EACH month of the year has its own particular significance in everyone’s life. A day of that month may mark a birth of a child, or of a wedding, or a death of a loved one. Any event, a happy or a sad one, is important and must be accepted as part and parcel of life itself.
For me, December brings some indelible memories of the past – my first flight in a plane, my own wedding, birth of our first child, to name some events. These family events, however, are not important to the general readers – it’s also Christmas time!
For more than two thousand years, Christmas is being observed with prayers and songs of praise for what God has bestowed on humankind in the past — and for HIS blessings during the next and in the following years.
This year’s Christmas celebration will not be any different. On this occasion, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
My first experience
But share my flying experience, if you dare. Not flying an aeroplane as a pilot – never fly with me! – just flying as a passenger. Let this be fully understood before we take off.
It was in December 1959 that I first set foot inside an aeroplane. It was a three-hour flight from Kuching to Singapore in a Dakota DC 3, operated by MSA (Malayan-Singapore Airways).
I don’t remember how many passengers there were from Kuching to Singapore on that flight. All I remember was that there was a pilot and a stewardess and lots of free beer on the house … well, on the airship.
Exact date? Ask the other passengers in that group of students from Sarawak – Safri Awang Zaidell, Amin Satem, Denis Hon, Elizabeth Yap or a couple of girls whose names I have forgotten.
We were Colombo Plan scholars on the way to New Zealand for further studies. Does one of them remember the exact date of that flight or even its number? It was from the old Kuching Airport — now occupied by the Royal Malaysia Air Force.
In Singapore, we were put up at the Cathay Hotel. The next day, we flew in a new and bigger plane, a jetliner, operated by the British Airways.
For me, it was extremely exciting to be flying by another plane – bigger and presumably faster than a propeller-driven plane from Kuching to Singapore the previous day.
I remember a strange coincidence: on that plane, I was seated next to Safri Awang who was 23, same age as me, and we were seated at Seat 23. During the stopover in Sydney, we were booked in Room 23 at Wentworth Hotel. If this was a portent of some sort, I have no idea what it meant.
The next day, we flew to New Zealand — our final destination was Wellington. The plane from Sydney to Christchurch was a Fokker Friendship, belonging to Air Tasman.
We had to pick some passengers at Christchurch before going north to the capital city of New Zealand.
Could have been a disaster
It was on this flight that I did something important for the safety of the plane, a truly heroic act, or so I thought at the time.
After we’d left Christchurch, the pilot announced that Mount Cook was on the left. Everybody rushed to one side of the plane, except me!
My instant thought was that these people were crazy. I knew all about paddling small boats around the river — what if the plane tipped over?
“Hey, come on Sidi, the mountain is on this side,” my friends shouted. “What are you doing?”
“Aku nulong nimbang kapal-tu!” I replied, heroically. (“I’m keeping this craft balanced”).
I became the butt of their jokes for days but have always maintained I did the right thing to stabilise the plane.
Years later, I told this story to an old schoolmate, Chong Kong Sang. Kong Sang was the Chief Pilot for the Singapore Airline flying between KL and Jakarta.
I asked him if it was possible that a plane could become unstable if suddenly all its passengers moved to one side of the plane.
He answered it was, indeed, possible but a good pilot would be able to control it during fine weather.
He could also make a call: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please go back immediately to your seats!”
What I missed 47 years earlier I made up in 2006. I was in a Boeing 737, by Air New Zealand, and I could see Mount Cook without leaving my seat. I sat on the correct side this time.
In December 1961 (during the Brunei Rebellion), I flew to Sematan from Kuching in a small plane, a Twin Pioneer. Later, I flew to Simanggang in a similar plane.
In December 1965, I flew in a helicopter from Biawak Village in Lundu after visiting a friend, Pemanca Anggu anak Pengarah Otoh. It was a 12-minute hop to Lundu town in an Allouette, instead of a two-hour drive on a ghastly road.
I remember flying together with Inspector Johnny Mustapha in a similar helicopter from Sibu to Rumah Imban at Nanga Sekuau during the Communist Insurgency.
I have flown in many planes and helicopters over the years and I always enjoy the ride. Over Borneo during the 1989 Asean Conference on Settlement, I chose to fly in a Russian-made double decker helicopter from Samarindato, an Orang Ulu settlement at Datah Bilang, on the Mahakam River.
Seldom if ever I sleep during a flight; there’s so much to enjoy by staying awake. Why waste time sleeping.
I cannot wait to get on a plane whenever I have the chance to travel — in December or any other time.