THERE is something about flying an airplane that is fascinating.
The image of being up in the sky and operating flight controls of an aircraft is often seen as glamorous and exciting. Being a pilot is also deemed a highly rewarding profession, and a popular career choice among Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) and Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) school-leavers in the country.
Prospects are also rosy for pilots.
A Bloomberg news report in January cited that there is an unprecedented travel boom in Asia, spawning new budget carriers and millions of first-time fliers, creating a demand for pilots for domestic, regional and international travels.
So how does one launch into a career as a commercial pilot?
There are various pathways to become a pilot in Malaysia.
In general, prospective pilots can either enrol in a flight training academy approved by the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM), join an airline cadet pilot programme where participants are groomed for a career in the particular airline, or pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree programme at a university which offers pilot training as part of its syllabus.
Enrolment in the CAAM Commercial Pilot’s Licence (Aeroplane) and Instrument Rating CPL/IR) with Frozen Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) training programme requires SPM qualifications, a diploma or degree.
Captain Mohamed Noor Syed Shirajudeen, principal of International Aero Training Academy (IATAC) that operates in Melaka International Airport, said: “It is recommended that the aspiring pilot first satisfies himself that he is medically fit to become a commercial pilot by obtaining a Class 1 Medical from a CAAM approved Aviation Medical practitioner.”
The selection process at IATAC includes an interview after undergoing computer-based psychomotor and psychometric tests.
The Commercial Pilot’s Licence (Aeroplane) with Frozen ATPL licence is the minimum requirement to join any airline as a commercial pilot.
To join the AirAsia Cadet Pilot programme conducted at AirAsia RedQ and at its training partner CAE in Sepang, Selangor, participants must have the SPM qualification or equivalent. For diploma or bachelor’s degree holders, the academic qualification should be in an engineering- or scientific-related discipline with Bs in any five SPM subjects which must include English, mathematics and science.
Candidates must be Malaysians aged between 18 and 28 at the time of application with a minimum height of 158cm.
“Applicants must have a good command of English and Bahasa Malaysia, both written and spoken, be physically fit and not colour blind. Distant visual acuity with or without visual correction shall be 6/9 or better in each eye separately, and binocular visual acuity shall be 6/6 or better. Final approval, however, is subject to the medical doctor or ophthalmologist report,” AirAsia Bhd said in a statement.
Applicants undergo several stages of assessments before being selected.
Upon successful selection by AirAsia, aspiring cadet pilots will be enrolled in the AirAsia MPL Programme to earn a Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL) with a Frozen Airline Transport Pilot Licence before reaching the ultimate goal of piloting the Airbus A320 aircraft.
Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM) offers the Bachelor of Aeronautical Engineering Technology (Professional Piloting) programme designed with a combination of engineering degree components (2.5 years) and professional licensing components (1.5 years).
Dr Mohamad Fahmi Abdul Ghafir, head of the aeronautical engineering department at UTHM, said admission requirement for this programme is competitive.
“We want the most suitable candidates who are able to meet the programme educational aims and outcomes while also able to satisfy aviation industry requirements. The university accepts applications from matriculation, STPM and diploma programme graduates. Applicants are ranked and selected in order of merit based on academic achievement and are finally invited for entrant interview to gauge their knowledge and interest.”
Applicants also need to meet additional special requirements: minimum height of 155cm; Body Mass Index of approximately 25; not short/long-sighted/colour blind; no speech disorder (a nasal deficiency, stuttering, etc) and not vertigo affected. Potential applicants should not have any disability (blind/deaf/paralysis/mute) which poses problems to practical work.
IATAC’s CPL/IR with Frozen ATPL programme is open annually with four intakes and only 24 slots per intake. The course can be completed in 20 months and course fees amount to RM370,000.
“All training is conducted at our new campus in a state-of-the-art flying training academy at Melaka International Airport, Batu Berendam. Cadets will be accommodated in our new multi-storey hostel with in-house meals from the modern kitchen,” said Mohamed Noor.
There are two phases in the programme: Theoretical Knowledge and Flying. “The Theoretic Knowledge Training will be in the form of lectures by experienced instructors, backed by computer-based distance learning. Cadets will be readied to pass examinations in 16 aviation-related subjects in seven months before taking part in live flying training. In flight training, cadets will undergo 200 hours of flying, which includes General Handling, Navigation and Instrument Flying, both on an actual aircraft and the simulator,”
The passing rate at IATAC is generally between 85 and 90 per cent in terms of total cadets completing the course. In terms of examinations, the minimum passing mark is 75 per cent, both for theory and flying.
“All of them do gain employment with a majority securing employment before completing the course as IATAC regularly invites airlines to conduct tests/interviews with our cadets, and those who pass get offer letters from the airlines which state immediate employment upon completion of their course at IATAC. Some airlines provide allowance for the duration of their studies at IATAC,” added Mohamed Noor.
Intake for the AirAsia Cadet Pilot programme starts in March after the SPM results are announced. The majority of recruits come from SPM school-leavers, who make 74 per cent of the total applicants.
“Over the years, the percentage of female applicants has increased rapidly to 26 per cent,” the airline stated. “Cadets finance their own studies or work with our partner banks which provide education loans. However, there is a substantial amount covered by AirAsia for the rest of their training until completion of their course which is when they graduate as full-fledged First Officers of an Airbus A320.”
AirAsia First Officer Puteri Nur Anggia Murni Hamzah, 31, said that the training during the cadet programme emphasises both theory and practical work.
“Theory-wise, we learn about the aircraft that we are flying for example engines, avionics, aircraft performance and limitations, rules and regulations in civil aviation, weather and principles of flight.
“Practical work involves hand and eye coordination to scan flight instruments, what to do when one encounters engine failure, volcanic ash and hydraulic failure for example,” she added.
“The challenges during my cadet days were having to understand theories, pass the exams and excel in practical training such as learning to fly an aircraft. So I had to work hard at piloting an aircraft to make it second nature.”
DEGREE WITH FLYING LICENCE
Offered since 2010 with a recorded enrolment of 107 students and 36 graduates, the Aeronautical Engineering Technology (Professional Piloting) programme at UTHM has been developed in response to the growing demand for pilots in the fast evolving aviation industry. Advancement in technology together with the highly integrated complex system of the aircraft require pilots to possess higher thinking skills and good problem-solving ability.
Mohamad Fahmi said: “The programme at UTHM provides students with skills and knowledge beyond the fundamental flying skills required to be a commercial pilot by equipping them with the teaching and training of an aeronautical engineering technologist. Graduates from this degree programme have better employment prospects as the knowledge, practical and soft skills gained during their studies make them highly employable.
“Graduates may also embark on professional careers in areas such as airport operations and management, airline management, aviation regulation and safety, aviation consultation and aircraft design, and are not necessarily limited to jobs in flight operations.”
The components of the degree programme cover all areas under aeronautical engineering technology such as aerodynamics, aircraft structure and design, propulsion, aircraft systems and control, and material technology. The programme is conducted through lectures, tutorials, laboratory experiments, bachelor degree project, workshop practices and industrial training which are all accredited by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency.
For professional licensing components, students go through a structured training programme authorised by CAAM after 2.5 years of academic study at UTHM. Students undergo the professional pilot training programme at a CAAM Approved Training Organisation - Flying Training Organisation.
“Of the 36 students who graduated from this programme, 28 are working as cadet pilots or second officer pilots in airlines such as Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and Raya Airways. The remaining graduates find employment as unmanned aerial vehicle field service specialist, design engineer and junior management executive in various airlines and aerospace/aviation-related companies.”
UTHM Bachelor of Aeronautical Engineering Technology (Professional Piloting) graduate Muhamad Khairul Azizi Mat Alias, 28, works at Firefly Airlines (Malaysia Airlines subsidiary) as a Senior First Officer.
“Why pilot as a career? It’s a passion,” said the Kelantan-born. “I didn’t know anybody in the industry as a child growing up. My parents were also not in the industry, but yet, if you ask them, they will tell you that this is something I always wanted to do. If you’re following a passion, it’s a great career choice.”
His degree is coupled with a professional pilot’s licence but a bachelor’s degree is not a requirement to be an airline pilot; the qualification offers one an advantage.
“Put yourself in the position of airlines. You have thousands of applicants for every pilot position. A degree will offer higher chances of getting hired. It also gives greater options and leave you in a better position if a medical issue were to prevent you from flying professionally,” said Khairul Azizi.
Fellow alumni Muhammad Ikhwan Masri, 28, who works as a First Officer at Malaysia Airlines appreciates the theories learnt and training at UTHM.
“When you start a career as a pilot, you attend classes to learn about the aircraft that you are going to be flying, in my case now, the Boeing 737-800. Every aircraft has different systems which achieve the same thing but operate in different ways. Although the studies at UTHM were general and not specific to any aircraft, I was exposed to these systems. I still need to read the aircraft manufacturers’ manuals to learn the aircraft’s system.
“Flying is a different ball game compared to studies. A great pilot is one who can make crucial decisions in critical situations, and this can only be achieved through experience,” he said.
IATAC cadet pilot Sew Wei Yee, 27, who will complete his flight training next month, will be flying for Malaysia Airlines as a Second Officer.
“I joined this programme as a diploma holder in aircraft engineering with a few years of work experience in the aviation industry. The training is tough and intense, so I need to work very hard.
“The programme consists of seven months of theoretical training and 13 months of practical training. I find flying training the most challenging as I need to multitask while flying the plane, but I enjoy every minute of it,” he said, advising aspiring pilots to never give up their dream.
Dhiya Dhini Madzlan, 24, joined IATAC after graduating from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand with a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting degree. With a father who is a pilot, it is no surprise that Dhiya Dhini is following in his footsteps.
“It has been a year since I joined IATAC and I am still training in the flying phase. Malaysia Airlines offered me a cadet pilot position after I finish my training in March next year,” she said, adding that theories and practical training are equally important, and cadets need to pass all the theoretical knowledge examinations within a certain period of time.
“This programme has taught me self-discipline and responsibility. I enjoy navigating a flight and the sky view. I am also happy to see more females enter this industry. If you have a good attitude, passion and put in the effort, you are good to go.”