As the title of the post suggests, since this was a farewell trip for Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) Fokker F50, I did not have any notepad with me as I wanted to enjoy the flight rather than being bogged down with recording every detail.
It was now late July, and in little more than a week’s time (w.e.f. 1 August), the Fokker F50 would cease to be part of the Malaysia Airlines fleet. I felt I had to make a farewell trip, even though the same F50s would still be around after July, albeit in the colours of Fly Asian Xpress, the new arm of Air Asia that would take over many of MAS’ domestic “non-trunk” routes. The farewell is specifically for the MAS F50, for a chapter of MAS’ history, which is linked to the 1960s, is coming to an end.
This is therefore not just a trip report, but also some reflections on one of the workhorses, and an unsung hero, if one may use such a term. In recent years, when I made bookings over the phone, the MAS ticketing staff would sometimes even “warn” me that the flight I had chosen: “it’s a Fokker….” as though I was getting myself something inferior. That the majority of people here have a perception that flying in a B737 was (far) more desirable than being on the F50 didn’t help either.
I’m sentimental about the F50 because it is linked to my first love of airplanes. Back in around 1977, when I was a 5-year old kid living in Tawau, the F50’s predecessor, the F27, operated by what was then called “Malaysian Airline System” (MAS) was about the only plane that came my way. I would watch in fascination the action and surrounding activities, from the time it landed up to the time it took off again. It so happened that I considered it to be a beautiful bird, visually. The Tawau airport back then was a simple single-storey building, and the (open air) “viewing gallery” almost led out onto the tarmac itself. Due to the small size of the parking apron (it could, prior to expansion in 1981, accommodate 2 F27s), the plane would be parked quite close to the terminal, but I didn’t mind the noise pollution that the engines generated. I remember the great excitement each time I got to fly on it, it was similar to my excitement now of getting onto a B777. But some of the flights that I was on were marred by the fact that my Mom would insist that we sit in the very back row, where there’s no window!!! Her reason? We’d be the first to get off the plane!!! Such was the case on my first flight (in 1977??), and because there was no view, I wasn’t even aware that a plane needed to do things like taxiing and take off roll before it would climb up into the air – I thought we were already airborne (a la helicopter) after all that noise generated by the engines; when take-off roll commenced, I remember thinking to myself “hmm, now that we’re up in the air, it might be time for the plane to accelerate”!!!
Between the end of December 1980 and December 1992, I did not fly on the F27 again, although this was NOT due to any refusal or non-desire on my part. [In fact, I was never to fly on the F27 again.] By 1990, the F27 had been phased out, to be replaced (thankfully) by the almost identical F50. In between, to my great shame, I had abandoned my love of the F27 around 1981, when MAS started operating the B737-200 to Tawau. For a 9-year-old, it was not unlike “falling in love” with the latest new toy, and forgetting all about the old ones. In 1982, I even felt “sorry” for my parents when I found out they were booked on a F27 when the B737 was also available on that route. And I remember feeling sorry for Dad in 1983, when he had to fly on a route that was served only by the F27. And I remember that during the 80s, MAS actually operated a F27 from Kuching (KCH
) to Kuala Lumpur 3 times a week [MH694, on Tue, Thu and Sun] – a 3 hour 10 minute flight, twice as long as a B737. I was even thinking how could they use a F27?? [NOTE: I suspect that F27 flight was a relic from the 1960s, before the jets joined MAS’ fleet. Maybe, somehow, the use of the F27 on that particular flight just never got phased out, despite the arrival of the jets, until maybe the early 90s]
Fast forward to January 1991, when as a more mature 19-year old kid, I watched in fascination as a F50 came in to land at Kota Kinabalu (BKI
). Seeing a new and improved (but almost visually identical) version of its illustrious predecessor, I told myself I had to fly in it. The childishness of “bigger is better” (i.e. B737 vs F27) had gone, and my love of the Fokker 27/50 was rekindled, but it would not be until Dec 1992 that I would be able to fly in the F50.
And now, the F50 is about to become history as far as MAS is concerned. I felt I had to undertake these farewell trips for the MAS F50s. I know I’ll still get to fly them when they are in FAX colours, but it simply won’t be the same as a MALAYSIA AIRLINES F50. Especially when the Fokker 27/50 in Malaysia had been associated with MAS for perhaps 40 years now. It certainly is the end of an era.
1ST LEG: SANDAKAN TO
DATE: July 2006 – exact day not disclosed (see further below for reasons)
Flight No.: MH2139
FROM/TO: Sandakan (SDK) – Tawau (TWU)
Flying time: 40 minutes
Estimated distance: 180 km
Fare paid: MYR74 + 15 fuel surcharge + 5 insurance + 6 airport tax. Total: MYR100 (Published, full fare; Y Class)
What better way to do my commemorative trip than to fly back to Tawau, where it all started, where I first fell in love with airplanes? The only regret is that the old airport in Tawau is no longer in use, and, given the modernity of the new one, there simply won’t be that unsophisticated atmosphere of the 1970s (albeit “updated” somewhat to the 1990s) that I would certainly have found nostalgic.
On boarding, I was greeted by “S” (I’m not mentioning any names, and you’ll see why further below. Let’s just say the “S” here stands for “stewardess”) and immediately noticed her eyelashes must be artificial – they can’t be really that long, surely?
From seat 3D, I could see a few of the goings-on in the cockpit, and it turned out that they never once closed the cockpit door, even during the flight, so, I’m not too sure whether there had been any violation of rules here. Therefore, I’m not mentioning the names of any flight crew, even the date and time of my flight is not disclosed.
From my seat, I could also see the starboard engine’s zebra-striped propeller blades. Couldn’t help noticing that something black-coloured that resembled (metallic) adhesive tape had been pasted along part of the length of each blade facing the front. What struck me was that on every blade, large portions of “tape” had already peeled off but are still connected to the blade by those portions not yet peeled off.
S pressed a button without releasing it, and soon the front left door-cum-stairs was closed. Welcome address was made on behalf of Captain “C” (C for Captain), and they went out of their way to welcome Enrich (FFP) members, of which I am one. You won’t get such a special welcome on Air Asia!
As we taxied out of the parking apron, I couldn’t help noticing that the engine sound effects of the F50 were almost identical to the F27 – those of you who have noticed a “Ngaaa-ohhhhh” sound as the plane is turning to enter the runway would know what I mean. (This sound can be heard whether you’re on the plane or inside the terminal.)
The pilot’s right hand pushed the throttle levers all the way forward, and the engines very responsively became more and more “aggressive” and noisy, and soon we were airborne. It was then that I noticed that the top of the cockpit instrument panel was almost up to the eye level of the pilot. Imagine if your car’s dashboard was just as high, and you can imagine how restricted the pilot’s field of vision might be. How do they cope?
Without touching the throttle levers again, the pilots turned a number of knobs behind/beside those levers, and soon after take off, the engines quietened down somewhat as we continued to climb to cruising altitude.
Flying above lots of oil palm plantations, our route took us over the airspace of Lahad Datu, which is roughly midway between Sandakan and Tawau, although it’s not in a straight line. From there, we turned, say, 15 degrees to the right, and headed for Tawau. Glad for the opportunity to see Lahad Datu and Darvel Bay from the air, and for the simple pleasure of being served a cup of mango juice – probably no free inflight services come 1st of August!!
All too soon, we reached Tawau. Just before the final approach, I noticed that the plane was pointing downwards at an angle that was perhaps twice as steep as usual for descent. Was the pilot trying to make a very rapid descent? There was a feeling that one could easily slip forward out of one’s seat! Just then, I had the rare opportunity of beholding a B733 of Air Asia making its final approach – it was perhaps 500 feet below us, 1 mile to the right. Air-to-air sightings, what an experience!
We soon banked to the right to make a 180-degree turn, and the plane’s nose was still pointing downwards rather steeply, much to my anxiety. Had to reassure myself with examples of how World War 2 dive bombers could cope with near-suicidal dive angles! That sorted itself out during final approach, and the plane “drew level” and we landed in the usual manner. At the parking apron was the up-until-recently rare sight of 2 Air Asia B737-300s at Tawau at the same time; one had just arrived from Kota Kinabalu (BKI
), from which Air Asia had very recently commenced services. The other B733 is presumably from and bound for Kuala Lumpur (KUL
2nd LEG: TAWAU to SANDAKAN
DATE: 23 July 2006
Flight No.: MH2142
FROM/TO: Tawau (TWU) – Sandakan (SDK)
ETD/ETA: 1730 - 1810
Flying time: 40 minutes
Estimated distance: 180 km
Fare paid: MYR74 + 15 fuel surcharge + 5 insurance + 6 airport tax. Total: MYR100 (Published, full fare; Y Class)
This is it, today it will literally be my last flight on a MAS Fokker 50. The end of an era, for me personally, it’s 1977 to 2006…… There was therefore a sense of reluctance as I made my way to the airport.
The check in area is air-conditioned, and is the only public area to have such a facility (one of the cafes upstairs is also air-conditioned, I think), which is just as well, for, having arrived early, I found none of the check in counters open – there was a lull in flight activity from around 2.30 pm to 5.30 pm, and so presumably the staff may have been on some kind of break. And just as well there were some seats here, and I sat down and just as well I had brought a book to read. That made 75 minutes pass quickly, and around 4.50 pm, I checked in.
Went upstairs to the departure lounge immediately after that, but the security officers told me they would only let pax in at 5.00 pm. Annoying. While waiting outside, I appreciated the modernity of the most modern airport in Sabah; yet, I’d give a thousand bucks to be able to soak up that unsophisticated atmosphere of the now disused old Tawau airport.
5.00 pm came and went, and as I made my way to the seat inside the departure lounge, I caught sight of our plane taxiing into the parking apron, 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Now, if only Air Asia can be as punctual as MAS. The TV
was on, but there wasn’t anything worth watching. At around 5.10 pm we were asked to board, and descended the staircase leading to the tarmac, but were held up at the bottom of the stairs for about 2 minutes, after which they let us out onto the tarmac. I walked towards a MAS Fokker F50 for the last time with a reluctant, end-of-era feeling. The sound of that APU (auxiliary power unit) was all too familiar. What a long way the F50 had come – I was told on the F27 you’d have to wait until the engines started before there would be any air-conditioning.
Was greeted by a smiling and pleasant stewardess [if Air Asia’s advertisements are to be believed, they have the most fun-loving and friendly cabin crew. But wait, where were they when MAS went about setting the standard starting from the early 1990s onwards??] whose name I unfortunately forgot – no thanks to my not having a notepad and my tardiness in posting this report L As soon as I entered, to the right, in that little storage compartment next to the toilet, were some of the day’s newspapers for pax reading pleasure. Not sure whether FAX will provide these when they take over……… Made my way to seat no. 11F. (Or was it 12F?)
The flight was about ¾ full, and since all the pax had been punctual, at around 5.20 pm, 10 minutes ahead of schedule [FAX and Air Asia, you’ve got pretty big shoes to fill!!!!!!!!], the engines started. That familiar whine filled the cabin, and the FA
gave the usual safety demo. Again, as we turned left to exit the parking apron and turn into the runway, that same “Ngaaa-ohhhhh” sound was heard. This is the same sound that I had heard way back in the late 70s with the F27, and you’ll never hear it except when you’re turning as you exit the parking apron on your way to take off!! Hmmmm….
Almost immediately, since the parking apron is at one end of the runway, we commenced take off roll and once airborne we headed in the direction of Lahad Datu, which, as mentioned earlier, is a minor deviation from the “straight line” from Tawau to Sandakan. Not too sure why they don’t choose the straight line flight path…… but I was once again glad for the opportunity to see Lahad Datu from the air – the port area with a recently reclaimed area for the Palm Oil Industry Complex, and also the Lahad Datu airport stood out in the fading sunset. The plane then turned, say, 15 degrees to the left, and we were on our way to Sandakan.
The view below was mostly of oil palm plantations and numerous rivers; could see a couple of ox bow lakes as well. As we drew nearer to Sandakan, mangrove rivers and swamps could also be seen. Flew over Sandakan Bay, and we were soon on final approach. Touched down at around 6.00 pm, again 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
I deliberately waited for the other pax to disembark, and was the last to get off the plane, and being seated at the rear end, I walked along the entire length of the cabin for the last time, on my way out. At the front, the stewardess wished me the usual farewell and thank you, I wanted to ask her for her comments on the fact that the end is nigh for the MAS F50, but didn’t, for she may (or may not) be out of a job soon – that might be a bit insensitive. Whatever the future was, she maintained that warm and friendly outward appearance. A moment later, I went down the stairs of a MALAYSIA AIRLINES FOKKER F50 for the last time. That’s it, the end of an era for me.
Again, the walk across the tarmac to the terminal building was not without a heavy heart. The sound of the APU filled the air, but faded as I walked further and further away, often looking back at what I was wlaking away from. A couple of tourists (presumably from Japan) were gaily going about the business of snapping some shots of the F50 on the tarmac; I think they weren’t aware of the end-of-era thing. Even if they were, they probably may not be able to appreciate in full my sentiments.
I walked up the ramp leading to the terminal, with my head looking over my shoulder at the plane almost all the way, as though it was some king of salute. Just before entering the terminal, I stopped for a moment and had one last look (or so I thought) at a MALAYSIA AIRLINES FOKKER F50 – I told myself this is it, your last sight of it. The 2 Japanese tourists were also nearby, again I don’t think they realize the significance of the times. As I entered the terminal, I couldn’t resist the temptation, and so, my last view (literally) of a MALAYSIA AIRLINES FOKKER F50 was through the glass window of the terminal, in the fading sunset.
The feeling has since sunk in that I would never again see a Fokker F50 in MAS colours. Indeed, 8 days later, on 31 July 2006, an era in MAS history came to an end (without any fanfare on MAS part, regrettably). Sure, the same F50s operated by MAS were immediately taken over by FAX, and in the first weeks of August, had MAS livery and colours on them (the repainting job had to wait, apparently, so, FAX merely painted the letters-cum-logo “FAX” somewhere on the fuselage). But it’s just not the same. Very regrettably, MAS didn’t appear to be sentimental about it in the same way that I am; I got the impression they were thinking the sooner we get rid of this F50 albatross-around-our-necks, the better [they had in the past claimed that to breakeven on F50 operations, they need a 110% load factor – that’s presumably based on the then-existing fare structure]. So, it’s left to people like me to pay the tributes and do the commemorations.
And so, I close this personal chapter of my love of airplanes with a heavy heart, but at the same time grateful that I have had the opportunity to fly one last time before MAS’s F50s are consigned to history – it was the only way to pay tribute and wish farewell to this great plane that had played such an important yet undeservedly low-profile role in its 40 year-long service with MAS. I’m sure some people reading this in Tawau, Lahad Datu, Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Labuan, Miri, Bintulu, Sibu and Kuching (the towns which MAS F50s serviced) would agree.