When the sky’s not the limit

Royal Malaysian Air Force flight instructor Major Patricia Yapp Syau Yin (left) and Major Roslina Rasli.

Royal Malaysian Air Force flight instructor Major Patricia Yapp Syau Yin (left) and Major Roslina Rasli.

Royal Malaysian Air Force flight instructors Major Patricia Yapp Syau Yin and Major Roslina Rasli share their experiences on women in the military air force, the biggest challenges they face and why they think unity is vital in national security. 

SOARING through the skies at breakneck speed and flying our nation’s top leaders used to be a typical day at work for Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) flight instructors Major Patricia Yapp Syau Yin, 38, and Major Roslina Rasli, 36.

They now shoulder the heavy responsibility of training the country’s next generation of servicemen and women.

Having undergone rigorous drills like “one of the boys”, the petite women insist that motherhood is their toughest role yet.

Sabahan Maj Yapp has the distinction of being Asia’s first MiG-29 female fighter pilot and when she is not busy training students to fly a Pilatus PC-7 Mk II, the mother of two enjoys cooking up a storm in the kitchen.

Maj Roslina recently qualified as a helicopter instructor after clocking 1,850 hours in a chopper. The mother of three from Malacca can’t seem to get enough of the action, professing a love for comedy and explosive movies.

The duo are based at the RMAF Training College in Kepala Batas, Kedah, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. While they will not hesitate to risk their lives for the nation, they believe a united Malaysia is the best defence any country could have.

> Race relations seems to be an issue even as we celebrate our 57th year of independence. As someone who would sacrifice life and limb for the country, are you upset by what you see today?

Yapp: It is truly sad to see the racial issues happening around us and I’m pretty sure my fellow Malaysians would agree that only through unity can we find strength.

Roslina: Absolutely. I am very upset by what is happening today. Malaysians, especially the younger generation, must band together to preserve the peace of our nation.

> How can we counter extremism?

Yapp: To be honest, I don’t have a solution but I know what Malaysians should not do – we shouldn’t deprive others in any way, hurt or harm anyone intentionally, and hate or avenge any being. We must never forget that we are all human.

Roslina: We need to respect each other no matter what religion we belong to.

> Does unity have a role in ensuring national security?

Yapp: Only through unity can we stand tall and strong. History has proven that if we strive for togetherness and embrace teamwork, anything and everything is possible.

Roslina: Yes, having a good leader and good law enforcement alone is not enough to ensure national security.

> What does Merdeka and the ‘Spirit of 57’ mean to you?

Yapp: In one word – EVERYTHING.

Roslina: That we have a chance to excel free from control.

> Are women given equal opportunities in the force? Being a woman, was it tough shattering the glass ceiling? Do you have any words of wisdom to share?

Yapp: We (men and women) all do the same field training, physical training and flying training. Women don’t get special treatment and we are all evaluated by the same standard. We are given the same opportunities.

It is equally tough for anyone to struggle to achieve their aim. My advice is to be sincere in what you do and don’t try to outshine others unnecessarily.

Be who you are and know your stuff well. Be accurate with your facts. Be firm in your decisions and never give up trying after each failure. It takes a lot to be where I am now. Discipline, courage, teamwork and commitment brought me here.

Very rarely do you see a fighter pilot go to war alone. Don’t be discouraged by what you don’t have. Instead, cherish the talents you have inside. Make your family proud of you and the things that you have done for your country.

Roslina: There is no sexism. Everybody gets an equal opportunity to excel in the air force. But I think that is also true for Malaysian women generally. There are so many women leaders. Opportunities, whether in the air force or otherwise, are given based on our capabilities and skills.

To be a pilot, especially if you are a female, you must be prepared both mentally and physically. You must be willing to face demanding tasks.

Women can be emotional, yes. I am sometimes emotional too when trying to juggle caring for my three kids. But when I go to work, I leave all that at home. My other female colleagues are the same.

> What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far?

Yapp: Trying to forget the counterparts I lost during flight training. Most of the (aerial) aerobatics require Hi–G manoeuvres and none of them is easy.

The fastest I flew was Mach 1.2 (supersonic speed of sound) during air combat training and I have fired a live missile in the MiG-29 fleet. The difficulty lies in the execution. It is all about timing and display sequences when doing a formation with the other members.

Your judgement must be sound during the split second moves. The decision you make could save your life and others.

Achieving almost 500 flying hours accelerating the MiG-29 “Fulcrum” especially during the heart-pumping acrobatic manoeuvres I performed with the Smokey Bandits (a fully-operational combat unit previously known as Taufan Ganas) was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.

It was exhilarating and exciting, and although my flying career is not as “speedy” now compared with a few years ago, teaching is still a challenge.

Roslina: I was involved in the Eksesais Kelawar (a helicopter night vision goggle flying exercise) and was previously part of the VVIP/VIP helicopter crew that flew royalty and leaders including former premier Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Despite preparing for all eventualities, it is still nerve-racking when your passengers are the country’s top leaders. The biggest challenge, though, was when I qualified as an instructor in January this year because my responsibilities now are to share my experiences and train future RMAF helicopter pilots.

Moulding someone is not easy – teaching is an art. I have to make sure they have sound knowledge and all the necessary skills. It is tough when you have to come up with the right approach to make sure that your student really understands, remembers and applies what is taught when he or she is airborne.

Different individuals respond differently and sometimes you have to go through the drill again and again to make sure that they get it right.

> What was a close-call moment for you?

Yapp: I was a fraction of a second away from ejecting out of an Aermacchi MB-339A jet when the engine failed. I was extremely nervous but what I learned in intense training and continuous practice kicked in immediately. I restarted the engine and landed the jet safely at base.

I came to realise how important it is to train and practise. Besides saving the aircraft, it can save your life and the life of others. That incident still plays in my mind every now and then.

From that day onwards, I promised myself that I would always share my knowledge, skill and experience with others.

> Are you living your dream? Any regrets for not picking a safer career?

Yapp: I’m thankful and very blessed to be living my dream. (There are) no regrets and no turning back.

Roslina: When I was in school, I thought I would join the banking sector but my life took a 180° turn. I never expected to end up in the armed forces, what more a pilot.

But right after the SPM, my uncle who had served in the army took me to a recruitment drive by the armed forces and before I knew it, here I am. I haven’t had a single regret since.

> Growing up, were you more of a tomboy or a girly girl?

Yapp: Growing up, blending with or working together with men doesn’t take away one’s feminine qualities. I think I’ve managed to retain that (femininity).

Roslina: For sure not a girly girl!

> Has becoming a mother and a wife changed your outlook on life?

Yapp: I juggle multiple duties not only as an instructor but also as a mentor to my students, a ­dedicated colleague to other instructors, a loving mother to my two adorable children Ruban Isiah (four) and Soumiya Jane (two), a caring daughter to my parents and in-laws, and a good wife to my wonderful husband, Major Thayala Kumar Ravi Varman.

My outlook has absolutely changed these past years. These are phases in life that most women go through and it depends on how we look at it.

Personally, I believe the happiness within builds a strong glow of true inner beauty that defines who and what you are.

Roslina: No, but the challenges of being a wife and mother have actually taught me how to manage my life better.

> Would you want your children to follow in your footsteps despite the risks?

Yapp: God willing, my husband and I would really love to see our daughter strive to be the country’s first female astronaut but we will support whatever our children desire.

Roslina: It’s up to them. My daughter, Iris Hanni Qaisara, is only three. My two sons, Muhammad Izz Hazziq (nine) and Muhammad Izz Harriz (six), want to be pilots like their father. Any job comes with risks and pressure regardless of whether you are on the ground or in the air. It is takdir (fated).

> Some say motherhood is the toughest job on earth. Do you agree?

Yapp: Any reasonable person, man or woman, would definitely agree!

Roslina: Agree 100%! A ­mother’s character and role changes to accommodate the situation. She has to become a doctor when her child is sick, a teacher when her child has difficulty with homework, and a counsellor when her child needs advice. Simply put, a mother must be a superwoman.

> What will you be doing on Malaysia Day?

Yapp: I’ll be celebrating like everyone else. I will be commemorating the sacrifices of others and cherishing our blessings with family and friends. Celebrate independence and Malaysia Day with the right mindset and spirit!

Roslina: Relaxing with my family. Spending quality time together. My husband, Mohd Haniff (a RMAF pilot based in Subang), is a “weekend husband” so when there is any opportunity for him to come home, we maximise it.