updated 1 Oct 2011, 09:47
user id password
Thu, Sep 29, 2011
The Star/ANN
Email Print Decrease text size Increase text size
Women on the tarmac
by Lee Mei Li

WITH the heat bouncing off the curb and the grass looking like it could use a drink, a dust-caked van zips across the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) airfield and halts by the security checkpoint, to the discord of squealing disc brakes. The passenger door slides open and 29-year-old Natasha Sallehudin warmly welcomes us on board. "Sorry girls. The van is not air-conditioned," she says.

Inside the van, the heat is suffocating but the passengers didn't seem to mind.

Then again, they are made of sterner stuff. Natasha is Malaysia Airlines (MAS)' first female licensed aircraft mechanical engineer, while her colleague Hurul Ain Sabaruddin is the lead engineer of her team.

Natasha and Hurul are living many a boy's dream - they tinker with aircraft.

Hurul Ain Sabaruddin is the country’s first female licensed aircraft engineer.

On a good day, the aircraft engineers remove and install aircraft components, conduct safety checks, troubleshoot and practically adjust the nuts and bolts. On a bad day, they have to do all that in record time.

When Hurul pulls the van to a stop on the tarmac, we meet another female aircraft engineer garbed in a reflective vest and safety steel-toed shoes, 28-year-old Saandhi Sambad who has been fiddling with a Boeing 777.

"Come stand in the shade," she beckons, while she uses all her might to close the cowls of the majestic aircraft's right engine. In the distance is the high-pitched screech of an Auxiliary Power Unit - something that the ladies have become indifferent to.

Working on the tarmac is a constant challenge, especially when there's only the aircraft's underbelly to shield them from the scorching heat and torrential rain.

"We are outdoors the whole day, working on up to four or five aircraft," says Natasha, who is the only female in a team responsible for long transit aircraft defects. "But the toughest part is really getting everyone to accept that women are capable of becoming aircraft engineers too."

Hurul, who works on shorter layover flights, remembers being the only female applicant during her job interview with MAS in 1995.

"I wasn't very hopeful at first. Plus my friends weren't very encouraging either; they kept highlighting the fact that I was attempting to break into a man's world," she says. "So, I was really moved when MAS offered me the job. I just took it, but I wasn't sure what lay ahead."

One of the guys: Aircraft mechanical engineer Natasha Sallehudin says society finds it hard to accept women as capable engineers.

To become a licensed aircraft engineer, one has to go through five years of training, which includes practical work, theoretical tests and oral exams.

Hurul breezed through it all, though she admits to failing miserably when it comes to "hanging with the boys".

"They would all grow quiet whenever I was around. I felt uncomfortable at first but I slowly learnt to blend in," she says. "I actually tried reading books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus just so I could understand them better."

As for Natasha, working in a male-dominated environment has taught her the wonders of being muka tebal, thick-skinned.

"There are certain things that you just don't say to your girlfriends, like 'You're fat!' But the guys do and to them, it's a joke. I think I've become less sensitive," she says.

The Computer Science diploma-holder recalls being drawn to the prospect of doing hands-on work, after chancing upon MAS' recruitment advertisement in the newspaper.

"I consulted my uncle who was a technician in MAS but he advised me against it. He kept saying: it's a hard job; they're going to bully you; you have to be tough. But I told him that I wanted to try."

In 2007, Natasha received her engineering licence. "When I first started out, my lead engineer kept performing spot checks on my work but he left the male engineers alone. It's like they were automatically trusted with the job."

However, she admits that the mechanical division is physically more demanding for women. "All the components that I have to remove are heavy. Men can just carry them with their hands but I have to use my whole body. People would come up to say 'Are you sure you can do it?' Well, I just took it as a challenge."

According to Saandhi, who received her engineering licence in 2008, everyone has to earn their credibility. "It doesn't matter whether you're a guy or a girl. It's about you doing your job - getting the aircraft out safely and on time," she says.

Teamwork is everything, says the woman who usually only has 40 minutes to ensure that an aircraft is safe for take off. "Because if there's a delay, we will all kena (get into trouble)."

To Natasha, the aircraft is "just another car". "But if we make any mistakes, we can be charged with manslaughter," she says.

When in doubt, don't panic - just pick up the phone, says Hurul. "We can always call our sifu - a more senior engineer - if we're unsure on how to proceed."

Now, all MAS licensed aircraft engineers have to work on 12-hour shifts, and at all hours. They work through the wee hours, and that means braving shady corners, eerie runways and well, encounters with things that go bump in the night.

Are the girls spooked? "Of course! That's why I'm always with another mechanic," says Hurul. "I've heard a lot of ghost stories but I've never experienced any."

But Natasha had had an eerie encounter.

"KLIA is a huge place and there are long stretches of dark and deserted areas. Once, when I was driving alone through one of these areas, a Chinese song suddenly blared over the car's radio, which had been broken for a long time. I couldn't stop the car because I was in the middle of nowhere and I was worried that if I did, something else would happen. The moment I reached my office, the radio switched off by itself. I fell sick the next day," she recalls with a laugh.

"Most of the time I'm always with another junior technician. But when I have no choice but to work alone, I will never look back, even when I think I hear weird things. I'm always prepared to run."

Saandhi, however, never lets paranoia get to her. "When you're troubleshooting with only a few hours left before the aircraft takes off at daybreak, all you can think about are solutions, defects and how stressed you are," she says. "And with all that noise on the tarmac even at night, it's not scary at all."

'It doesn’t matter whether you're a guy or a girl. It's about you doing your job - getting the aircraft out safely and on time,' says aircraft engineer Saandhi Sambad.

High flyer

There are many trailblazers in the aviation sector. Rauhana Ismail is MAS' first female flight despatcher, and the 57-year-old veteran likens her role to that of an on-ground pilot. "I plan the routes and monitor the progress of flights - I just don't fly," she shares.

With the assistance of sophisticated software tools, Rauhana has to immediately alert the flight crew in the event of unforseen circumstances, such as bad weather or worst still, security threats.

"The pressure is immense. I can't afford to 'sleep on the job'. I have to keep watching the flights that I have been assigned to and ensure that they reach their destinations safely," she says.

Rauhana first joined MAS as a flight stewardess in 1972, and retired after 10 years to become a full-time mother. "After the birth of my second child, MAS gave me a call and said that they were shorthanded," she recalls.

"They came up with the idea of hiring female flight despatchers because the pitch of our voices is supposed to be higher and more pleasant."

Indeed, the pilots couldn't believe their ears when they first heard a woman's voice through the radio. "They thought they had the wrong frequency!" Rauhana recalls.

Since a despatcher has the authority to delay, divert or cancel a flight at any time, Rauhana feels that the toughest part of her job is in avoiding mistakes.

"We do get panic moments, like when you're monitoring a flight and suddenly, the 'nose' of an aircraft starts pointing in the opposite direction. Once I was monitoring a flight to Dubai carrying a passenger with a medical problem - the flight had to be diverted and I had to quickly reroute the other flights, while making sure that there was no infringement of air space."

Calling her job "tough", Rauhana says: "I've learnt that ladies can do just about anything as well as the guys, if not better."

The boss

A woman is in charge of MAS' airport operations. Hayati Ali, executive vice president of the Airport Operations Division, is the first woman to hold that portfolio in MAS. "In general, the management positions in MAS are mostly occupied by men, but I believe that is changing," says Hayati, 49.

She handles the not so "glamorous" part of the industry. "You have to go to dirty and oily areas like where they sort out the bags or the ramps by the aircrafts - it's not exactly the kind of job that would attract a woman," she says.

"I think it takes longer for my male colleagues to be comfortable with me, but I don't think trust is an issue."

Minority report

WHAT constitutes a "man's job"? Something that involves sweat and brawn? Women have, however, long made inroads into male-dominated professions.


In 1910, French Baroness Raymonde de la Roche became the first woman in the world to earn her pilot's licence.

In fact, the world's first female to fly an MiG fighter plane is our very own Patricia Yapp from Sandakan, Sabah.

Taxi driver

Sitting in a car all day is hardly anyone's dream job, much less a woman's. In the 1940s though, New York city welcomed its first female cab driver - Gertrude Hadley Jeannette, who had eralier established a 70-year career as an actress in theatre, film and TV.

Fire fighter

Not all American heroes are men. Molly Williams, who was a slave in New York City, is known as the first female fire fighter, best remembered for pulling a pumper to fires through heavy snow during a blizzard in 1818.

She fought fires in her calico dress and checked apron, but was known to be just as hardworking as the male fire fighters.


Isabel Martínez de Perón became the President of Argentina in 1974, following her husband's death. She is the first female president in the world.

Action star

Think Kung Fu and you'll automatically say "Jackie Chan" rather than "Michelle Yeoh". The entertainment industry's "First Lady of Kung Fu" Angela Mao Ying was discovered at the age of 17 in a 1970 Hong Kong movie, Angry River.

Executive chef

Women are cooks, but few are chefs. That's usually a man's territory. Yet in 2005, Filipino Cristeta Comerford was selected as the first female executive chef in the White House, responsible for whipping up official dinners, private parties and family meals for the then US President George W. Bush.

readers' comments

Copyright © 2011 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co. Regn. No. 198402868E. All rights reserved.