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Star: 14 April, 2003

TAN SRI ANI AROPE is on cloud nine because he is still able to enjoy piloting a plane in the seventh decade of his life 

ImageAFTER hitting 70, I have joined the ranks of the endangered species. However I still have my Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). To retain this it is mandatory for me to undergo a stringent medical examination every six months and obtain a Certificate of Test (C of T). 
In this annual check ride, one goes through the same procedures required of a student pilot. Younger pilots need to do their medicals once in two years, the not-so-young once a year and those past 45 need to do more of them regularly. 

The club makes it mandatory that all flying members do their annual check ride. Age brings with it some physical and mental limitations. But, if you keep yourself physically and mentally fit and sharpen your skills, there is no reason for these limitations to stop you from enjoying the activities that you love, including flying. 

On my 70th birthday, I thought it would be a great idea to fly to Kota Baru, Penang and back to Kuala Lumpur with two non-flying passengers.  Some of my friends thought I was crazy doing a cross-country flight without a co-pilot. Normally when doing a cross-country flight I would fly with my wife as co-pilot. 

Since there is some sort of protocol established when flying there is little margin for spouses to argue with each other . When you are the Pilot-in-Charge, you call the shots until you say “you have control” and you get a reply, “I have control.” Then only can you abdicate temporarily. My wife is incapacitated due to a “medical insult” and has to give up flying and para jumping. Occasionally one needs to go solo or single piloting to restore one’s confidence. This is for the same reason that student pilots need to do a mandatory 15 hours of solo flying before they can go for the final check ride to qualify for their PPL.  

After pre-flighting the aircraft, I briefed the passengers who were making their maiden flight onboard a four-seater on what to expect during the flight. I gave each of them a plastic bag as I did not want them to throw up on my lap or, worse still, down my neck. I reminded the passenger on the right seat that under no circumstances should he rest his feet on the pedals. The plane might not attain enough speed for the take-off! I called the tower for the usual clearances. After the ritual exchange, we were “cleared for take off, right turn out.” I read back the clearance as required and added “Alpha Victor Romeo now rolling on runway 22.” This was more for the benefit of other aircraft in the vicinity. One of the etiquettes of flying is to think about the safety of others. 

As we approached Batu Caves at 1,500ft (450m), the early morning mist became milky and by the time we were over the reservoir, there was a low fog layer. These morning fog clouds are common once you reach the Bentong Gap. Sometimes visibility is zero and one has to turn back. Fortunately for us, we had occasional visual ground contact with the surrounding hills and requested to climb to 3,000ft (900m) to navigate through the valley to Bentong. I had earlier filed a flight plan that would take us from Bentong flying inland to Kota Baru. I could have taken the more scenic route via Kuantan, Kerteh and up the coast to Kota Baru. But that would have meant three hours of flying in the Cessna 172. The route chosen cut the flying time by an hour but it entailed flying over a vast expanse of greenery. 

Beyond Bentong at 8,000ft (2,400m) we found ourselves droning over a layer of white cloud and experiencing some kind of disorientation – were we getting nowhere at all? As we passed through the layers of clouds the sensation of flight was lost. We got the sensation of being stationary. The indicator quivering slightly read 103 knots an hour. As the flying was getting a little monotonous, at Gua Musang, I requested for a deviation to fly to Kuala Terengganu. I made a course correction and headed for the new waypoint. Lake Kenyir soon appeared, mirage-like between misty hills, breaking the monotony.  

Approaching Kuala Terengganu we now had full visual ground contact and once we hit the coast we set course for Kota Baru. Next morning after a preflight check, we took off and headed for Jeli, climbing through the morning mist for a height of 6,500ft (1,950m). It was a gentle cruise climb at 80 knots an hour and as we lost visual ground contact most times, I made sure that my tracking coincided with my heading on the handheld Global Positioning System navigation instrument. At one point there was a towering cumulous cloud ahead of us. Rather than deviate to the north side which had clearer skies, I chose the southern side so as to not intrude into Thai airspace. I then requested for 8,000ft (2,400m) clearance. After passing Jeli on course for Grik, we were over Lake Temenggor. The lake appeared cobalt in colour with bits of fog dancing on the surface.  

Our next waypoint after Grik was Bukit Mertajam. No other airplane was spotted. Only when we crossed the Bintang Range and requested to begin our descent did we hear radio conversation between pilots and Butterworth Control. I added my bit calling “Butterworth Approach from Niner Mike, Alpha Victor Romeo. Over at Bukit Mertajam at 4,000, inbound Penang. Request descent 2,000ft.” I recognised the voice of the person who answered: “We have you identified. Cleared to descend 2,000ft. Call when established.” I repeated his words, reciting his clearance to begin our descent. Then we exchanged pleasantries in Malay. I eased the plane down through a thin deck of broken clouds. As we broke out beneath the clouds, Penang island was just straight ahead. On coasting out, at circuit level of 1,000ft (300m), Penang island could not be seen.  

First-timers flying into Penang should be aware that sometimes there is a stretch of mist between the island and the mainland and it blends with the horizon and blocks the island from view. My first reaction was to descend lower and even at 500ft (150m) I was unable to have visual ground contact. Very quickly I applied throttle and pulled up. This time I was not going to be fooled by it and went back to 1,500ft (450m). Then I saw the stretch of that low-lying mist: 500ft (150m) below me and regained my orientation.

We started the descent. The approach was good. We swooped over the edge of the airfield and sank gracefully on to the runway. My passengers were impressed, I must admit that such smooth landings do not happen all the time. On occasions I have literally flown the plane straight onto the ground. The stiff-legged plane would bounce crazily! In such circumstances, I apply full power and execute a go-around and swallow my pride and come in again for a second landing. 

Our short stop in Penang was for re-fueling and “down loading” at the loo. Then after a cup of coffee with the compliments of the local flying club, we took off again. On the last leg of the return flight, abreast of Taiping, visibility and radio contact with Ipoh tower sometimes can be challenging. You have the choice to fly as low as you dare along the coastline or stick to your clearance and fly by your instruments. 

In poor visibility I hang my prayer beads on to the windscreen. You might ask whether it is for divine guidance. Not exactly; I do it for a practical reason. In the event of a vacuum failure and the artificial horizon does not work I have a back up system. If the aircraft is banking and there is no horizon to judge whether I am banking or not the rosary beads will act as a plumb line indicating the direction the plane is banking!  

From flying there are many lessons that can be learnt and applied to everyday living. First you have strong motivation to keep physically and mentally healthy in wanting to continue flying. For those starting their careers I tell them to go with full power (enthusiasm) but avoid sticking up their noses too high. They might stall and have no height to recover. In flying, one plans one’s flight and then flies one’s plan to get to the destination. As conditions are never perfect, an alternative plan is also prepared in case of having to divert due to a host of reasons. In everyday situations one can head aimlessly in life and arrive at some place where one does not want to be.  

So the importance of the need to plan one’s life. In flying, the timid and the super-cautious do not necessarily become safe pilots. Flying reinforces the need for knowledge, sharp skills and a touch of boldness. Isn’t learning how to fly a way to pick up such assets?

NOTE: Tan Sri Ani Arope is an Old Boy of St. Xavier's Institution. He had served as Chairman of the National Savings Bank Malaysia, Group Chief Executive of Kumpulan Guthrie (1982-1990) and Chairman & Chief Executive of Tenaga Nasional Berhad (1990-1996) after which he retired from public service. In retirement, he was actively serving the Lasallian Cause a a member of various La Salle organizations. 


 

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