Since first taking to the skies in 1962, Brunei Shell Petroleum Sdn Bhd's (BSP) dedicated aviation department, Shell Aviation Department (SAV), has through the decades maintained a pristine safety record to earn many top accolades in the industry and an array of international recognition for its distinguished service and contributions, as well as attract some of the brightest of minds and keenest of eyes to fly and operate its multi-million dollar helicopter fleet.
"With the opening up of several more slots for helicopter pilots with SAV this year," Captain Ismail Razak of SAV, spoke to the Weekend Bulletin on the future expansion of the department and the opportunities it would present to aspiring aviators wishing to take to the skies in the service of the country's lifeblood industry.
"Currently, there are a total of 14 qualified Bruneian helicopter pilots with SAV, of which five are First Officers, two Senior First Officers and seven Captains, including members of its management," explained Captain Razak who operates a fleet of three of the latest generation, state-of-the-art Sikorsky S92As, which have been specifically selected for the specifications that best fit the oil giant's stringent safety requirements.
"Two of these pilots are female and although this profession is traditionally male-dominated, we are also opening up these new opportunities to female applicants as we are not gender-specific."
Following in the pioneering footsteps of Siti Saffawana binti Haji Suhaili, Rafidah Rahman, BSP's second female helicopter pilot and now serving as a First Officer with the SAV on their rotorcraft fleet of Sikorsky S92A, recounts for the Weekend Bulletin:
"In August 2008, I started flight training in the US and began employment with SAV in August 2009. It all began when an advertisement came out after I did my 'A'-Level examinations in March 2007. There was also a career talk given by BSP when I was still at the Science College about the opportunities with a career in aviation. Although predominantly a male-dominated profession, the advert was not gender-specific so I applied. By July 2008, I had successfully completed a three-stage interview before undergoing the stringent medical tests in September and then proceeding with a three-month attachment here at SAV where we learnt how the Anduki Aerodrome operated as a familiarisation tour.
"Then we were sent off for flight training to the US in January 2008 for 12 months. We undertook another course the following year until August 2009, when we signed our contracts and in 2010, we began studying to fly the Sikorsky S92A aircraft on a three-month course. By March 2011, we began commercial flying tours, which means qualified to carry passengers after receiving our type rating for the S92 aircraft. I recall that the training was very rigid and very comprehensive."
Zuljalali Mohammad, another recently-qualified First Officer with SAV, recalled: "I was at a crossroads when I was called in by BSP with an offer for a cadet pilot. Fifty of us applied initially and the assessment was quite tough as we had to take three sets of aptitude tests." After the final scores and assessments were completed, only four made the required cut.
The young newly wed pilot further shared that the career hinges on the person. "There are a lot of challenges to overcome and the toughest part was our initial one year's training in the US, as I had just gotten married then. But I developed my interest and, most importantly, passion for flying during this training and learning process. It was during my final assessment from the chief pilot at the training institute in the Titusville, Florida that I developed a hunch that I could finally get this job and have a good future with aviation."
Captain Ismail Razak pointed out that BSP sends its cadet pilots for training "to the best schools around the world, mostly in the UK and the US, in order to attain the best standards and provide the best chances of successfully qualifying".
The two young First Officers who were the first batch of cadet pilots to be locally-trained from the start chimed in, acknowledging: "The instructors don't rush us, they make sure that we do it right and that we do it well."
The academic requirements for an aviation career with SAV are "six 'O'-Levels but a higher education is preferred, of course, with the right attitude and ability to serve with teamwork", explained Captain Razak, adding that the three core subjects are "Maths, Physics and English".
Aside from the academic requirements, medical checks are made annually in order to qualify for the aviation medical class one, which Rafidah explained consists of a battery of "hearing, eyesight, heartbeat, EEG and ECG tests and response to lights that is done in the UK, which we must pass before even proceeding to our sponsorship signing".
Asked what other attributes an aspiring candidate pilot requires, Rafidah fired off a list.
"Situation awareness is very important. You must be aware of your surroundings and environment at all times, inside and outside the aircraft, of ourselves the crewmembers, the aircraft, the passengers, on how to handle any emergency, the thought processes that this requires and the decision-making process, especially when working under pressure."
Their senior captain, with many years of flying experience, added that, unlike other clichés in the aviation industry of 'Top Gun' wanna-be pilots strutting up the flight-line, the SAV is looking for "quiet and capable professionals, of individuals working efficiently and effectively as a crew, it's all about teamwork with focus, safety and communications as the basis of our success".
The career path for these pilots also includes cross-postings to other parts of the world, which is part of their progression, explained Captain Ismail.
"We send pilots to operate with other operators in the North Sea, to experience operating in environmentally-hostile conditions to gain levels of experience of awareness and other groups as a way of brining back updates in best practices to the SAV in Brunei Darussalam. It's also a good opportunity as a career," he added with a knowing smile.
BSP's SAV operates the latest-generation Sikorsky S92A aircraft that has fulfilled the stringent safety requirements stipulated by the Shell Group standards.
"It's a brilliant aircraft," noted Rafidah enthusiastically. "It has more powerful engines, the latest glass cockpit, technologically it is the most advanced and definitely up to the task asked of it."
Captain Razak added: "More importantly, with all the advancements in technology, it also helps free up a lot of the pilot's workload, as this aircraft can be programmed having set all the waypoints, can fly itself to the designated rigs, land all with just the pilots in the cockpit monitoring the instruments and ready to intervene or adjust if necessary."
When asked on the million-dollar question of why they chose a high-flying career with BSP, First Officer Rafidah quipped: "It is definitely very rewarding. Whenever I'm asked what I do, I reply that I'm a pilot and, in a sense, it's very surreal, but it's where I'm supposed to be - in the skies."
"As a pilot, there are certain things that you see from the sky, with a different perspective, of having a bird's eye view of the entire horizon, of being in control and of being in a very specific career," replied Captain Razak.
First Officer Zuljalali thoughtfully responded that the challenges and rewards for him are in "being able to maintain the standard of safety during our daily operations and then coming home with this guarantee of satisfaction".--Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin