Airplanes and computers — my hobbies: Saha Group chairman’s story (20)

Boonsithi Chokwatana is the Chairman of Saha Group, Thailand’s leading consumer products conglomerate. This is part 20 of a 30-part series.

So far, almost all I have talked about is work.

In this entry, I would like to write about two of my hobbies.

One is flying small aircraft. I spent a year getting my license in 1977 when I was around 40 years old, when our industrial park was being developed.

It all started when I was having dinner at a beach near Bangkok. I encountered dozens of people who had drifted ashore in small boats and were being taken into police custody.

With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the three countries of Indochina — Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — transitioned to socialist systems. People who did not agree with the new regimes or who feared persecution fled to neighboring countries.

Thailand had been a sortie base for the U.S. forces that had fought for South Vietnam. Rumors circulated that the Vietnamese troops would eventually invade.

“An airplane would be the fastest way to escape,” I thought. “It would be best if I could fly it myself.”

For one night and two days on weekends I started going to a flight school in Hua Hin, a recreational area in the southern part of the country. I completed my 40 hours of flight training and passed the test on my first attempt.

Although I had my license, at that time companies and individuals could not own airplanes. There was a club of enthusiasts near Sriracha, where our industrial park was being developed. I would borrow their aircraft and enjoy flying them.

But they only had a few aircraft, and waiting my turn was frustrating. So I pooled my money with an American business man named William Heinecke, bought the used plane under the club’s name, and taking turns, flew it. Twelve years younger than me, he is the founder of Minor International, a major hotel company.

Soaring through the sky was the best way for me to relieve stress. There were some scary moments, like near misses and sudden drops, but the fun won out over the fear.

When the ban on private ownership was lifted in 1991, I purchased a Cessna 172, a four-seat single-engine propeller plane with wings attached to the top of the fuselage. I built an airstrip at Saha’s industrial park, and I would fly myself when traveling until I gave up my license at the age of 78.

We also built a pilot training school to make effective use of the runway at the industrial park.

Using computers is another hobby of mine. Around the time I got my pilot’s license, I ordered a TRS-80 from a Radio Shack in Singapore. It was one of the very first personal computers, and I bought it for 500,000 baht. At the time, that was enough money to buy a luxury car.

I became interested in computers because there was a servicing company for IBM’s large mainframe computers near my office. I became good friends with the president and employees, and they would share many stories with me.

I put the computer in my study at home. I was not planning to use it for anything specific — I bought it so I could learn how to use it. Any time I did not understand something, I would ask my friends from the servicing company to teach me.

I also taught myself about software. I cannot write complex programs but I can at least tell programmers what I want to do.

I still keep copies of business cards, photos, and my medical records on my computer in my own customized format. When my doctor asks me if I am taking my medication properly, I can show the data.

Whether it was airplanes or computers, I liked new things and doing things no one else was doing. Airplanes are similar to business management in a way that one must constantly check fuel, instruments and weather conditions, and the pilot must also maintain frequent communication with the control tower to ensure safe operation until landing. My knowledge of computers later proved useful in helping the company go digital.

Ultimately, I suppose my favorite hobby has always been my work, because everything is tied to work. This confession of mine may make today’s young people laugh…

This column is part of The Nikkei’s “My Personal History” (“Watashi no Rirekisho”) series of autobiographies. The series first appeared in The Nikkei in 1956. Since then, a wide variety of world-changing individuals have written or dictated their life stories for publication.


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