A retired Malaysian air force pilot swaps his MiG-29 and F-18 for a smaller, lighter and more nimble plane that can dance in the sky.
It was a need he had to fulfil; a re-emerging desire that demanded to be satisfied.
It wasn’t just about the freedom of being up in the wide open skies; he wanted to loop and spin and roll and turn. In other words, he didn’t just want to fly, he wanted to perform the ballet of aerial acrobatics, or aerobatics.
Datuk Halim Othman remembers seeing helicopters from the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) base everyday while growing up in his hometown of Kluang, Johor.
“That’s where I started thinking of becoming a pilot,” he shares.
In fact, he signed up with the RMAF immediately after school. After two years of training to get his wings, he was selected to become a fighter jet pilot. But that wasn’t enough for this quietly competitive 48-year-old, who was one of the youngest pilots to earn the RMAF’s Top Gun Award in 1991.
“You have to be the best to be selected for display (flying) because it is very dangerous, especially in jets.
“Of course, you have to perform to show the Air Force that you can be a display pilot, because not everybody can do that.
“I managed to do that – that is how I started, and I love to do display flying,” he says.
His main motivation, then and now, is to share the beauty and joy of flying with the public.
“Most of the flying in fighters is away from audiences; for people to get close to these planes, you need to do some display to let people see this kind of flying,” he explains.
Halim, who retired as a major after completing his 13-year contract, performed in both solo and formation aerobatics.
“In formation, I was a group leader in the MiG-29s, Skyhawks, F/A-18s, so when I left (the Air Force), I rindulah (missed) the flying,” he shares.
Dusting off his wings
As he was also involved in training during his Air Force days. Halim helped found Aerotree Defence and Services Sdn Bhd in 1998 after he left the RMAF. The Klang Valley-based company is an aerospace engineering and technology development firm, specialising in air defence-related training and services, aerial target products and other aviation services.
But the call of the skies proved too seductive. “I needed to find something to fly, but not normal commercial flying,” he shares.
So, in 2009, Halim took a trip to the United States to scout around for a good flying school to learn aerobatic flying, civilian-style.
“I found a school in Arizona, and that’s when I started flying again,” he says.
But it wasn’t as easy getting back into the cockpit as he imagined.
“Initially, when I started lessons at that training centre. I thought I couldn’t get back into (aerobatic) flying again, because my body couldn’t take it after a while,” he shares.
Aerobatic flying puts the body through great stress as the rapid manoeuvres at high speeds cause fluctuating gravitational (G) forces to act on the body.
The effect of these G forces can range from narrowing of vision to headaches, discomfort, nausea, and even unconsciousness.
However, the desire to fly was too strong. “A few months after coming back (from the US), I said, no, I have to (get back in the air),” he says.
His determination led him to Britain, as well as back to the US, where he trained alongside top aerobatic pilots to regain his physical form and adapt to the civilian way of aerobatic flying.
One difference was in the aircraft used. As a military pilot, Halim was used to the fast and heavy fighter jets; however, the planes used in civilian aerobatic flying are lighter and more manoeuvrable.
“The brain has to adjust,” he shares, adding that he had to get used to the increased speed of manoeuvrability of the lighter aircraft, although the G forces were similar to his past experience.
He also had to get used to the different terms and styles in civilian aerobatic flying, which differ from military jargon and style.
An aerobatic team
Halim’s reinvolvement in aerobatic flying was what led to the formation of Krisakti, Malaysia’s first full-time aerial display team, in 2011.
He shares the inspiration behind the team with a laugh: “If you fly alone, people will say you’re gila (crazy). It’s just like playing golf, you need to play with somebody.
“Somebody has to watch, and somebody has to comment. So that’s where the idea of forming a team came from.”
But, he notes that in order to form a team, the best pilots were required, and those were in the military.
So, apart from himself, the other members of Krisakti are “borrowed” from the RMAF.
“When we have an event, we will group up around a month before for intensive training,” he explains, adding that they usually fly at the biennual Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (Lima) Exhibition, and at smaller events once every three or four months.
He adds that the main motivation behind the team is to inspire the love of flying among the younger generation.
Competing with the best
“I love flying to compete because I am a sportsman,” shares Halim.
“In Malaysia, it is very limited, so you cannot compete. The most you can do is air display, even then, there are no aerobatic competitions, you have to go outside (of the country).”
He first heard about the annual Red Bull Air Race World Championships in 2009 – a year before the competition took a three-year hiatus.
“This is a competition which is very extreme, so I tried to find out more about it. But suddenly, they took a break,” he says.
However, as fate would have it, he was contacted by Red Bull early last year and invited to join the training camps for the Challenger Cup. This Cup, debuting as part of the Championships this year, is designed to prepare and select the best pilots for potential promotion to the air race proper, also called the Master Class.
Halim’s first reaction on receiving this invitation was excitement, quickly followed by trepidation over whether he could convince the Red Bull officials that he had the goods to participate in the race.
“It is slightly different (for me), because the other racers came through a different route.
“They had to participate in the World Championships series, so most of them are top 10 in the world aerobatic category,” he shares.
However, Halim was confident that skills-wise, he had what it took to fly with these pilots.
Nine hopefuls from eight countries (including Halim) were invited to participate in the training aimed at preparing them to obtain a Restricted Super Licence that will allow them to fly in the Challenger Cup.
As fate would have it, Halim managed to obtain his licence just before the second leg of the Championships in Rovinj, Croatia, last month. Luke Czepiela from Poland and Cristian Bolton from Chile also received their licences at the same time.
This means that Halim’s debut in the Challenger Cup will be on his homeground of Putrajaya – the third leg of the race to be held next weekend (May 17-18). He will also be racing during the fifth and sixth legs of the Championships at the Ascot Racecourse, Britain (Aug 16-17) and the Texas Motor Speedway in the US (Sept 6-7).
All Challenger Cup participants will race in a minimum of three legs. Their best three race scores will be used to decide on the top six pilots who will compete at the final leg in China, which will determine who gets the Unrestricted Super License. The licence will allow its owner to take the place of any Master Class pilot who decides to stop competing in the future.
Says Halim on receiving his licence: “It was a dream come true.
“The most difficult part was that everybody (I knew) from Malaysia wanted me to make it. So, it was a tough responsibility.”
He adds: “And the race is being held here for the first time, so someone from Malaysia needs to be qualified by merit (to race).”
He hopes to do well, both for the pride of the nation and to inspire the younger generation to take up aviation sports.
While preparing as best as he can, physically and mentally, Halim says: “The result will come by itself.”
The Challenger Cup will be held on May 17, after the Master Class qualification round. Early bird tickets priced from RM85 (qualifying day, general admission) to RM1,640 (both days, race club) are currently available from www.ticketpro.com.my.
As is customary for military pilots, Datuk Halim Othman had a callsign, a nickname that he is known by – even now.
He shares that tactical callsigns are usually bestowed by military instructors, based on characteristics they have observed in the individual pilots.
Halim was called “Toogoo”, as he made the best-looking mini-memorials (tugu in Bahasa Malaysia) commemorating the end of his squadron’s time at each of the airbases they trained at.