Aviation is serious business, get rid of sub-standard pilots

Aviation is serious business, get rid of sub-standard pilots

By Capt Kamil Abu Bakar


THIS piece is related to a question posed to me recently by a friend, “Why is it difficult for Malaysian pilots to be accepted by foreign airlines?”

(This statement is not correct because we have many Malaysians mainly formerly from Malaysia Airlines Bhd [MAS] now flying for Middle East Airlines or the Airlines in the Orient. But many others did fail to get through their stringent selection process.)

Pre-COVID-19, l was often asked why many cadet pilots after graduating from flying schools, find it difficult to get jobs with airlines or fail to be employed at all.

Let me start it this way:

  • For somebody to be an Imam, to lead a congregation in prayer, he must be able to recite the Al-Quran melodiously with correct tajwid. Age is not a criterion.
  • For somebody to be a lawyer, he must be well read, eloquent and good with arguments. Have a sharp mind and to a certain extent be witty.

I can go on.

What l am driving at, for any profession, there must be the academic qualification, personality and related qualities.

To be a pilot, besides the academic qualification, one must have the right aptitude and attitude.

And yes, the ability to speak English is a must because English is the aviation language everywhere.

Aircraft are getting more advanced and sophisticated. Hence not only one must be tech savvy, he must also be good in Mathematics and Science subjects, particularly Physics.

And one must be a team player, able to withstand pressure and mentally sharp because a jet aircraft flies at 600 miles per hour.

Having said that, MAS has an established process, in terms of academic qualification and personality profile for its pilots’ intake.

Academic qualification is not high, just MCE or SPM is suffice with distinction or good credits in English, Mathematics and Physics.

Higher qualification is not necessary though there are many graduates, among them doctors and engineers, who apply for the cadet pilot intake.

In addition to that academic criteria, MAS has what is called the Malaysia Airlines Pilot Assessment (MISPA) for its cadet pilot selection process.

It is an online test supporting the cadet pilots’ selection. It includes personality profiling.

The questionnaire covers subjects on Mathematics, Physics and Cognitive Reasoning.

In addition to that, the candidates are subjected to fast test – the Future Aptitude Selection Tool – a test for coordination.

“Now everybody can become pilots”

Finally, a test on English, both spoken and written.

Then, things changed …

When the tag line “Now Everybody Can Fly” became a fad, and with the aviation authority having reduced the academic criteria for cadet pilot training, people took it that “Now Everybody Can Become Pilots”.

With the boom in air travel following the entry of low-cost carriers and the increased demand for pilots, flying schools sprout everywhere.

Imagine for a comparatively small market, we had eight flying schools in the country – in Langkawi, Kota Bharu, Malacca, Johor Bahru, Bintulu, Kuala Terengganu, Ipoh and Kota Kinabalu.

Teenagers with lower academic qualification set by MAS started joining in droves, all clamouring for a “glamorous” and financially rewarding career.

To the flying schools, there’s big money there; minimum RM300,000 for the flying training with the Airline Transport Pilot Licence.

Some people just saw it as an opportunity to make quick money.

It became a joke. You don’t have the qualification to be a doctor, an engineer, an accountant, a lawyer, an architect but fret not. If your parents are rich or if you can get a loan somewhere, join the flying school and become a pilot.

Indeed, it is very easy to get the basic pilot’s licence. It is just like getting a driving licence.

But flying a big jet aircraft for an international airline in all sorts of weather conditions, is totally a different ball game altogether.

And to pass the ground school subjects are much easier than the MCE/SPM examinations.

Upon their graduation from the flying school is when the problem starts.

To join MAS, they have to go through the MISPA. Tough for them to pass.

Some managed to join the other domestic carriers because they (the airliners) might have different selection criteria.

Many, because they do not have the aptitude and attitude to be a pilot, end up not getting a job.

If we were to think about it, the same applies for all job interviews. Except that for flying, we are more stringent with our selection. Only the best is taken.

Then, there is the question of supply and demand. More candidates than the vacancies available. The competition to get the job is indeed tough.

However, some despite not having the two traits, managed to get through the recruitment process by ingenious and suspicious means.

And this is where we end up having sub-standard pilots.

In the last (foreign) airline l flew after my retirement from MAS, l learnt that some (foreign) pilots from a certain country, pay (read bribe) to get the flying job with the airline.

These co-pilots who came from well-to-do families were obviously not pilot material.

It was stressful to fly with these individuals, having to continuously monitor them to do their work properly instead of us monitoring and checking each other… the concept of flying.

And l dared not leave the cockpit even to pee!

These are the types of individuals who are not right to be in control of the aircraft.

Lives at stake

Flying is a very responsible profession. In the hands of the pilot is a multi-million-dollar machine. And in it are hundreds of lives.

Most of the time, flying is routine. It is a matter of taking off the aircraft from point A and land it at point B.

But in between, anything can happen and the pilots have to handle whatever problem, crisis or emergency that might occur … and handle it right.

Not all problems and crisis are in the book. This is where one’s knowledge, experience and intelligence, come into play. That’s why we must have the right people to manage the aircraft.

Pilots without those attributes – those who are substandard – would compromise the aircraft’s safety and its efficient operations.

These are the ones who did not get through the stringent airliners’ selection process.

Having said all that, l have to impress that flight safety should be everybody’s interest. Therefore, I urge the following:

  • Aviation authority: Do not open the flood gates by reducing the academic criteria for cadet pilots.
  • Individuals: If you do not have the aptitude and attitude for hard work, not prepared to be subjected to test and checks every six months, not willing to study continuously until you retire, then forget about being a pilot.
  • Airliners: Make sure you have a proper selection process and never allow anybody to pay their way or use connections to get a flying job.
  • Instructors and examiners of airmen: You are entrusted that standards and performance are not compromised or eroded. So, do not simply clear or release pilots who are sub-standard.

Should anything untoward were to happen, the investigators will definitely go through all the training records.

An aircraft accident is an expensive affair. We must do everything to avoid such a thing from happening and one way is to ensure that we have the right people to fly the aircraft and of high standards. – Dec 24, 2020



Capt Kamil Abu Bakar was a former Malaysia Airlines Director of Flight Operations, chief pilot, Flight Safety & Security director and member of the International Advisory Committee of Flight Safety Foundation.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.