ZISHAAN SHABBIR MALIK
Kenya Airways, First Officer, 737. [Two Bars]
There are many truisms of life, here is one of them; people stare at pilots. And don’t be mistaken, pilots are not oblivious of this fact. They know it. They may pretend they don’t, but they do. It’s the uniform. It’s the white and the stripes on the shoulder and the dramatic sunglasses. And the big production of not smiling. Of the strut. While the rest of us walk, pilots strut.
When Zishaan walked into the Brioche on Riverside Drive wearing his white pilot shirt, nobody ogled. He had pocketed his epaulets, his strips. Because he knew. When he was leaving after the interview, stripes forgotten on his shoulders, heads turned, eyes looked up from lattes, croissants and buns and escorted him outside. I looked like the guy who was trying to sell him insurance.
My dad’s grandfather sat on a ship from Pakistan to Mombasa for many months. It was 1890-something. The sea was an angry beast and navigation was rudimentary at best. Men died at sea. Many men. When you died, able bodied men hauled you overboard and you sank to the bottom like dead weight, which technically you were, or got eaten by sharks or whatever. To pay for his way, he worked on the ship, barely ate, slept on hard surfaces and dreamt of a better life wherever he was headed. Sometimes the weather was so bad when the ship tipped and swayed furiously, grown men prayed loudly. I know these things because I was curious about this man. This man who didn’t know anyone in Africa, who just thought, you know what, it can’t be worse than the poverty where I come from.
When he got to the shores of Mombasa he was probably a bag of bones. I can picture him, bewildered, looking around thinking, wow, I’m in Africa! He started to look for work because he hadn’t come to spend time at the beach. When he was asked what skill he possessed he said he was good with his hands, good with metal. Lucky for him, the construction of the Lunatic Express was underway so he joined in the madness. He did that for a while and one day when his friend who was seated next to him was eaten by a lion (the animal simply reached out through a window and grabbed him like you would reach out and pick a packet of unga from a supermarket shelf) he said, ‘oh hell no, I’m out of here. I didn’t come all the way from Karachi to feed a lion.’ So he eventually branched off and started his own metal work business. And he worked and worked and worked and took his children to school. And his children worked and worked and worked and took their children to school. And my father worked and worked and worked and took us to school. Everything about my family history is about education and great dedication and courage of men and women, starting with him.
He was a great man who did unexpected things. At some point in his life, he went to Mecca by foot, on camelback and by boat. Took him over three months and the great generosity of people he ran into. Here we are with access to plane tickets and conveniences yet we don’t go to Mecca. We keep saying, next year I will go. This man packed a piece of bread and simply started walking towards Mecca. Walking! He made tough decisions at a very uncertain time, took immense risks so that others down his lineage could have a better life. If he came back now and he was told his two grandchildren are doctors, another a brigadier in the army, one an accountant and a teacher and that one of his great grandchildren flies big commercial planes over the very dangerous waters he toiled on in a ship from Karachi, he’d say, you are joking! Impossible!
I wasn’t one of those kids who had a burning dream to be a pilot. I was one of those kids who didn’t know what they wanted to be. After my A-levels I sat pretty at home, just cooling my heels, not knowing where the wind would blow me. Sure, we lived next to the army barracks in Nakuru but I never looked at a jet and thought ‘maybe I should become a pilot.’ Flying planes was never on my radar. Nothing was, really. It frustrated my mom. She would ask, “Zishaan, what do you want to do? I’d say “I don’t know, we’ll see.” So one day she came home with a whole stack of university prospectuses. “Find something in there you like,” she said. She really wanted me to study in Australia because she had done some training in Australia. She’s a radiologist. She said, ‘Look, I’d love for you to study in Australia, not forcing you, but these are Australian universities. Take an hour every day to go through these prospectus. Just one hour, that’s all I’m asking you.’ So each day, for an hour, I flipped through these heavy prospectuses with an unproportional mixture of boredom and duty. B-Com seemed dull. Engineering looked like too much calculus. Medicine was a no. I kind of liked the idea of being a marine biologist because I liked fish. This is because my dad would take us fishing in Lake Naivasha wherever he could, so maybe that was a good fit. I liked being in a boat on the lake. I could steer a boat, and reverse a boat which, I will have you know, isn’t the same as reversing a car because if you turn left the boat will turn right. So I told her, “Mom, it will be marine biology.” She said, “and where do you think you are going to work after? Don’t just pick a course because it looks cool now. Think of the future.”
The future. Now that’s something I didn’t think about when I was a teenager. I thought of today, right now. At the very best, the next day. The future? No. I was waiting for the wind to blow me wherever it wished to blow me. I was a bit like my great grandfather in that ship at the mercies of the winds in the high seas.
How I became a pilot is actually not very exciting, I’m afraid.
One night I was flipping through the prospectus when I saw a photo that caught my eye. It was of a small airplane floating over this pristine valley with a river flowing underneath it. It was an advertisement for an aviation school in Perth Australia or something. It was a gorgeous photo. I loved the valley and the plane and the river. All these elements spoke to me. For the first time I thought, maybe being a pilot is this adventurous, flying over rivers and valleys. That and also the fact that I had always been interested in operating machines. I had operated boats, I had operated motorbikes and cars. I started driving at the age of nine. After I finished my A-levels, my dad was doing some farming on the side so I used to love spending time at the farm with him, driving tractors and combine harvesters. So, machines generally really fascinated me.
There was never any pressure for me to become a particular thing in life. And I had plenty of reasons to be pressured to become something seeing as my family gravitated towards certain careers. I’m the last born, my mom is a radiologist, my dad is a surgeon, my sister is a surgeon and my brother is also a doctor. My parents really discouraged my siblings from becoming doctors because it’s a tough life. My parents, being doctors with the government, were posted from Nairobi to Eldoret after they got married. And from Eldoret they were given an option for posting either Nakuru or Mombasa. They chose Nakuru because of the weather. My mom did, rather. I enjoyed growing up in a small town. I loved the blooming of the jacaranda trees just before the rains came. The crisp, clean air of the early mornings. I loved the greenery of my childhood, you don’t see that shade of green anywhere else. There was never any pressure.
My dad was the one of the two surgeons in Rift Valley when I was growing up. This meant that he was always on call. He was always out working at all hours of the day and night. But somehow he would always nip back in and drop us to school. Or pick us. I remember that he had one of those old rotary telephones near his bed because he was constantly on call. It was so loud, that telephone. When it rang you heard it everywhere in the house. It filled the house with the shrill shiny sound of metal. When I think of growing up, of my childhood, what I recall distinctly is that phone constantly ringing in the silence of the night. Each time it rang I’d hear the engine of my dad’s car coming to life shortly after. And him driving into the darkness again.
Whenever my dad had some free time, he was always outside, tinkering with something. Whether it was a boat engine, whether he was building a trailer. He’s a scientist with a mechanical mind. It came to him very naturally. I think it was passed on from him, this love for machines. I remember when he bought a boat engine from an auction and he would spend time fixing it while he pointed out components of it and told me what they did. A boat engine! When this Maasai patient couldn’t pay his surgeon’s fees and offered his old and disused motorbike as payment, he took it and brought it home. He worked on it for weeks, kicked it to life one day and taught me how to ride. I was only 13 years old. I would ride it around Milimani, the Menengai slopes, past forests. When he was away at work, and he was away at work a lot, my brother who is 10 years older than me stepped in as a father figure for me. Very charismatic and compassionate guy. Dr. Nazif Malik. He moved to New Zealand like his great grandfather who got on a ship from Karachi.
One of my biggest lessons in flying is how to manage rest. You don’t think about rest until you start flying. Just like my dad, we have to be awake at night a lot. There is no pilot who will claim to like the night flights because they are tough. As a human your body wants to sleep at night. I have learnt how to give my body complete rest when I need to because not only do you need to be fresh and alert during your flights but also because your mental capacity is greatly affected by your level of fatigue.
It’s fun but it’s not easy. We are constantly going through training and tests. Being a pilot, at least for KQ, is about constant tests and study. We are regularly put in the Flight Simulator to see how we think outside the box, how we make decisions under stress, if we remember things from manuals and training. You are landing but there is no visibility suddenly, what do you do? You have to land on a shorter runway, what do you do? What’s the procedure for landing when you’ve lost communication? Your plane is suddenly close to another aircraft. There is a fire. An engine is blown. You go over these things over and over. A great deal of them will never happen, but when they do they want to make sure that you will do the right thing. Being a pilot is about safety safety safety.
I’m scared of heights. Terrified of them. That’s what people don’t know about me.
Before Kenya Airways I flew cargo planes. My first job was flying the 737-200 cargo airplane. It’s a very old school aircraft with analog dials. After the company I was working for sent off the plane for dry cargo lease abroad in 2013, I decided to apply to KQ. I didn’t think I’d get called for interview (they are many, a story for another day) but I got the job and I’ve since done just over 5,000 hours
The major difference between flying cargo and passengers? Passengers complain, cargo doesn’t. There is the glitz and glamour of flying, you know, staying in nice hotels, nice destinations. But at the same time there are times you are off to the not so nice destinations, in some very remote areas, some places that are security risks. For example, we used to fly to Bamako. I remember my last flight to Bamako. Flying into Bangui which has experienced a lot of political unrest and some civil war.
I’m married with a daughter called Emaan. My wife used to work in an imports and logistics company. When we started planning a family and how this was going to work, me being away she decided she wanted to be a present parent, so she quit. She’s the family’s anchor. Whatever corner of the world I am in, I know she’s running things. The difference between being a pilot and another job, when I am off I get some really good quality time with my family. Even though the holidays are a bit compromised because of work and stuff. Being a Muslim I have always worked through the last 13 or so Christmases to let the Christian pilots who need to spend time with their families do that. I take my time off after Ramadhan.
What is flying during Ramadan like? It’s very tiring. You learn to hydrate because flying dehydrates you. You depart for Accra, it’s a six hour flight. You land at 2pm and you look at your watch and realise you have gone backwards in time. Your body still thinks it’s in Nairobi and it’s ready to open the fast, but you can’t because it’s 2pm. So you go on social media and can’t avoid seeing people posting photos of samosas and all the nice food while you still have three hours to go. That’s how flying during Ramadan can be.
When I was away studying to be a pilot in Australia, my mom would call me everyday at 5:30pm before she left the office. How are you doing, Zishaan? How is school? Have you eaten? What did you eat? How is the weather, did it rain? Are you sleeping well? You know mothers have a way of connecting with their kids emotionally. Traditionally you don’t talk to your dad as much about feeling like you do with your mom. My mom was always really present, part of the process so I would be vulnerable with her. I still have emails from her which contained simple recipes because she didn’t want me to starve and die in Perth. So we really had a good bond through those years.
My best moment in aviation was when she had gone to Dar es Salaam for work. For her return flight, I managed to convince a colleague to swap so that I could fly in that flight. Before the flight I showed the cabin crew her photo and asked them to direct her to the Business Class immediately she boarded.
When she finally walked in, she was directed left. I could hear her saying, ‘no, my seat is on this other side,’ and the cabin crew telling her, “no, madam, your seat is on this side. Please, this way.” When she did the turn I was standing right there in her path. I could see the look on her face, first, confusion and then pride. I had my hands behind my back. I told her, “welcome to my flight, mom.” She covered her mouth with her hand, took a step and walked into my arms. When I held her she started crying.
I think mothers don’t stop seeing you as their child even when you are flying planes. I’m still the small boy she used to ask if he has done homework, taken a bath. The boy she used to send food recipes on emails. She still sees me as her baby, not a man who can fly the Embraer. For me seeing her proud and teary was really special and proud, it made all her sacrifices and direction worthwhile.
And there is a very special feeling when you are flying a plane and you are thinking, ‘my mother is seated back there.’
Register for final creative writing masterclass in November HERE. We will cut a Christmas cake. We might even have balloons. If that’s no motivation, I don’t know what is.