High-flying career

As a young boy, Capt Liaw Kui Siong dreamt of becoming a pilot. That dream became a reality when he stumbled upon a Malaysia Airlines (MAS) advertisement about a cadet pilot programme upon finishing secondary school.

“I applied for it, and was lucky enough to be accepted and sent to a flying school under the MAS scholarship,” says Liaw, now 41. Liaw says future career prospects are good in Malaysia, as there is room for growth and exposure for pilots

In 1990, Liaw graduated and joined the company, which has been a part of his life ever since.

“This is my first job and the first company I’ve ever worked at, but I am happy and enjoy what I do.”

About 11,000 flying hours and 21 years later, Liaw’s passion for his job is evident, and hopes to inspire the younger generation.

“We used to encourage children to visit the cockpit — unfortunately, after the Sept 11 incident, that is no longer allowed.”

However, Liaw says that he sometimes gets requests from children passengers to fill out their travel logbook.

“Some children have a little logbook that their parents buy for them, and they would record the destinations and pass them to the cabin crew to get us to sign it for them. I think that is a very good way to inspire the interest of young children.”

Asked if he had the luxury to travel on planes much as child, Liaw shares, “In the 70s, we couldn’t afford to fly much, but my dad took us on short trips. I remember flying on the Fokker 27, but that’s about all the flying experience I had.” All systems go: Liaw (left) and Thaddeus preparing for take-off in the Boeing 777 flight simulator.

Liaw says, “As a child, I always looked up to pilots. And I guess a lot of children look up to pilots because of the way the media portrays us.

“Unfortunately, not everyone gets the opportunity to become one due to the medical and health requirements, and the strict selection process. But as much as we can, we want to encourage them in their interest.”

My job involves ...

... flying the Boeing 777 aircraft (B777). Although our ultimate goal is to get passengers from Point A to Point B safely, our job really involves more than that.

We start working an hour and 15 mins before departure, where we check the routes, weather and all other necessary information that would affect our flight. Then, we have to determine the amount of fuel needed to get to the destination.

We also set up the computers, and do our final checks to ensure that all the systems are working properly before taking off. A Boeing 737 during landing. With a MAS scholarship, students begin training as a second officer after completing 24 months at a flight school. — File photo

Once the aircraft is in the air, we manage the flight deck.

In the modern cockpit of today, most of the flights are on auto-pilot, so we monitor the systems which we have programmed on the ground before take-off, to ensure that everything is in order.

We also keep in contact and communicate our intentions with the air traffic controller on the ground at all times via VHF (very high frequency) radios.

Personally, I conduct recurrent training on my off-duty days, which all pilots have to go through every six months. I also train new pilots coming on to the B777.

As regulated by the Malaysian Civil Aviation Regulation (MCAR), pilots are allowed to be on duty for 20 out of 28 days and must take a minimum of eight days off every month.

But our rostering allows us to space out our days quite evenly, so we usually get about two to three days off before our next duty.

My morning starts with ...

Well, most of my flights depart at night. So normally, I would prepare myself during the day before my flight.

I go about my morning routine as per usual, but I try to wake up early in the morning so that I can get a few hours of nap in the afternoon, to prepare for duty throughout the night when I am on a flight.

I try to get my body in tune to the time I will be working, and to be fresh for the work ahead.

To qualify, you need ...

... the Frozen Airline Transport Pilot License with instrument rating. That is the minimum qualification needed to get started.

While students can apply directly to flight schools for that qualification, they can also apply for a scholarship under MAS, which has a standard set of qualifications and a very strict selection process.

However, if you are selected, you will be sent to a flight school for about 24 months, after which you begin your training as a Boeing 737 second officer.

As you gain more experience, you earn your bars, and after you have worked for approximately eight years, with at least 4,500 flying hours, you can become a captain.

The best person for the job...

... is one who is able to adapt easily to different environments. If you’re a rigid person who can’t get away from routine, this job can be very tough.

You also have to be very disciplined. For example, we are not allowed to take any alcohol 10 hours prior to reporting in for duty.

Sometimes, we also have to force ourselves to sleep in bright daylight when we have a night flight, so that we are always alert. Discipline is the key word.

I love my job because...

... we don’t have a routine. Unlike a normal nine-to-five job, we go to work depending on the time of departure.

I cannot imagine myself going to work every morning and braving the traffic jam, and then coming back again through the jam when everyone goes home.

I also enjoy travelling, and I am quite a foodie. As a pilot, I get to travel around the world for free. For example, I can have breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, and then dinner in Melbourne on the very same day. What more could you ask for?

What I dislike most...

... is the irregular time zones. It takes time to get used to it, but you learn how to adapt and cope with jet-lag after a while.

So if you go on certain flights, you would know roughly what time to sleep and when to wake up to match your biological clock with your duty hours. Sometimes that means forcing myself to sleep in broad daylight, which can be difficult, but that is what we have to do to ensure we stay alert when on duty.

Prospects for the future...

... are very good in Malaysia, especially with MAS as we are the national carrier, and we have all types of planes so there is room for growth and exposure as a pilot. Furthermore, the industry in the Asia Pacific region is growing, and there will be a high demand for pilots in the next five to 10 years. We will also be bringing in the Airbus A380 soon.

A millionaire by 30?

Not likely, but you would get a pretty comfortable income.

It would be safe to say that a very junior pilot would start off with a high four-figure salary.