12 February 2010

How I Got Into This Business

Friday, July 25, 2008

When we are young, we believe may things about our future selves. People we know tell us what we may become if we peservere at our education. Likewise, I used to be told that I would make a lawyer, a good author, a priest even.

But as time progressed, I knew my options were drawing to a close, and the opinions of well-wishers may never come to pass. The many families I had lived with over the years would not support my career of choice. They wanted me out of the house at the earliest instance possible. I also had too many changes of school as I moved homes between aunts and uncles and aunts again, and my education was not all it could be. But sometimes Providence has a way of determining the path of your career for you. While this relieves or delays you of the making of a life-determining decision, you cannot safely predict the outcome of Providence's tests and their impact on your life. Therefore, how a person such as I whom many describe as not the typical soldierly type ended up here, is now to be explained.

I had been living off the charity of my uncles and aunts practically from birth as my father began withering away in Templer Hospital. My mother subsequently took off to make a better life for herself without being ballasted by me. I grew up accustomed to abuse. But I was also watchful for signs of abatement upon passing the age of 18. When no let-up was evident, I decided to leave home and sweat out my last year of education in Form Six by sheer grit and self-determination.

While I was in Upper Six, this beloved country of ours was a strong supporter of Cambodia and was vocal against the Russian-backed communists who were slaughtering civilians therein. In response, the Russians threatened to throw their weight behind the communist insurgency in Malaysia. The local political parties and their youth wings were burning Russian flags in front of the Soviet Embassy. Seeing that I owned no flag, I wrote in to the Ministry Of Defense to pledge my support for the Malaysian Armed Forces. Oh, such naivette! Then the dreadful thing happenned; the Ministry siezed the chance to ensnare a believer and turn him into someone they could use. I was called in for an interview and after much grunting and straining, I ended up in the Royal Military College in 1984 where this unlikely career began. On second thought, career would be a misnomer, as retrospecting on 24 years of service shows that the enhancement courses, career progression and rising through the ranks had all taken place at glacial speed. But for whatever it may have been, here I am. That was how it began.

Although I was physically qualified for flying duties, my first attempt at becoming a pilot was not a success. I was suspended from Flying Course 44 in 1987 due to what the instructors called irredeemable ineptitude. I disagreed. I saw that in fact, it was a systemic failure and a digression of priorities on the part of the school that led to several students being suspended from the course. I believed in conspiracies before the events of the 90s made them fashionable. We had lady student pilots who had to graduate, their dismal individual performances notwithstanding. The other male candidates fell victim to this as their positions on the margins of the course were not up for salvaging. The calendar opportunity of being the first Nusantara country to give birth to lady pilots just had to be secured. What a feather in the cap for an air force chief on the last leg of his career!

The bunch of us who were suspended, progressed in our individual secondary careers: some of my friends became air traffic controllers, some became admin officers and I ended up as a fire officer. I ran a fire station to provide airfield fire-fighting and rescue services, as well as domestic fire fighting and prevention. So instead of becoming a pilot, I now waited for them to fall from the sky. Then in 1993, the lot of us and some newbies got our break when the chief of the air force at that time had a stroke of genius (or just a stroke, period), and decided to resolve the pilots' attrition rate to civil airlines by taking in serving officers as flying students, and a new Flying Training School would be established for the purpose.

Those of us who had some flying experience from1987 (ingloriously called chopped pilots), and a bunch of others who had missed the boat to flying school ( just one amongst several moments when the air force experienced oversight in notifying some student pilots of impending courses) flocked to the call like a mustering of usual suspects. This was a gathering of hopefuls, and we were bound by the same dream: to get our flying wings. What differentiated us from other flying students in Flying Training School 1 was that we held in our hands the axes we had to grind, and we had our dreams without having our heads in the clouds . We had seen life in the air force, some of us for a few years, some of us for several. The euphoric dream state and Hollywood fantasies tend to evaporate after a few years' rousting in the air force.

And the poetry of it all, this was named Flying Course 54!! Old faces and new, we endured many things in getting to where we are now. The price has been immense: as serving officers some of us had families. Due to the rigours of the course, the indefinite absence of husbands and fathers from home, the compulsory Thank God It's Friday parties on weekends as demanded by instructors in typical flying school tradition and the ensuing philandering amongst some, a few marriages did not survive the duration of the course. Surely, God was not involved in the proceedings of those Fridays. Some wives demanded divorces, some husbands got used to the single state and self-availability to new acquaintances, and volunteered such dissolutions.

There were also many who died in flying operations. They will be specially remembered in another chapter, as they walked the sacred path of aspiring to a better life for their families and themselves. I see now that what qualifies as a better life may not have necessarily been a better lifestyle. Life can be punishing on any serviceman, and the aircrew are no exception for all their glory-getting and facades of glamour as seen through the stained eyes of youth. Often times these separations from family are taken advantage of and other evils breed in their wake. Families pay the price, whether in absence, neglect, missed calendar events or children growing up as brats.

Through every dip and trough, past every rise and fall on the road, here I have arrived. The road may have been bruising, but it was not without shade or respite, and there have been comrades and companions, detractors and traitors, faithful friends and life experiences that I would not trade for comfort or reward. Few regrets. Many thanks.

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