‘Teenage pilot extraordinaire’: Veteran air men
Published on: Sunday, January 09, 2022
By: Kan Yaw Chong
Text Size:

Zara prepares to taxi off on December 19.
VETERAN pilots in Sabah paid their unreserved tribute to the first teen girl to fly solo around the world in an ultralight single engine plane.

“Zara Rutterford, 19, is very extraordinary,” observed Captain John Sham, a former Malaysian Airforce jet fighter pilot and now Flying Instructor with Sabah-based Layang Layang Aerospace Flying Academy.

“She is amazing for a girl of her age to make the decision shows maturity and I think her parents or whoever her mentors are, would have raised her up really well,” said Captain Sham.       

Zara touched down at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport at 4,20pm in perfect weather on December 16 from Clark Airbase, Philippines, en route to Jakarta. 

Datuk Captain Mahmud Amat Shah, former Director of Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) and now President of Sabah Flying Club, said, “I admire this teen girl and what she is doing.” 

Asked if he means this is because it is a “difficult undertaking”, Datuk Captain Mahmud said, “Oh yes, this is difficult.”

“First thing is you must have the courage and then you must be very daring to fly because it is a big risk when you fly alone, especially alone – very daring-lah!”

Very daring flying with one engine: Captain Mahmud

So what can be some of the risks? 

“Like strong wind, you never know because you can’t see bah, you fly everything is clear but the wind can be very strong over there, you go into it, suddenly… and then it’s single engine some more – one engine, if engine fails, no more engine any more. If you got two engines, when one fails, at least you can fly it.

“Is that what you mean by very daring?” Daily Express asked. 

“Very daring. Then you fly across the water, no land, water only for one hour, two hours like that, it’s a long time, you know. If you go into the sea, because the plane is so small, or if you go into the jungle also, the jungle also would swallow the aircraft you know.  


Zara trying out local roasted duck ‘kon lau’ mee at a Tanjung Aru coffee shop on December 18. 

Capt Dorai Raja 


“But big aircraft, they hit the trees, all the trees get broken and fire, at least you can see the trees in one area, brown in colour, but this small plane the jungle will just swallow you because it is so small, like our Cessna aircraft – all very small, we fly, frankly quite scary also sometimes. Anything happens, engine stops, it’s so difficult to come down, no landing area, no clearing area so…”

Zara did tell Daily Express in an exclusive interview that when the weather was getting worse and worse. She was “forced” to land in the nearest airfield which turned out to be the city of Quidbo, Columbia – the rainiest place on earth, which took her days to get back out. 

Captain Mahmud said he understood what Zara meant: “Sometimes this is not due to engine. Sometimes when you are flying, the weather builds up very fast. You have nowhere to go, then you want to divert, if you divert too far out into the sea, you have to come back also to the mainland, that’s a problem.” 

Small planes cannot fly above 

the weather

“In the case of big passenger jetliners, these aircraft go very high so they avoid  the weather – this weather, that weather, from ground to top, they go over the weather, flying 35,000ft, that’s how they avoid the  weather at 6000ft to 8,000ft to somewhere to 25,000ft or  ground to 25,000ft,” he noted.   

But the maximum height Zara’s small Shark plane can go is 10,000 ft beyond which the oxygen level is too thin so she has to go through the weather.  

“Yes, that’s why your planning must be good, your judgement must be good – planning, judgement and airmanship because you cannot just simply go into the weather, you get into trouble. 

“For example, when you go into the cloud, it’s so dark bah, you don’t even know whether you are flying right side up if you are not experienced enough and even if the aircraft is upside-down, you don’t know, because you cannot see the outside, you cannot see the water, you cannot see the land. 


Zara lets a cadet pilot from the Layang Layang Flying Academy experience her cockpit. 

Zara with Capt John Sham and her host Bernard Bauwens. 


Of course, you feel like you are straight but after some time, you don’t know the aircraft speed may build up, meaning you are going down! But because through all these accidents, we also learnt so we have to avoid the weather,” Captain Mahmud shared his experience.    

“This is why I say I admire this teen – very daring, just one engine. If it were two engines, if one engine fails, at least one engine is still running which takes you to a certain airport for you to land, not continue your journey. But single engine, where to go? It’s finished!” he concluded.  

More complimentary insight still on Zara from peers who are more than three times her age.  

Captain Sham explains the 4M’s: 

Man, Machine, Medium, Management

As noted in our opening tribute, Captain John Sham said he was looking at a “pilot extraordinaire” given her age. 

He drew his verdict after his non-stop helping and briefing Zara on weather assessment between KK and Jakarta, because the weather took a turn for the worse on December 17 when she was scheduled to take off, and remained unflyable on December 18. 

Key partner Daily Express was curious why he was as busy as a bee in sorting out the weather conditions and management between Point A (KK) and Point B (Jakarta) but it’s actually more than weather. 

“Basically what I have done is I took every information in terms of the four practices: Man, Machine, Medium and also the Management side of it and gave it to her which allowed her to make a decision herself,” Captain Sham noted.

“So in flying, risk assessment is the most important thing that you need to do but when it comes to management, it’s simple because you just ensure every ground thing like accommodation, simple paper work, things like documentations are all done. You get that out of the way, you take the first burden off the pilot’s chest,” he said.

“Secondly you look at the Man (teen girl in this case), make sure she has good rest, make sure she got good food, suitably hydrated.

“Then you look at the Machine, make sure the aircraft is taken care of – fuel sufficient etc so when the three things are done, the pilot has the ease to make decision.

“And the last one to look at is the Medium – the weather, the whole sweep of it including runways, what are the threats we are looking at?” Captain Sham noted. 

‘Very extraordinary for her age’: 

Capt Sham

“So the main threat to her machine is actually the weather, so the weather is actually a significant threat actually because of the low depression of the super Typhoon Rai up north that was happening around the Philippines.

“So that was actually a very significant threat that had actually caused delay of the sortie in Sabah by about two days but she is very good. But I always believe in never making a decision for the pilot. 

“You give enough information – relevant, current and updated so a pilot can actually make the decision and I think for her age, she is very extraordinary, she is amazing. For a girl of her age to make the decision (delay two days for take off?) shows maturity and I think her parents or who ever were her mentors would have actually raised her up really well,” Captain Sham concluded.

But know what?

This is the first time ever in aviation history that a 19-year-old girl is flying solo around the world and chose Kota Kinabalu as stopover. 

“She definitely inspired all of us here, yes, it did to me and I wish her good luck,” said Philip Tze, Deputy President of Sabah Flying Club, which went out their way to sponsor Zara 140 litres of fuel.

Captain Dorai Raja, Commercial Air Transport (pilot), Operations and Quality Assurance Executive, Layang Layang Group, said: 

“We welcome her with open arms, we are glad that she chose KK, Sabah, Malaysia to stop by on her world solo flight. Today’s weather (December 19) looks good, I am sure that she will reach Halim Perdana Airport Jalarta.”

Tributes to the key helpers to Zara’s stopover in KK  

Captain Raja credited Kota Kinabalu International Airport Immigration Officers Rahman Omar and Presley Geoffrey to help talk to PutraJaya for her My Travel Pass exemption. 

“Zara was supposed the fly off the next day (December 17) upon arrival but I explained to Immigration every day for two days why her flight was delayed and eventually Putrajaya granted official exemption,” Captain Raja noted.       

Guess who Zara stayed three nights with in Kota Kinabalu?

Belgian expatriate Bernard Bauwens and wife, Mary Bauwens,

“It’s an experience I never had yet before, it’s a nice experience. I just like to help people especially from my country, just like I love to help everyone in the world. 

“It’s an honour to host her, I showed her a little bit of KK,” said Bernard who hails from Brugge, a unique old city in northern Belgium that is connected to the sea by canals!             

Said Mary Bauwens: “I am honoured to have hosted Zara even though it is tiring waking up in the very early hours for three days to send her to the airport for early take offs.”       

Mary also said Immigration Officer Rahman Omar helped a lot in getting approval of the My TravelPass from the Federal Government to enter Sabah. She also credited Datuk Ag Shaminan bin Datuk Hj Ag Sahari of the State Home Affairs and Research Office who approved a Special Pass to enter Sabah as both passes are needed to enter Sabah. 

Asked how she felt about the assistance rendered to her by all the people in Kota Kinabalu, Zara said: “It is invaluable, I really need it and appreciate it.”


Zara with Datuk Capt Mahmud. 


Follow Us  

Follow us on            

Daily Express TV  

Special Reports - Most Read

What the people say
December 20, 2014