LONDON: ON April 27, 2013, I took the train to Southend Airport, 72km from here, just in time to watch a 21-year-old Malaysian pilot taxiing his single engine Cessna 210 Silver Eagle aircraft on the runway.
The lad from Sungai Long, Kajang, was then only halfway in accomplishing his solo mission named “1Malaysia Round the World”.
When the 30-year-old aircraft, which he fondly called “Sheila”, came to a standstill, he opened the cockpit door and jumped out, flashing a wide smile as he did so, reminding me so much of a young Tom Cruise in the movie Top Gun.
On May 14, he flew into The Guinness Book of Records, World Record Academy and The Malaysia Book of Records as the youngest pilot to have achieved this. He had flown to 21 countries with 30 stops, covering an area of 40,000km in 48 days. He had braved some of the harshest weather conditions and seen the most beautiful sceneries as he had the best seat from above in his cockpit.
I had always wanted to do a “catching up” kind of series; catching up with people who had impacted my life and others with their feats and quests to carve a name for themselves after conquering challenges — physical and mental.
So, when I heard that the Kajang boy — for he prefers to be known as that — was back in town, I met up with him and snatched a few hours of his precious time to find out what he had been up to.
James Anthony Tan is still the humble, cheerful, funny and accommodating guy that I met after his six-hour flight to Southend across some of the most hostile landscapes from Reykjavik.
He had coped marvellously with his stutters and even joked about being dyslexic. He had taken all these in his strides.
Tan, the youngest child of retired civil servant Tan Ong Chin and Olive Beverly Tan, a special needs educator from Wales, has not had time to rest on his laurels in the four years since he hogged the front pages and air time of the media — local and international.
When all the talk shows, special appearances and award-giving ceremonies had quietened down, he busied himself with what one might see as a drastic departure in his career path.
He is now a businessman with a few development projects to his name and a school for special needs children in his beloved town of Kajang.
And now with his feet planted firmly on the ground, he also has a girlfriend!
“I was given a rare opportunity to learn from the best. And I thought it’s the right thing to do to create opportunities for work to people.
“And I have started a new school, and I am proud of this new venture although I cannot take all the credit for it.”
Throughout the conversation, his mother’s name was mentioned frequently if not almost in every sentence.
It was no doubt that since the discovery that her youngest of four children was dyslexic, Olive took matters into her own hands and saw to it that Tan was given the best attention to cope with the problem.
And she did it with flying colours; instilling in him the confidence to achieve what he had achieved in his young life, and yet, remain humble and grateful at what life threw at him.
According to Tan, his mother had taken courses in special needs education and with that qualification and experience, is well equipped to open the school.
“Mother is the key to my success. This is a mother-and-son teamwork and we cater to children with special needs because such children are important to me.
“ I felt that the key things that I learned in life and with my mother in education for twenty over years, it is appropriate for us to do our part.
“Thus, Star Vista Education was born, ‘the way to your star — an aero vision to your dream’,” he said flashing that smile again.
But, of course, flying still gives him the buzz.
“I am still a pilot at heart. I did some flying projects. Flew to Alaska and learned to land on water, mountains and beaches.
“I flew across the Pacific Ocean, in a Warrior KE 24, from Malaysia to Australia, helping a 60-year-old friend to transport petrol to an island.”
Reminiscing on his feat four years ago, Tan remembered the time when he was flying during a volcanic eruption in eastern Russia.
“It was scary because I was using a turboprop engine and if the ashes go into the turbines, the whole thing will explode.”
When the volcano erupted, Tan was flying through Siberia, all the way “praying to heaven”.
“I was flying through Siberia and right below me was an inversion layer where on top, the clouds and the dust could not travel up. So, I was protected by a shield of ash underneath me. It was ridiculous!”
Then there was the typhoon when he took off from Taiwan; the beating of heavy rain on his small aircraft as it swayed in the sky still vivid in his mind.
“It was crazy,” he said with that smile again. But he had Bruce the Batman for company. His mum gave it to him to keep him company.
With all these experiences, surely there was a book coming?
“There is. But it is a comic book about my first adventure, flying from London to Bangkok and it is targeted at young children. There will be more soon.”
Tan is not on holiday in the United Kingdom. He is being featured as one of six iconic Malaysians in a special programme called “Di Puncak Dunia” on Astro Prima.
The programme also features racer Kip Khairul Idham Pawi, Everest climbers Datuk M. Magendran and Datuk N. Mohanadas, as well as actor and comedian Harith Iskandar and squash champion Datuk Nicol David.