ONE evening, a close friend forwarded me a short video on helicopter operations. It was accompanied by a note, in which he opined that the safety record of Malaysia’s privately-owned helicopters is quite bad, with many lives lost, including several VVIPs.

I have to agree with him – mentioning among those VVIPs killed in helicopter crashes were Tan Sri Yahya Ahmad and Tan Sri Jamaluddin Jarjis. Yahya Ahmad, the then chairman of DRB Hicom, dubbed as the Malaysia Car Czar, was killed together with his wife and all on board, when his helicopter on a night flight crashed in Kuala Lipis on March 2, 1997.

Jamaluddin Jarjis, a former minister of science, technology and innovation, later appointed as Malaysian ambassador to the United States, was killed along with five others when the helicopter they were in crashed in Semenyih on April 4, 2015.

A question was posed whether the pilots of these privately-owned helicopters were under pressure by the owners to fly, and they had to because they were under their payroll. Rightfully they should not fly if they know, for whatever reason such as technical serviceability of the craft, weather, fatigue; safety would be compromised. But then at times under such circumstances, it is not easy to stand up, unless one is of strong character.

This friend of mine related a story told by Capt Nasir Ma when he was serving in the Air Force, based in Kuching. There were times he was scheduled to fly VVIPs but refused to do so when flying conditions were unfavourable. The VVIPs were told that the decision to fly was his alone, as he was the commander of the aircraft. That should be the stand.

There was one such situation that happened in our national airline, Malaysia Airlines, many years ago that was put to the test. It is intriguing that l believe it must be shared for the public to know, and for those involved in the aviation industry, especially pilots and management, to learn.

At the onset, I was not involved in the incident but later, unwittingly got dragged into it. The captain, after operating a short leg from London’s Heathrow to Frankfurt refused to continue with the next leg to Dubai, citing fatigue. He stood down with the crew, to rest. The passengers were taken to hotels before the flight continued 10 hours later.

The company reckoned that there were no justifiable reasons for him to do so. Because of the delay, disruption to the flight and the tremendous cost to the airline incurred by the layover, he was suspended from flying duties and subsequently subjected to in-house disciplinary inquiry, which if found guilty, he could be sacked.

After 10 hours of rest, the bare minimum, the flight proceeded to Dubai and landed uneventfully in warmer and good weather conditions. After a few days in Dubai, they operated the next flight back to Kuala Lumpur. A day later, the captain received a letter from the director of Flight Operations to say that he was grounded, pending investigations on why he stepped down in Frankfurt.

He explained that the weather in Frankfurt, London and back to Frankfurt was bad, and it required tremendous concentration because it was hazardous in nature. And because of the time change, improper meals and lack of rest, the long haul got to him. He and the other crew members were extremely tired, and hence, they did not want to jeopardise the safety of the aircraft and passengers by continuing the flight. The company refused to accept his explanation and served him with a notice for disciplinary inquiry (DI).

The DI was held, and that was when l was brought in as a Flight Operations representative on the panel. I was then fleet manager for Airbus A300. Upon my appointment, the chief pilot called me to his office and told me something shocking. He said: “Kamil, you are on the panel now. You know what to do. We must get him!”

To me that directive was uncalled for, so I told him directly: “It is not proper for you to give me such instructions. I know and have heard nothing about the incident. Let me first hear what happened and decide accordingly. If you do not have faith in me, please get somebody else to be on the panel.”

The next day, the DI was convened with the company’s spokesman presenting the case. The captain elected to testify, and he stood his ground for not continuing the flight and would not compromise safety. Also taking the stand were the first officer and flight engineer. Both agreed with the captain and endorsed his action to step down in Frankfurt. They too, mentioned that they were equally fatigued to go on.

The decision was unanimous. It was found that under the circumstances, after what the crew went through, it was justifiable for the captain to discontinue the flight at Frankfurt. The chairman of the panel agreed to write a joint report to be submitted to the director of personnel. Our verdict ... NOT GUILTY. The captain was reinstated to flying duties.

One day and a month later, he saw me having lunch at the cafeteria. He came to me and said, “Kamil, thank you. You are very brave.” And he left. I was just doing my job, and l believed l made the right decision. If he was found guilty, he would have been sacked. That was what those in Flight Operations wanted. But the captain would not have stopped there, he would have pursued the matter in the Industrial Court for constructive dismissal.

Another scenario, had he felt pressured to continue with the flight under such circumstances, and if a mishap would have occurred, the company would have had a lot to answer for, and lose. The investigators would have looked into all factors leading to the incident.

Pilots are supposed to know their responsibilities. Regardless of flying for an airline, private aircraft/helicopter (or even the military), the law says that the captain is responsible for and is the final authority as regards to the operations of an aircraft.

Naturally, he must be loyal to the organisation or the owner of the private aircraft/helicopter, and is expected to make the appropriate decision in the interest of the company or the owner. Nevertheless, he is not expected to make decisions whereupon safety would be compromised.

Capt Mohd Kamil Abu Bakar is a former director of Flight Operations of Malaysia Airlines. Comments: