Flying High

08 May 2017

Not wanting to work in an office made it easy for helicopter pilot Nazneem Hashim to jump into the male-dominated aviation industry.

In a fearful situation, our instinct is often to reach out to someone close by for reassurance.

For 27-year-old Nazneem Hashim, her situation occurred during her first practical airplane-flying lesson. “My instructor pushed the control column and the whole plane suddenly dipped,” says Nazneem. Without thinking, she hugged the instructor whom she barely knew. “When I realised what I was doing I was like, ‘I’m so sorry!’”

That first lesson was ten years ago. Now, Nazneem is based in Miri, Sarawak as a pilot with offshore helicopter services company, Awan Inspirasi, transporting passengers from base over to oil rigs, barges and slow-moving seismic vessels.

The decision for Nazneem to become a pilot stemmed from her single-minded determination to avoid a regular nine-to-five life, as she felt it wasn’t suitable for her. It was just after she completed her SPM when one of her cousins was about to enrol in flying school. “I thought, wait, I can do that!” says Nazneem. “It’s not a nine to five job, and I like being outdoors. So I just went for it!”

Nazneem on duty.

Her work requires unusually specialised skills, including physical dexterity, weather and navigation monitoring, and the ability to handle mid-air emergencies. On rare occasions, Nazneem has experienced problems like a loss of hydraulics, fuel complications and even a bird flying into the rotor, but shrugs them off as just another day at work. Pilots are trained to follow an emergency checklist and return to base when needed, she explains. In terms of salary, junior pilots start at an average of RM4,000, but it goes up to RM20,000 for line pilots. At senior captain level, the salary can be as much as RM30,000.

Bright-eyed and petite, “helicopter pilot” is not the first thing that comes to mind when meeting Nazneem. In a male-dominated field, Nazneem is one of the few female helicopter pilots in the country. While she is quick to dismiss any notion that her gender influences her skills, she admits getting a tough time from male peers. “They had their doubts when I first started, but now they have confidence in me,” she says. “However, I still get many people questioning my abilities due to my gender. I also look quite young for my age, which doesn’t really help either!”

Nazneem received her airplane flight training at Basair Aviation College in New South Wales, Australia, where she completed the 200 hours minimum to graduate. Depending on aircraft availability, weather conditions and personal progress, a pilot-in-training could take anywhere between one to three years to complete their hours. When she realised there were more opportunities in offshore flying in Malaysia, Nazneem took additional hours in helicopter training.

The main difference between airplane and helicopter flying, according to Nazneem, is the landing, which is “almost vertical, and you have to be very careful to avoid cranes and flare stacks on production platforms.” Flight training costs an upwards of RM250,000, and Nazneem is grateful to her parents for their support. “They helped me through any self-doubt and I will forever be grateful for their love and encouragement.”

For women looking to get into pilot training, Nazneem gives this advice: “My work has trained me to be assertive and confident. It may feel intimidating to be in a class full of men, but after a while, you will realise that you’re no different from your peers."

“Just persevere through all the doubt and don’t take the criticisms to heart.”

By Shermian Lim

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