When Teh Nur Shafiqah Ab Samad enrolled in an aircraft engineering technology course at a local university, the 22-year-old soon found herself volunteering to teach kindergarten children about the main parts of aircraft and marshalling signals.
Her reason for wanting to be part of the junior aviators programme, run by the Air Scout unit at her university, was fairly straightforward — she wanted to inspire more young people to pursue careers in the field of aviation.
“As a child, I was always fascinated by aeroplanes.
“Every time, I saw contrails in the sky, I would make a silent wish to be able to work with these amazing machines one day, ” said Shafiqah.
Now in her final year, she has risen through the ranks and is now crew leader of Universiti Kuala Lumpur Institute of Aviation Technology’s (UniKL MIAT) Air Scout unit.
Her goal now is to recruit more members for the unit.
“So far, 58 have signed up but that number is low because the clubs at my university have just started their recruitment drives.
“Last year, there were 140 members, ” said Shafiqah.
A branch of Scouts Association of Malaysia, Air Scout activities and programmes place emphasis on aviation themes.
Activities are mostly ground-based and usually include visits to airports and air museums, radio-controlled model flight, aeromodelling and camping on airfields.
“There are 35 units registered in the country now, ” said Air Scout national commissioner Abdul Mueiem Sahaddin.
“The oldest unit, the Tenth Kuala Lumpur Air Scouts Group, started in 1915 at Methodist Boys School.
“As of 2020, we have 2,319 members nationwide.”
At its core, Air Scout follows the Scout’s philosophy, which is to encourage members’ physical, social, intellectual, spiritual and emotional development so that they can take on a constructive role in community building.
For now, members are recruited from Form One.
Membership drives are carried out by conducting introductory programmes in schools and establishing experimental patrols to test whether a unit is feasible in that area.
Another way is to set up new units by converting old but inactive Scout units to Air Scouts.
“A few years ago, it was thought that suitable locations for Air Scout units should be within a 60km radius from the nearest airport, ” said Abdul Mueiem.
“But now, with the emergence of new technology, we can use school classrooms to learn about flight simulators, radio or meteorology.
“Basically, Air Scout units can be set up anywhere.”
The current curriculum sees members learning to send signals from ground to air, such as air marshalling and radiotelephony.
Air Scouts are also taught to recognise aircraft by their silhouettes and contrails.
“Plane spotting is more than a hobby. It is an important skill even for pilots, ” said Abdul Mueiem, pointing out that in the past in other countries, misrecognition resulted in aircraft being shot down.
By taking part in these activities, some members have developed an interest in aircraft engineering and design.
A commercial pilot with 20 years of experience, Abdul Mueiem, who joined the movement 11 years ago, said many of the activities carried out were in line with procedures practised by commercial airlines.
“Every year, we have to take a refresher course on ground signals.
“These signals are found in the Air Scout syllabus.
“Just like doing a head count during camping, the same applies before a plane takes off to ensure the numbers tally with the passenger manifest, ” he said.
And even if an Air Scout did not pursue a career in the aviation industry, he could still be of use in non-flight related situations with his knowledge of first aid, he added.
Though the wonder of flight should be a selling point on its own for the Air Scout movement, Abdul Mueiem revealed that the unit had its fair share of challenges.
One of which was lack of access to aviation facilities because of security reasons.
“We made friends, ” he noted on how the organisation, through partnerships with the Royal Malaysian Air Force, police, Fire and Rescue Department and National Planetarium, to name a few, was granted access to several facilities.
“Basically, every government agency has its own air wing.
“When we approached these agencies with proposals to go in and train our scouts, they responded positively.
“They wanted to tell their story and we could help highlight their work and share this knowledge with the youth, ” he said.
The era of development started in 2010, when a committee was formed to formulate a syllabus.
Abdul Mueim, who was a part of the committee that came up with the draft for the syllabus, said one of the first steps taken to boost membership was to hold national-level courses for schoolteachers to train them as Air Scout leaders and organise camps nationwide.
The biggest camp, with 300 participants aged 13 and 14, took place at Melaka airport in 2017.
Before that, there was another camp with 129 participants at the Kuala Lumpur Air Base headquarters in Jalan Lapangan Terbang Lama, Sungai Besi.
In return for the training and knowledge sharing, participants cleaned the old airplanes at the Royal Malaysian Air Force Museum.
“You could see the exhilaration on their faces, ” said Abdul Mueiem of the participants’ reactions.
The biggest challenge, however, is keeping the movement alive during the movement control order period. The organisation went online.
On its social media pages, webinar series and live streams on subjects ranging from solar eclipses, the Geminid meteor shower and basic helicopter principles to aerobatic moves and understanding of basic air law were organised.
Among the speakers was Dr Hazariah Mohd Nor, a principal researcher for gas turbine engine and deputy dean for student development and campus lifestyle at UniKL MIAT.
She is also the head of the Air Scout unit of UniKL MIAT.
Hazariah spoke on career paths and opportunities in the space industry that had led some analysts to forecast it as a trillion-dollar industry by 2040.
“Out of 12 men who walked on the moon, 11 were Air Scouts, ” she highlighted.
She said that after having set its focus on the aviation field for so long, it was only natural that the next step for the organisation was to take its members to space, albeit not literally.
UniKL was also one of seven institutions of higher education that had signed a memorandum of understanding with an engineering company to explore fields in space technology.
As such, Hazariah said an Air Scout batch focusing on matters relating to this subject was being formed at UniKL MIAT.