WHILE most kids harboured straightforward ambitions of being a teacher, accountant or lawyer, Patricia Yapp had her head in the clouds.
“Even as a teenager, I was more interested in flying than becoming a lawyer. At the age of 16, I was inspired by my elder brother who was then a Malaysia Airlines cadet pilot in Scotland. When I expressed my interest in flying at that time, my father wasn’t really agreeable as there weren’t any female pilots in the industry then. So, I kept the subject closed temporarily,” says Major Yapp, who is today hailed as Asia’s first female fighter pilot to fly the MiG-29 with the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF).
“Then in 1997, when I was studying law at Inti college in Kuala Lumpur, an aunt in Sandakan sent me a newspaper advertisement on RMAF’s opening for cadets. I enrolled myself quietly and got through various tests. At first, my father, who has a conservative attitude, disallowed me from participating.
“But after reasoning with him and with my mum’s highly persuasive powers, he finally gave in. Since then, I have never looked back,” adds Yapp, who is from Sandakan.
The 34-year-old first piloted an Aerotiga MD-3 aircraft and later, clocked her flying hours in the Swiss turboprop aircraft PC-7 and the Italian Aermacchi MB339A.
The MiG-29 can hit a speed of Mach 2.3 (2,440kph), and is able to speedily intercept intruders in the airspace and destroy targets swiftly. The aircraft is capable of doing rolls, loops, verticals and flying at low levels.
Obviously, it takes skill and verve to fly such an aircraft, and Yapp can give it as good as the next guy. Although it’s often thought of as a male-dominated career, everyone is given the same treatment regardless of gender so there is no sexual discrimination, she says.
“Everyone goes through the same training, exams, wages and has the same promotion opportunity. I don’t think it was any harder for me to be where I am today just because I am a woman. It’s a tough job, being a fighter pilot. But that shouldn’t limit the individual unless you impose limitations yourself,” Yapp adds.
Flying an aircraft not only requires physical strength but also a high mental state of mind and sound knowledge, especially when you are handling a sophisticated aircraft system. As such, gender doesn’t matter, and a patient and cool character might prove more useful up in the air, Yapp feels.
“Team work is key to success.”
Some of the toughest challenges in Yapp’s career involved emergencies in the air.
One of the toughest times arose when she was flying a single jet aircraft (Aermacchi MB339A) and the engine encountered problems and “quit” on her.
“I made a ‘Mayday’ call and was on the verge of ejecting myself out of the aircraft before I succeeded in relighting the engine in the air after the third attempt,” she explains. That was how she acquired the “handle” (call-sign) Foxy. Initially, she was given the name Mulan but after her mid-air adventure (in which she spontaneously blurted, “F***ing Oxygen!” and this was caught on radio), the name F-oxy stuck with her.
Besides being spurred on by her elder brother Ignatius who introduced her to the world of flying, her other sources of inspiration come from past instructors who imparted their knowledge to her in teaching her how to fly, and Lieutenant Colonel Emilia Kamaruddin (RMAF), the country’s first female fighter pilot, whom she calls “her idol”. (Emilia is now the commanding officer for the Electronic Warfare Centre in Kuala Lumpur).
When she is not airborne, Yapp keeps herself occupied by reading up on the latest information on air defence-related matters and mentally preparing herself for future flights. She is also the safety officer in the squadron overseeing the safety aspect for both on ground and flying matters.
“I’ve experienced some difficult periods when close friends were lost in aircraft accidents. No words can express those feelings,” she says.
Yapp also enjoys the occasional sparring, on the court that is, playing badminton after hours on the air force grounds with her squadron mates, or going to the gym to keep herself fit. She’s not above some good-natured ribbing from the guys.
Yapp, who is also the first air display pilot in Malaysia, is of the opinion that a fighter pilot must be able to make split-second decisions.
“Determination, devotion and most of all discipline count as important traits.”
She advises other women who might want to follow in her stead to never give up “your own dream. Strive for it even though others tell you it is impossible and you are not able to pursue it. If I have a daughter, I will encourage her to be an astronaut one day!”
Yapp hopes to impart her knowledge, experience and skills at the operational squadron to junior pilots.
“We are but soldiers who have to follow orders. If, given a choice, I hope to become a Qualified Flying Instructor at the RMAF Flying School in the near future so that I can train the younger pilots in the Basic Flying school. I also hope to command a fighter squadron and lead in an air display one day,” she concludes.
Stroy By: Harry George
Picture: EG Facebook.