. Besides, I personally enjoy pursuing things that were special and unique. So I chose Aeronautical Engineering among all, because this major was not available anywhere in Asia in the 1990s. However, I did not have too much idea about which career path to pursue, and I certainly never thought about becoming an Airline Pilot. Most of my seniors became Engineers in Cathay or HAECO, and I thought that would be my natural outcome as well. Fortunately, a summer internship in an airline opened my eyes to the operational aspects of Aviation. During my final year, I focused more on the non-technical subjects, and I chose a Final Year Project at an Engineering Consulting Firm in Hampshire, to understand more about Business Operations and the Commercial World. I also had a few hours of flying lessons in Southampton Airport after which I could not help but craving for more. Hence, after graduation, I spent my lifetime savings to obtain my Private Pilot Licence in Sydney. When controlling a flying aircraft, the knowledge and theories I learned in lectures did not only stay on paper, instead they came to live when applied into real-life practical situations. In 2001, the world economy was not bright and UK companies were reluctant to apply work permits for foreign graduates. Fortunately the Consultancy Firm were happy with my performance, leading to my First Class Honours, Work Permit and a Job Offer to stay with them. I worked for them until I was selected as a cadet pilot for Dragonair, and began my flying career.
What were your favourite memories at Imperial?
Since young, I was a passionate and competitive volleyball player. Hence I joined the IC volleyball team. I held a starting position in the IC team since I arrived, because my high school coach was from the Singapore National Team. Not surprisingly I had intense training and won National Schools Championships before Imperial.
As a setter (i.e. playmaker) in the volleyball game, I read my teammates and the opponents every minute, built strategies to utilise maximum strength to score and defend. Our team emerged 1st in Greater London in my year 1 and next year we achieved 2nd among all Universities in the UK. It was great to fight with my IC Volleyball teammates from Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Lebanon, Sweden etc. I truly expanded my circle and horizon.
Why and how did you want to become an entrepreneur?
I came from a humble family and becoming an Airline Pilot had certainly changed my life in many aspects. I call it the best job in the world. However, our locals only made up 10% of all Airline Pilots in HK. I believe the root cause was mainly a lack of aviation exposure for our HK locals. In response I wanted to promote the aviation industry to the masses in Hong Kong. Hence, I started Aero Institute when I saw this shortage of professional training in the market, but a growing demand for individuals who would like to become a pilot. Interestingly, I found myself enjoying sharing my experience very much. I had a strong sense of fulfilment, felt meaningful and purposeful when helping others to achieve their goals. That satisfaction is priceless. With dedication and commitment, we stood out gradually by providing valuable learnings and useful advice to young minds who have the ambition to become a pilot. Good words spread. As a pioneer, we managed to become one of the leading aviation education brands.
Were there any tips in your life? What were your most valuable learnings in your journey so far? On being an entrepreneur:
In business, I have learnt the real meaning of VALUE, and be able to recognise Value in our surroundings. It sounds simple but it’s not easily achieved. Many businesses failed because of that.
In business dealings, GIVE before you TAKE. The extra Value you give out will not be wasted. It actually goes into your branding. When I first started my teaching business, I gave free trial classes for interested individuals, including diagnosis and consultations. Potential students could instantly recognise that we were providing great values. Business came in naturally afterwards.
Career-wise, leaving my pilot job was the toughest decision I’ve ever made, especially when I had worked so hard to achieve this goal. However, with hindsight, I am glad to have such courage to let go, and pursued a even more purposeful journey. Now I would confidently say that I became literally fearless when facing challenges.
What was your biggest achievement to date?
To date, over 200 students from my institute became airline pilots. I feel very fulfilled to be part of their endeavour. Not only did we assist them pursue their dream, we supported them through the ups and downs even after they have become pilots. We remain a strong community. I find great meaning impacting lives with what I do.
If you can go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self? I would say:
Do not underestimate yourself. You would rather try and fail, than not trying at all. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. You will definitely benefit from the experience. Have more confidence in yourself.
Be brave and open-minded to choose a different path to broaden and enrich your life experience. You only live once!
What is your advice for current students who would like to become a pilot/ entrepreneur? Through my years of teaching and interacting with young minds, I noticed that the younger generation is not lacking information like decades ago. In fact nowadays they are flooded by information and resources, to a point they get confused and lost. Hence what they need now is Guidance, to navigate through all the information, resources and options. Here is my additional advice:
The only Constant is Change. Keep learning and upgrading yourself. The world is changing rapidly. So be open-minded.
Do not limit yourself. You don’t need to think outside of the box if you see no box.
What are your plans for the future?
I have never forgotten why I started teaching. My mission remains promoting the aviation industry to a wider audience. I also hope that one day, flying will be available to all, and it can become a popular hobby instead of a luxury. Within the aviation industry, I look forward to making more contributions. The next step is setting up my own flying school in Australia and developing new ventures related to Aviation. In the last few years, I had expanded the business to Singapore, Sydney, Vancouver etc. I still aim to continue with this plan after COVID, as aviation education is indeed a global industry.