Captain Lee Ean Keong
It is a dream of many young boys to fly, soaring high into the wide-open and mysterious skies and feeling adventurous and free. Mine was not any different except that I thought that if I were to take up flying I would be done with books and examinations, which proved to be otherwise. My journey with the airline started in July 1971 when I was selected as a cadet pilot with Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA). It was right after finishing my Form Six (A-Level) in Ipoh.
Unknown to many, the airline started as Malayan Airways and it was actually formed way back in 1937. However, it did not take-off until 1947 due to the Second World War. Its Headquarters was in Singapore. In 1963 with the formation of Malaysia, the airline was renamed Malaysian Airways. Two years later, with Singapore leaving Malaysia in 1965, it was again renamed, this time to Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA). The airline was jointly operated by both Singapore and Malaysia. Malayan Airways Ltd (MAL) started with Airspeed Consul Aircraft and Twin Pioneers. Douglas DC 3 was later introduced into the airline fleet.
I was sent to the Philippines Airline Aviation School for flight training. After training, I was posted to Sabah as a young Second Officer flying as co-pilot on the Fokker Friendship F-27. The road system was not very good those days in East Malaysia. It was more convenient to travel by aeroplanes. As such, we have passengers coming on board carrying chickens in baskets and the next thing you know the chickens were running all over the cabin with the poor stewardesses chasing after them!
Most of the aeroplanes stationed in Sabah and Sarawak were Fokker Friendship F-27 that replaced the DC 3s and Britten Norman Islanders (BN-2). The B737-200 aircrafts were used for flights between East and West Malaysia and Singapore. The first jet aircraft was the de Havilland Comet 4 used for regional and international flights. Unfortunately, Comet 4 had some metal fatigue cracks in the wing structure, which was a safety concern for the airline. The aircraft was replaced with a couple of Boeing 707s.
As early as 1970, there were already differences in opinion between the two governments as to how MSA should be run. The Singapore government was interested in expansion of international routes whereas the Malaysian government was more interested in expansion of domestic routes for obvious reasons. Eventually, MSA was officially split on 30 September 1972 into Malaysian Airline System (MAS) and Singapore International Airlines (SIA). MSA was a very popular airline worldwide. Both governments wanted to utilise these alphabets in their new airlines. The Malaysian government used Malaysian Airline System (MAS) since mas in the Malay language means ‘gold’. The Singapore government called their airline Mercury Singapore Airline (MSA) but finally changed it to Singapore International Airline (SIA).
On 01 October 1972, MAS became operational with two flights taking off in the early morning. Utilising brand new B737-200, the first flight was from Subang Airport to Singapore piloted by Capt. Hassan Ahmad while the second flight from Subang Airport to Penang was piloted by Capt. Khairi Mohd. At that time, only 30 odd Malaysian pilots opted to come back to MAS from MSA. I was one of the pioneers. In my batch of 12 pilots, only three of us opted for MAS. As such, MAS had to recruit a number of expatriate pilots from Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Ireland. I was then stationed in Kuching, Sarawak still flying as co-pilot on the F-27. I was transferred back to Kuala Lumpur and I started my B737-200 conversion course. As part of the course, I was sent to Christchurch, New Zealand for simulator training with the New Zealand National Airline. MAS had only ground instructors and classrooms for ground school but did not have any simulators then. Being operational on the B737, I was promoted to the rank of First Officer.
As the company expanded, MAS bought two B707 from Qantas. We were sent to Sydney for the conversion training with Qantas. MAS eventually bought a third one with the expansion of her international routes to Sydney, Melbourne, London and Europe. With upgrading to wide-bodied aircraft, MAS bought two McDonnell Douglas DC 10-30s. This time we were sent to Long Beach, California for a three months conversion-training course. This included flight training in Yuma, Arizona and ferrying the DC 10-30s back to Malaysia. MAS eventually sold off the three B707s and bought a third DC 10-30. The airline was becoming a well known and popular air carrier internationally. In 1981, we added the Airbus A300B4, a medium sized regional aircraft to our network. In the rural air services, the BN-2s were replaced with Twin Otters and the Fokker F-27s with Fokker F-50s.
In the late 1970s, I went down to the B737 fleet as a Captain. After three years, I was made a Flight Instructor conducting training and the checking of pilots. Pilots are checked for flying proficiency every five months in the simulator. Two years after that, I was appointed Fleet Manager for the B737 fleet. That was also the time the Malaysian government bought a B737-200 to be used as VVIP aircraft for the official use of the King and the Prime Minister. This aircraft had a Sitting room, Dining room, and Bedroom in the cabin with seats for 10-15 passengers at the back row. When not on VVIP flights, MAS would use the aircraft for normal service. The interior would be changed to the normal passenger-seating configuration. I have flown this special VVIP flights to many interesting places and destinations that were not commercially covered by MAS, for example Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Western Samoa, Romania, Yugoslavia, Libya and even Timbuktu to name a few.
Most of the countries that we flew to would provide security personnel for our King or Prime Minister on arrival. We do, however, carry our ‘Mat Bonds’ (Malaysian James Bonds), as I like to call them, with us sometimes, all three of them from Bukit Aman. On the lighter side, during our flight to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, when the Prime Minister came down from the aeroplane, our national anthem was played but the Singapore flag was raised!!!! The next day, the newspapers in Port Moresby ran an apology on their front-page headlines, because it seemed the next week, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, PM of Singapore was supposed to visit Port Moresby.
Another incident was during our recce trip to Tonga, we were told that there would be a large roasted pig as the centre dish of the traditional Tongan feast. We politely told them that our Prime Minister is a Muslim and does not eat pork. On our actual arrival day, it was announced on the Tongan radio that Malaysian Prime Minister has arrived and proceeding to the King’s palace for a Tongan feast and all the pigs were running about happily! For the Prime Minister’s flight, smoking and alcoholic drinks were not allowed in the aircraft.
To be competitive in the aviation market, in addition to a disastrous air accident in America involving the crash of a DC-10 on take-off due to the opening of a cargo door, MAS replaced the DC-10s with two Jumbo jets B747-200 in the mid-1980s. A third jumbo jet that came into service was a B747-300 with an extended upper deck. This was the time we started our USA services into Los Angeles. With sufficient flying hours and seniority, I became the captain of the Airbus A300 for two years, captain of the DC-10 for a year and became a jumbo jet captain at a young age of 36. Two years later MAS bought the B747-400, which has no flight engineer, just 2 pilots in the cockpit. Eventually, MAS sold the two classic jumbo jets B747-200 and the B747-300 and replaced them with thirteen B747-400s. This aircraft can fly direct from Kuala Lumpur to London. On this long haul flight, we carry two sets of pilots. There is a bedroom right behind the cockpit for the pilots to rest. Most of the flight engineers, 40 years and below, were retrained as pilots.
The first two B747-400s were the Combi version. The first half of the cabin was filled with passenger seats and second half with space for cargo containers. It was during one of my flights from London direct to Kuala Lumpur that a Lamborghini belonging to a Sultan was in the cabin cargo compartment. Flying the B747-200/300/400 from 1987 until my retirement in 2011, has taken me to many interesting and lovely places. Unlike many other airlines, MAS flies to Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa and onwards to Buenos Aires in Argentina. In my years with the airline, I have seen and heard pilots and cabin crew complaining about the places and hotels we night-stopped, but that one place that I have not heard any complaints about is Honolulu, Hawaii. I guess, probably the only complaint would be not enough layover days there! I also had the honour of ferrying one of the new B747-400 aircrafts from the Boeing factory in Seattle, USA direct to Kuala Lumpur. It was almost a fifteen and a half hour flight.
Another interesting flight is operating cargo flights, which is a different cup of tea, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. MAS had two B747-400 full cargo aeroplanes. The whole cabin from the nose to the tail of the aircraft is loaded with cargo containers or sometimes animals like cows, sheep, goats and horses. For long haul flights, we carry two set of pilots and no cabin crew. The pilots had to heat up their own meals and make their own drinks. There was a flight I did that carried 400 cattle from Australia to the Middle East. The difficult part was to maintain the cabin temperature at 22°C. This is to ensure the cows did not develop too much gas in the stomach. False fire alarms in the cargo section had been activated on some previous flights due to excess gas produced by the many cows. Turbulence can cause anxiety to the nervous cattle too. Cargo flights also stop at destinations that normal MAS flights do not operate to for example, Milan, Italy and Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
When I retired in 2011 from flying, I had clocked almost 20,000 flying hours. MAS had bought six Airbus A380 superjumbo jets. With a shortage of flight instructors, I was re-employed to train pilots in the simulator conversion courses for the B737-400 and B747-400. I did this for three years and finally decided to enjoy my retirement even though MAS wanted me to continue for a few more years.
Malaysia Airlines has always been an excellent airline. The cabin crew has won six awards and its pilots and engineers are well sought after in the international market. The airline has encountered some bumps and thumps but it is still a good and favourite airline among the locals and foreigners.
Many airlines and businesses in the tourism industries are now facing difficult times in this pandemic period. Malaysia Airlines is no different and I wish the airline all the best. This national airline has touched the lives of all Malaysians near and far.