Three young women, looking smart in their cadet pilot uniform, walked confidently towards us at Hangar 5 of the Malaysia Airlines Engineering Complex in Sepang, Selangor.
There are not many female pilots in the world, but the trio took their chance and broke traditional gender stereotypes to pursue their dream of flying.
Previously, most women in the aviation industry would usually opt for work as flight attendants or ground staff. The International Society of Women Pilots estimated that in 2017, out of 130,000 pilots in the world, only 3,000 – or 3% of the number – are female.
But things are changing.
In Malaysia, women are getting more opportunities to join the aviation industry as pilots. As at mid-2017, low-cost carrier AirAsia has 55 female pilots.
Malaysia Airlines has followed suit and recently started its female pilot programme which is now open for enrolment. The three women we met at Hangar 5 are the first female cadets with the airline company.
Vivian Foo Hooi Wen, 22
Foo graduated from the Malaysian Flying Academy in Melaka in January 2017. “It has always been my dad’s dream to be a pilot, but he never made it because the family couldn’t afford it. I was motivated to achieve his dream and make it a reality for him. Along the journey, I fell in love with flying,” she said.
Foo, who hails from Kuala Lumpur, joined Malaysia Airlines as a cadet in October 2017.
Her family fully supports her decision to become a pilot, and is extremely proud of her. However, some of her extended family members do hold a more traditional view.
“They feel that being a pilot is an odd career choice for a woman, as it’s not a nine-to-five job. They have concerns about safety issues and the high cost (of studying to become a pilot),” she said.
What does she love about flying? “The view!” she said without hesitation.
“Not many can say they have a view above the clouds from their office window. I love the challenges that come with the job too. No two days are the same, and I have to be on my toes at all times.
“Finally, to be able to wear the uniform, especially the gold bars of Malaysia Airlines, gives me and my parents the utmost pride,” she shared.
Her advice to young women who wish to pursue the same career path? “Go for it because the sky is the limit. Never give up your dreams despite any negative comments from people because it will be worth it once you achieve it.”
She feels that even though being a pilot means being in a male-dominated industry, women should not feel limited or intimidated because they can do just as well.
“Women should be motivated and supported so that they too can be successful in the industry. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, you can still be a successful pilot,” she said.
Wang Wen Chien, 25
For Wang, her dream of becoming a pilot started when she was in her teens. Her dad took her for a “Fly for Fun” one-day pilot course in Subang, Selangor.
She was hooked from then on.
“I was fascinated ... especially during take off and landing. As passengers, we usually sit in the cabin, so we don’t get to see all the action upfront,” she enthused.
Wang graduated from the Malaysian Flying Academy in 2016. She had undergone an aviation course in Sydney, Australia, before that. She became a Malaysia Airlines cadet in August 2017.
Wang is the only one among the three cadets to have flown an actual aircraft during line-training. She has flown to a few cities in South-East Asia including Jakarta, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh City.
When asked what she enjoys most about flying, she replied: “Learning about the different airports we fly to, being able to work with different sets of crew, and landing the aircraft.”
Wang is proud to be one of the few women pilots with Malaysia Airlines. “It is one of the greatest opportunities of my life, and I’m grateful for it. I’m happy that I get to use the call sign ‘Malaysian’. Looking at the female pilots walking in the airport when I was doing the aviation course in Australia made me proud to be in an industry long dominated by men, and I’m glad women are now given an equal opportunity to become pilots,” she said.
Wang noted that her parents are supportive of her career choice, although her mother was worried at first. “My family is happy and proud of me and they will usually ask where I’m off to; I normally give them a copy of my roster,” she said.
Wang advises young women who wish to become pilots to just “go for it”.
“Explore further and have passion. It’s different from office work, there isn’t a fixed timing for your duty, but you need to gain experience and learn from each flight, because they are all different.”
Nur Waie Hidayah Mohamad Rasidin, 21
Flying is a natural choice for Hidayah as her father is also a pilot. She grew up in Abu Dhabi, where her father is based.
“After graduating from high school in Abu Dhabi in 2013, I returned to Malaysia and went to flying school in Melaka,” she said.
Hidayah was Foo and Wang’s junior in flying school. She graduated two years ago, after which she returned to Abu Dhabi to spend time with her family.
She joined Malaysia Airlines as a cadet in December 2017.
“It’s lovely to be in the Malaysia Airlines family because everyone is caring, friendly, and helpful. Even though it’s an industry dominated by men, every cadet is treated the same, whether you’re male or female. I’m glad it is the way it is – this is how every job should be. What you can or cannot do is not determined by gender, but how hard you work for it,” she shared.
“My dad is a pilot so I grew up in the industry. Travel was really fun, and seeing my dad fly the plane was really cool. I’ve always fancied how magical it feels when an airplane flies. I look up to my dad and have always wanted to be like him,” she continued.
However, her father was initially worried by her decision to become a pilot. “He’s been through this himself, and he knows that it’s not an easy job. It requires a lot of discipline, sacrifice, studying, and training.”
She revealed that she sometimes gets funny responses from people when they find out she is training to be a pilot. “Nine out of 10 times, they usually get really big-eyed and excited, and they’ll ask me a lot of questions. Female pilots are still a rarity. To some extent, it makes me feel unique, and being unique makes me happy.”
Hidayah’s advice to aspiring female pilots? Do what makes you happy. “There’s nothing stopping you. Pursuing your dream is a chance you shouldn’t miss, so study hard and seize the day,” she said.