KUALA LUMPUR: WORKERS from iron mines, and the oil, gas and plantation sectors in Terengganu and Pahang all owe a debt to Malaysia Air Charter (MAC).
In the 1960s, at a time when road transport was arduous, the company, better known as MAC Air, provided the vital link between Kuala Lumpur and the east coast of the peninsula.
Flight dispatcher Ronald James Abrahams recalls how MAC served as the backbone of general aviation in the country, four decades ago.
“We were practically the only ones providing air transport for a host of reasons.
“At the time, there was a need to transport British and Australian mining engineers in and out of Kuala Lumpur.
“They had to be flown to and from the iron mines in Lanjut, Kuala Rompin and Bukit Ibam in Pahang, and Bukit Besi in Terengganu.
“As the Europeans were used to western meals, food supplies were flown to these destinations for them,” said Abrahams, who eventually rose to become MAC’s administration manager.
MAC’s services included cloud-seeding work, aerial survey and mapping, and dispatching newspaper printing plates, food supplies and workers’ wages.
Some of them were also involved in ferrying United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) peacekeepers in the Sinai Desert during the Egypt-Israeli conflict in the 1970s.
MAC provided job opportunities for those in the aviation and aerospace sectors, including second careers for experienced aviators who prematurely left the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
Thus, when news broke that the 21-year-old company would cease operations in September 1986, the dedicated and loyal staff were flabbergasted.
Some sought work in non-aviation fields, others went abroad to continue their professions, another was bestowed a “chieftaincy” in Africa, while one even became a Catholic priest.
HOW MAC STARTED
Abrahams joined MAC on June 8, 1967 as an apprentice aircraft mechanic.
However, in April the following year, there was a downturn in business and MAC laid off 28 employees.
He, however, was retained and transferred as a traffic assistant under the tutelage of operations manager Captain G.F.W. Hoppitt.
“Hoppitt showed me the ropes on aircraft operations, weight and balance, flight planning, refuelling, weather report and the like.”
In June 1975, he joined Sabah Air as senior operations officer until April 1976, before returning to MAC.
Abrahams said the birth of MAC came via British pilot Captain Francis Jan Bussell.
Bussell had flown with Malayan Airways — the predecessor of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines — during the time when they operated the Comet 4, DC3 and Fokker 27 aircraft.
The company, Abrahams said, was registered as Malaysia Air Charter Company Sdn Bhd in 1965.
“During the 1960s to 1970s, there were few good roads in the country. Travel from one town to another was arduous and time-consuming.
“Having lived and worked in Malaysia for a good number of years, Bussell realised the potential for an air charter company,” said Abrahams.
MAC, he added, started operations with just two Cessna 310 aircraft after winning a contract with the mining companies. With ad hoc charters picking up, a third Cessna 310 was purchased.
Soon, a fourth Piper Aztec aircraft was added when a deal with the Survey Department was clinched.
Then came the contract with the New Straits Times (NST) to initially fly printing plates daily from Subang to Seletar in Singapore.
“While business was picking up in Peninsular Malaysia, Bussell saw the potential of moving into east Malaysia to cater to the timber and logging industry.
“Thus, offices were set up in Kuching and Miri in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan in Sabah.”
This required the purchase of two Fairchild Hiller helicopters.
CHANGE IN OWNERSHIP
Despite the upturn in business, Bussell decided to return to Britain and sold MAC to Borneo Company.
“After several years, MAC was bought over by a local entre- preneur, who engaged a Canadian to manage the business,” said Abrahams.
MAC diversified and ventured into cloud-seeding, crop dusting, photography and advertising, timber survey and private VIP charters.
“Soon, it embarked on operating scheduled domestic services to the island resorts of Langkawi and Tioman on the Britten Norman Islander BN2.
“MAC then purchased the Shorts 360, which was utilised on scheduled services.
“The Dornier Do228 and Shorts Skyvan were used to transport oil rig workers from Subang to Terengganu (Kerteh) and back.”
At its height, MAC had one Shorts 360, seven Shorts Skyvan SC7, three Dornier Do228, two BN2, one Piper Aztec, three Cessna 310 and a Bell 212 helicopter.
“Business was thriving and MAC was the only private aviation company in the country at that time.
“As such, the closure of the company and its operations was unexpected,” said Abrahams.
After MAC, Abrahams worked with the Low Yat Group, Wira Kris Engineering, Nusantara Sakti (later Nusantara Aviation Services), Safe Air Technical and SkyPark FBO.
He is still active in the aviation scene, working with an established fixed base operator.
Reminiscing about their glory days, veteran airline pilot Captain Shanmuganathan Subramaniam tells his story, in conjunction with a recent reunion of 50 former MAC staff at Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Subang, Selangor.
The reunion was initiated by another MAC pioneer, Captain Roshan Joshi, via a social media chat group.
Shanmuganathan secured his commercial pilot’s licence from the Singapore General Aviation Services (SGAS) flying school before joining MAC in September 1978.
“At the time, MAC was involved in a code-share with Singapore’s Silk Air for the Seletar-Tioman island route. MAC also operated scheduled return flights on the Kuala Lumpur-Malacca-Singapore and Kuala Lumpur-Penang-Langkawi routes.”
He said when MAC closed shop, it left many in the lurch.
“Many of us felt lost as we had worked for so long with the company.”
He, like others, scrambled to look for alternative jobs all over the world.
“We had to pick up the pieces to continue the struggle and financially support ourselves and our families. The show must go on, we told ourselves.”
After leaving MAC, he joined Pan Malaysian Air Transport (PMAT) for a year before working for a number of European airlines.
He returned to fly for Malaysia Airlines for 12 years and in 2004, joined Etihad Airways for 14 years.
After retiring in 2017, he became a simulator instructor with Airbus in South Korea.
Looking back, Shanmuganathan said MAC could have gone even further if it had not ceased operations.
“Many industries, like newspaper companies, were very dependent on us, way before the advent of electronic and digital communication to relay news material for printing.
“We made sure that flong boxes, containing the newspaper printing plates from the NST’s Bangsar newsroom, were dispatched expeditiously to Subang Airport to be flown to regional printing plants in Penang and Johor.
“These late-night flights were at times challenging, especially during adverse weather,” he said, adding that pilots would operate the Cessna 310, Britten-Norman Islander BN2 and the Skyvan SC7 to make the deliveries.
AMONG THE PIONEERS
The pilots and engineers recalled the valuable experiences gained while serving in MAC. They reminisced about how challenging it used to be to fly old-generation aircraft without sufficient navigational aid, especially during adverse weather.
Apart from Shanmuganathan and Abrahams, Roshan, too, had his fair share of experiences at MAC.
“When we suddenly parted ways in 1986, there was no proper farewell or closure. Each of us went our different paths by seeking employment all over the world,” said Roshan.
Roshan began his flying career after obtaining his “wings” from SGAS’ flying school in 1981. He then briefly joined Wira Kris Air to fly the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters.
In 1984, Roshan and engineer Abdullah Abbas were involved in a four-month assignment to map the entire Palawan province in the Philippines, when the World Bank contracted MAC.
In 1986, he joined Singapore Airlines flying jetliners like the Boeing 747, Airbus 310 and Boeing 777.
Roshan also flew for SIA’s sister airlines Silk Air and Vistara, flying the Airbus 320.
Captain Lim Chew Hock, meanwhile, obtained his “wings” after he joined SGAS in 1978.
However, his stint with SIA flying the Boeing 727 was shortlived when the airline retrenched pilots.
“MAC saved me. I have to thank my mentor Captain Omar Soehardjono for taking me under his wings for the next five-and-a-half years.
“After MAC, I moved on to MAS in November 1985 for the next 35 years,” said Lim, who did aerial survey for Felda and the Survey and Mapping Department.
Captain Paramjeet Singh recounted an occasion in the 1980s, when his aircraft hit a monitor lizard on Penang’s Bayan Lepas airport runway.
“I was returning after a cloud-seeding operation and one of the aircraft’s tyres hit the poor animal. I radioed the control tower while taxiing to report the matter.
“The engineering department sent a vehicle to pick up the carcass, and one of them made a tasty curry dish out of it,” said Paramjeet.
Captain Syed Abdul Wahab Idid served MAC for three years from 1978. It was during this period that MAC sent him and a team of pilots and engineering crew to Ismailia in Egypt.
“The mission was to ferry UNEF observers to buffer zones in the Sinai desert during the supervision of the Egypt-Israeli ceasefire in the 1970s,” said Wahab, who referred to the Skyvan he flew as the “flying shoe box”.
Wahab’s flight to the Sinai Desert included places like Mitla, Abu Rudies, El Gala, Ras Sedr, Baloza and Tasa, and at times to Luxor (Egypt) and Ben Gurion Airport (Israel).
“During our days off, there was time to wander around Egypt and Israel, even playing golf at the Rothschild Club in Jerusalem,” said Wahab.
Wahab earlier flew the Twin Pioneer and Caribou in the RMAF, before leaving as a major in 1973 to join Sabah Air until 1976.
After MAC, he joined, among others, Hornbill Skyways, Sendi Perdana, Sovereign Air and Nusantara Sakti before establishing his own construction company, Wirakerjaya Sdn Bhd.
Captain Tan Kheng Hoe spoke on MAC’s role as a rainmaker using the Skyvan based in Penang.
“At our peak, we had six such aircraft undertaking cloud-seeding operations — four handling the Temenggor and two at the Muda catchment areas.
“Each aircraft was equipped to carry a 1,000-litre Hopper tank of liquid chemical or an equal amount of solid substance that was handled by the Meteorological Department staff.”
Tan, who had also served the RMAF, later flew for SIA and Great Wall Airlines in China.
After MAC folded operations, one of its staff became an honorary African tribal chief, while another became a Roman Catholic priest.
Veteran aircraft engineer Tharuma Dorai Ratnasingam, better known as Chief T. Dorai, is perhaps the only Malaysian to be bestowed the honorary “chieftainship” from Nigeria in September 1992.
He was given the honour by his royal highness Alaiyeluwa Oba (Dr) Nathaniel Oyebile Omoloso Gbadegorioye The 1, who is the “Oloyan of Oyan” as Chief Atobase of Oyan-Nigeria.
“I was bestowed the title when doing some aviation work for 10 years for Aero Contractors of Nigeria.
“The traditional ceremony required me to go around an ancient tomb before I was presented with a six-gun salute.”
Dorai briefly worked for PMAT in Subang upon his return from Nigeria in 1992.
He established his own company — Executive Jet Aviation in Subang and Ipoh — the following year, that has been running for 26 years now.
Andrew Manikam, meanwhile, decided to pursue religious studies at a Roman Catholic seminary after serving MAC as a junior artisan for five years.
“When MAC folded, I was ‘called’ to serve the Lord as a Roman Catholic priest,” said Reverend Father Andrew.
He now serves at the parish of St Francis of Assisi in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, under the Franciscan Order.
THE OTHER MAC MEMBERS
Other pilots at the reunion included former RMAF-trained ones like Captain Amin Nordin, Captain Syed Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahman, Captain Kamarul Abdullah and Captain Abu Samah Yahya.
MAC was the stepping stone for other pilots who went on to make good with local and overseas airlines.
These include Captain Alex Foong Chee Wah, Captain Terlochan Singh Gill, Captain Lim Chwe Hock, Captain Brian Lazar Morais, Captain Paramjeet Singh @ Ben, Captain Andrew Naysadorai, Captain Chew Thean Kung, Captain Peter Yap, Captain Su- rinder Singh, Captain Tan Cheng Hong, Captain Syed Mohd Zaid Syed Yusof Al-Zawawi and Captain Nik Ahmad Azlee Nik Mohd Daud,
Other engineers present were Datuk Ronald Christopher La Faber, Benny Buxton, Neoh Kee Hock, Sevvale Sarvaesvaran, Alan Crosbie, Ian Crosbie and Pritam Singh.
Flight stewardesses Noor Firuz Rashidi, Carol Willis and Tengku Aishah Tengku Ahmad completed the reunion’s lineup.