Saved by a brave crew

Let’s get one thing straight. There’s a big difference between a pilot and an aviator. One is a technician; the other is an artist in love with flight.

— Unknown

I’m an avid fan of the National Geographic series “Air Crash Investigation” which reminds me of a close call that happened 24 years ago on an international flight from Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur.

On that day, I noticed a Chinese passenger in a thick overcoat walking up and down the aisle as if he was agitated.

Since it was past midnight, the cabin lights had been dimmed but I noticed a man was carrying an object in his right hand. 

I immediately got up and told a male steward what I had seen and enquired about the man’s strange behaviour.

To my consternation, I was told the man was a Chinese deportee who had flown from China to the South African town but was turned back because he did not have a return ticket.

Just before midnight, the man approached a steward in the business class section which had no passengers and insisted on meeting the aircraft’s captain.

Apparently, he did not want to return to China but wanted to disembark at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

However, the steward told him to go back to his seat and the captain would later meet and discuss whether this was permissible.

Apparently, the passenger was in trouble with the Chinese authorities and was being sought by their immigration department.

The man returned to his seat and then returned holding a plastic fork — the type given to passengers for meals.

By then the first steward had informed the chief steward, who tried to pacify the man who raved and ranted in Chinese.

I joined the trio and, speaking in Malay, asked if I could help and we agreed to restrain the man.
I approached the man and prepared to take him down.

One of the stewards gave the signal and I wrapped my arms around the man’s torso as two more airline staff joined us and strapped the man down.

Thankfully, he stopped shouting after a while and I returned to my seat, noticing that all the economy class passengers happily dozing away.

Ten minutes later, the chief steward came up to me with a bottle of red wine and a letter from the captain, thanking me.

Later, I learnt that the man was sent back to China and was jailed for an immigration offence.
I have misplaced the captain’s letter and hence was unable to trace him to reciprocate their kind gesture.

Another interesting airline story was when I accompanied renowned Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser to Kuala Lumpur to be handed over to the Malaysian Immigration on March 27, 1999.

Manser had been arrested by Sarawak Immigration director Datuk Robert Lian-Saging and his enforcement officers after the Swiss tried to land his motorised paraglider on the lawn of the Chief Minister’s residence in Petra Jaya.

I had met Manser by coincidence at Kuching Waterfront where he revealed his “mission impossible”— to force the Chief Minister to accede to his demands to stop logging in Sarawak.

I had persuaded Manser not to court serious trouble but rather land on a vacant land just outside Demak Jaya where about 40 journalists, environmentalists and nomadic Penan were waiting for him.

Fortunately, Manser did as I requested and arrangements were made for him to be deported immediately that Sunday.  

On our flight back, Manser boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH2683 for Kuala Lumpur at 5.40pm. The last to board, we sat together in the first-class section.

Just before the plane was leaving, I heard a passenger seated directly behind us say: “Hi Bruno!”

I turned around and noticed a timber tycoon who was fond of calling me by that name because like the Swiss, I sported long hair, beard and glasses.

On that day, I wore shorts and Manser was still in his skydiving jumpsuit.

After sharing a bottle of red wine, Bruno slipped his hand into his jumpsuit and pulled out a Swiss knife. “This is for you … thanks for everything.” We landed at about 7pm and we were the last to disembark. 

Waiting for us were deputy director-general of the Malaysian Immigration Department, Mohmad Jamal Kamdi and five officers.

I took the 10pm flight back to Kuching, happy to be home.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.