When you match a heart to wings
By Paul Jansen
Everyone knows you need to earn your wings to be given the privilege to fly. But when those wings cover a caring heart, a pilot can carry aloft more than just people. He can create dreams.
That is the case with the pilots of the Johor Flying Club.
A casual conversation between a member of the club, Shane Lim, with a fellow Hash House Harrier runner Nelson Loong, who is also a Rotary Club of Johor Centennial member, prompted a question.
Are the airmen of the Johor Flying Club willing to partner the Rotarians in Johor and give children in welfare homes and organisations an experience of a lifetime – a flight in a General Aviation (GA) aircraft?
The pilots were polled. Some owned their own planes. Many ran their own businesses or held leadership positions in the companies which employed them. All were busy men who treasured their leisure time.
To a man, they voted “Yes”. They offered their planes. They took time off. They even booked hotel rooms at their own expense near the airport so that they would be ready bright and early over the weekend when the event would take place.
The Rotary Clubs of Johor Centennial and Kota Tinggi selected the Homes, organised the children, raised money to cover the costs of transporting the youngsters and their minders, meals, and for such things as security and emergency services staff.
But an event like this required more preparation than the usual children’s outing. The organisers – the Rotarians and the Johor Flying Club – were going to have a gaggle of naturally boisterous kids moving to and from a fast-moving fleet of aircraft with spinning propellers. Safety and security had to be looked at from every possible angle.
And the numbers were not insignificant: More than 100 children were expecting to be taken to heights – physical and emotional – they had not imagined possible.
Johor Flying Club honorary president William Lee was stretched each day after work as he tackled the task of getting approvals from the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation and the operators of Johor’s Sultan Ismail International Airport (Senai Airport). He missed a beat or two, but with the help of club member Roger Lee, obtained all the necessary ayes. This was also due to the generosity of the airport manager who gave the final nod, despite the short notice, which opened the last door.
The kids were going to fly!
Saturday, September 17, 2011 was a sunny day. By 8am, the modest container which served as a training room for the flying club began to fill with pilots. William started his briefing: procedures, safety rules, how to handle emergencies, and a reminder of who would be doing what on the flight line.
Busloads of twittering children began arriving, shepherded by staff from the Homes and Rotarians, led by Johor Centennial past-president Nelson Loong.
Lim Kim Chuan, William Lee and I, owners respectively of “9M-JFX”, a Piper Archer PA28-181, “9M-LEE”, a Piper Warrior II PA28-161, and ”9M-PRJ”, another Piper Warrior II, happily volunteered our aircraft for the occasion. Kim Chuan and I also put our names on the roster of a dozen or so pilots who would take turns flying. William, as president, had to stay on the ground to ensure things went smoothly.
Each ride was over a single circuit around the airport, enough to give the participants the thrill of being in a small 4-seater airplane, experience the procedures a GA pilot goes through, get a bird’s eye view of the area from 1,000 feet high, and feel the rush of a take-off and landing. There was a maximum of three passengers for each 30-minute sortie.
The rides began without a hitch. Embarkations and disembarkations were smooth. The aircraft had to have minimum time on the ground to ensure everyone got their time in the air. The excitement of the kids was infectious. Sometime during the flights, my age dropped several decades and I felt a lightness that comes from peering into a future of possibilities, even if it was through my passengers’ eyes.
For the pilots and the support team on the ground, September 17 and 18 were heady days. Hour after hour, planes landed, loaded and left. The only change in pace came on September 18 for a couple of hours when the VIP, a Member of Parliament for Johor, Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad, and his wife, arrived and were shown around. The MP praised the organisers and mixed with the children. Then he watched as the rides were renewed, before leaving for his next appointment.
The passenger tally for the weekend:
1.House of Hope, Kota Tinggi – 10
2.Calvary Home, Johor Bahru – 15
3.Berkat Home – 25
4.Single Mother’s Association – 20
5 Villa Paulos – 9
6.Elijah Home - 25
7. Helpers from Homes plus their children – 12
TOTAL – 116
The children of Rotarians, and Rotarians themselves, Sponsors, Press, Ground Staff and others brought the final passenger count to 171.
The pilots at the club are a motley lot. But most are linked by a thread of determination, a band of steel. Many were denied the chance to fly when young by financial circumstances, family commitments, or some fool telling them they did not have what it takes. Instead of accepting their lot, they paid their dues and earned their wings, albeit a lot later in life.
Now, the skies were not the limit, merely a doorway.
Almost all those who rode in 9M-PRJ during my “shift” were children who were starting life far behind their peers, just as many of the Johor Flying Club pilots did.
There was little to physically differentiate the disadvantaged kids from the much smaller group of children of Rotarians who were also given rides because of their parents’ financial and other contributions to the event.
But, having undergone a period of physical deprivation during my childhood, despite the earnest efforts of my parents to overcome our financial straits, I know that the greatest handicap is not visible, but in our minds. While the good samaritans can heal bodies, what these children truly need is a spark that ignites and fans a belief in themselves.
And this is what the gruff men of the Johor Flying Club with their wings of silver and hearts of gold were trying to give them that balmy September weekend.
As I watched the kids who flew re-live excitedly the experience for those awaiting their turn, I remembered the words of the Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa, and knew that if my colleagues in Johor Flying Club and I had set off such a spark in even just one child, we would have been amply rewarded:
“Yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is but a vision;
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
Copyright: Paul Jansen. All rights reserved 2011.
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