Sunday, July 8, 2012

The sky is their limit

FLYING HIGH: They can be easily mistaken for college students, but these three women shoulder a tremendous responsibility on a daily basis. As pilots, they fly hundreds of passengers across the globe. But what made them choose a career in a traditionally male dominated field? Arman Ahmad finds out.

For First Officer Chin Tze Yee, the surge of excitement felt every time she pilots a plane is what attracted her to the job.

"I like flying. Whenever I look at a plane on the runway, I get excited."

 Chin, 27, made a life-changing decision when she enrolled in the AirAsia cadet pilot training programme while studying for a management course at Universiti Tuanku Abdul Rahman.
Since joining the airline, she has clocked 3,600 hours flying the Airbus A340 and A330 aircraft.
"I have flown to Paris, London, New Zealand, New Delhi and Mumbai."

But being a pilot does make her the odd one out among her friends and family.
"You rarely meet a female pilot," she said, adding that her family supported her wholeheartedly throughout her training.

"They were quite happy that I decided to become a pilot."

Chin initially found ground school tough as she had to sit about 20 to 30 exam papers. It involved 18 months of learning about instrumentation, meteorology and navigation.
But all those hours of training paid off when she made her first solo flight.

"I still remember my first time flying solo. It was an exhilarating experience. All of us start by doing a circuit take-off and landing. This means you drop your instructor off, do a take-off, turn around and land again.

"When I landed, my batch mates pelted me with 18 eggs. It's a tradition at the flying school. That was very memorable,"

For Melissa Nathan, 29, her path to becoming a pilot was less direct.
She said she had always loved physics, but never had an interest in aircraft as a child.
But this all changed when she saw a plane on the tarmac at the Subang airport (now the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Airport) when she was 16 years old, and was amazed by the roar of the engine.

After graduating with a diploma in aeronautical engineering from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, she got a job doing aircraft maintenance at AirAsia.

As the only rose among the thorns, her colleagues were more than happy to show her the ropes.
When AirAsia started its cadet pilot programme, she was among the 20 selected.
The life of a pilot was up her alley, said Melissa, as she was "the type of person who can't sit in a confined cubicle".
The lass of Indian and Chinese descent said people were still quite amazed when they learn that she was a pilot and were always eager to know where she will be flying off to and what her life was like.
"But being a pilot is something I am really proud of. In the morning, when I put on my uniform, it feels really good."

In Ilyana Nazli Shah's case, watching her father go to work in his uniform inspired her to pursue a career as a pilot as well.

Ilyana's father was an air force pilot, who later joined AirAsia as a commercial pilot
"When I was 16, we went to Pangkor Island for a holiday. It was before September 2011 and passengers were still allowed into the cockpit. I sat in the cockpit with my dad and I was just amazed at the view before me and that such a huge machine could be airborne.

"From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a pilot. That experience sealed the deal."
She recalls her male classmates making fun of her when she voiced her dreams of becoming a pilot.
"After my SPM, I applied to be a cadet pilot and enrolled at the Malaysian Flying Academy in 2004," she said.

Like Chin, Ilyana's first solo flight was particularly memorable.

"I was flying the Piper Warrior when the instructor asked me to drop him off at the tower.
"His final words were very encouraging, 'Don't crash the aircraft'."

She had 20 hours of flying under her belt and was quite nervous at landing the plane, but the weather was good and "everything was calm", and she passed her test with flying colours.
Ilyana recalled one incident during training that was particularly challenging.

It was a navigation exercise that required her to fly from Malacca to Kluang and Mersing and onwards to Bukit Tinggi before following the coastal route back to Malacca from Johor Baru,
In Mersing, the weather took a turn for the worse. She pressed on in low clouds.

When she arrived in Mersing, she suddenly lost all visual. She immediately ascended.
"That area is scary because there are many mountains.

"Looking down, you can see the shadows of the mountains. By the time I landed, I was weak in the knees."

Now, after clocking in 4,700 flying hours in six years, Ilyana is qualified to become a captain and will be interviewed for the post next month.
She recalled some of the best moments in the early days of her career, one of which was being the first officer on an all-girl flight.

"The pilot was Captain Belinda Fleming and the cabin crew were all female."

An even more memorable occasion was when Ilyana was the first officer in a plane captained by her father, and they became perhaps the first father-daughter team to fly in AirAsia.

AirAsia currently has 21 female pilots. Twelve of them fly with AirAsia operating the Airbus A320 while the remainder fly for AirAsiaX, the long-haul low-fare affiliate of AirAsia, operating the Airbus A330.

Article taken from New Straits Times

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