Karmal Fauza Sembiring is not your average pilot. When the country’s political movers and shakers need to jet into a country, Karmal is the guy who gets the call. As flag carrier Garuda Indonesia’s pilot in command of VVIP flights for 11 years, the 55- year-old has flown three presidents — the late Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Today, Karmal lets us know what it takes to be a VVIP pilot, reveals the president’s onboard habits and talks about what it feels like to fly into a conflict country.
What’s your flying history?
I’ve worked for Garuda Indonesia since I graduated from Curug Flying School in 1976. Three years after I joined Garuda, when I was only 23 years old, I was promoted to pilot. I’ve flown Fokker-F28s, DC-9s and the Airbus. I’ve been a flight instructor since I was 24 years old and now I am also a company check pilot as well as a government check pilot. What that means is that when I fly regular flights, I check or test pilots who are seeking to get pilot proficiency credits or rating upgrades.
What’s the difference between regular and VVIP flights?
We use Airbus planes with modifications, such as to the seats or baggage arrangements. Shortly after a plane is modified, I will test it, taking it up to 40,000 feet. If everything is fine, then I’ll land the plane at Halim [Perdana Kusuma Airport] for the next day’s VVIP flight. The crew for a VVIP flight is also larger than the crew for a regular flight.
How do you get selected for a VVIP crew?
Everyone has the same chance to get picked for the crew, though first you have to be screened by the BAIS [Strategic Intelligence Agency]. They do personal background checks on both technical and non-technical competencies. The same thing goes for the co-pilot and cabin crew. The VVIP crew must possess a high degree of discipline, as this type of work requires solid teamwork and a mission-oriented attitude. We need tough people who can work under tough circumstances.
What’s the most important thing for a VVIP flight?
Everything has to be meticulously prepared. When there’s a request from the government to fly the president someplace, I’ll handle it from the operational side. It takes at least a week for me to do all the data research. That includes the route plan, especially if I haven’t flown to that particular place before. The government normally issues the request at least two months prior to departure.
What are the biggest challenges with flying the nation’s leaders?
When we fly to a place where there’s only limited information and navigation equipment. Last-minute requests are never easy either. That happened when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat passed away. I only had a day to prepare everything before flying President Yudhoyono to Cairo, where the funeral was held. I also find the precise timing required to be a challenge. There are normally welcome ceremonies organized by the head of the destination country, so we have to land at an exact time.
What’s it like in a VVIP cabin?
The president will have his staff with him, like ministers, depending on the purpose of the trip. There are also assistants, protocol staff, security forces and journalists. We have standard VVIP meals, and we also serve meals based on specific requests. The favorite onboard food is instant noodles. Noodles are usually on the menu when our trip lasts more than three days. People also bring their own snacks along, like peanuts.
What does the president like to do to pass the time during a flight?
He loves to read and have discussions with his ministers and staff. I always see him with books or piles of documents. He also rests as his schedule is usually unbelievably busy as soon as we touch down.
What’s the coolest part of being a VVIP pilot?
Flying to unthinkable places, those that are not covered by Garuda’s regular routes. I’ve flown to Mexico, Nigeria, Argentina, Venezuela, Libya, Chile, Peru, Bosnia and many others. Sometimes I wonder which country I haven’t visited. Flying to conflict countries is quite adventurous. I flew to Yemen after the North-South war. On our way from the airport to the hotel, we were checking to see if there were any houses left without bullet holes.
Staying with the same company for 35 years is a little unusual. What has kept you with Garuda?
I know that many Indonesian pilots work abroad for international airlines, but money can’t buy my nationalism and loyalty. Plus, I have my family and friends here. I’m going to retire in a few years anyway, so I’d rather share my knowledge with my brothers and sisters here. It’s the least I can do for the company.
Having visited so many places around the world, what city would you want Jakarta to be more like?
Brussels. Everything’s well organized, clean and they have a good transportation system. The people are polite and appreciate one another. Closer to home, Kuala Lumpur is another good example. I don’t remember ever hearing anyone honk their horn during a traffic jam there.
What are you going to do after you retire?
I’ve been a pilot all my life. I don’t know anything about being a businessman, so I’ll probably return to my family’s roots and become a farmer.
Karmal Fauza Sembiring was talking to Dyah Paramita.