A few years ago, when the business of budget flights to nearby Asian destinations was still at its infancy, I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do a Mount Kinabalu flyby aboard a tiny Cessna.
I was transitioning from freelance writing and directing to working as a regular slave when the offer to write the pilot of the travel show “Air Safari” came. I readily said “yes” thinking this would be my last chance to have That One Grand Adventure before being chained to a 9 to 5 job (little did I know that even grander adventures would come with that 9-to-5 job, but that’s another story).
With the offer came the prospect of flying on 4 and 8-seater planes. I have never been on a tiny plane before, nor have I crossed international borders aboard a chartered flight. So the idea was both exciting and a little, ahrm, scary.
The activity, dubbed as the First Borneo World Heritage Flight, was organized by veteran pilot Captain Joy Roa. He invited several pilots for this fly-in, most of whom were amateur fliers from Japan and Malaysia.
At the center of this historic fly-in was the majestic Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah’s 4,095 metre tall crowning glory, after which its capital city, Kota Kinabalu, was named. Declared as Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000, Mt. Kinabalu dominates Sabah’s landscape and attracts climbers and nature lovers from all over the world… a perfect backdrop for the world’s first Heritage Flight!
A LITTLE ORIENTATION
Sabah is the second largest state in Malaysia. Covering an area of 74,500 sq.km, it lies at the northern part of Borneo. Its state capital, Kota Kinabalu or more commonly called KK, is in its north-eastern side, along the coast fronting South China Sea. It is a rapidly developing city and is host to a multi-racial population with various ethnic and religious backgrounds.
These days, there are a few commercial flights that go directly from Manila to Sabah daily– a far cry from the days when Borneo was only accessible by boat through what is now called the “backdoor route”.
So the plan was simple enough: first, all participants would meet in Sabah the day before the flyby for orientation. The next day, the group would go to the Sabah Flying Club hangar, from where all would take off and make a low pass flyby over the city.
The group would then rendezvous near Mt. Kinabalu and do the flyby to salute the highest peak of Borneo. To end the day, the group would proceed to the Northern Tip of Borneo and do a formation flight in the area.
It sounded like a plan! Unfortunately, it rained unexpectedly on the scheduled day of flight. And not just wispy drops but a steady downpour that left everyone in low spirits. When the rain wouldn’t let up, the group decided to postpone the flyby and explore the city instead.
Thankfully, the skies cleared up as we arrived at the hangar the next day. And when ground control gave us the green light, we excitedly prepared for formation takeoff only to be held back by a luggage door that someone forgot to lock. I didn’t know that the simple act of going down the plane and locking the luggage door took so much time! And as if that wasn’t enough, there was so much confusion over instructions and ‘low speeds’ that everyone made mistakes at their holding turns, further delaying takeoff.
I felt a little helpless as I listened to the exchanges between Captain Roa and the other pilots over the radio. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about! The control-freak in me started panicking. Good thing everything settled down eventually and before I knew it, we were doing a low pass flyby over the city of Kota Kinabalu.
After about twenty minutes, we headed to our next rendezvous point: Mt. Kinabalu itself.
Although the mountain was hidden behind clouds, it didn’t take long before it revealed itself to us…tall, verdant and proud. Surrounded by untouched rain forests, it stood over Sabah like a formidable guardian.
I would have wanted to take more photos but the sudden changes in altitude made the flight a little bumpy. Not good for focusing at all. I was also beginning to feel dizzy and a little nauseous. I will not deny that I entertained a few morbid thoughts, such as: what if the plane crashed, how the hell will my husband be able to recover my body? Was I insured? Will I get accidents at work compensation? I hope I didn’t sign any waiver that freed my employer from all liabilities! Or did I? And the most important question of all… what did I get myself into?
Of course all these questions quickly evaporated into thin air when we finally landed. What apprehension I felt was replaced by pure joy and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. With feet safely on the ground, I looked at my reflection on the Cessna that carried me through this historic event.
“Pauline,” I told myself, “you just did the world’s first Borneo World Heritage Flight…” I paused, snapped a photo of myself and muttered under my breath, “…without throwing up. Congratulations!”