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Monday, April 30, 2018, 12:52
Soaring ambition
By Aruna Harjani in Jakarta
Monday, April 30, 2018, 12:52 By Aruna Harjani in Jakarta

One of Indonesia’s pioneer female pilots overcame early setbacks to pursue her dream and today runs a leading flight academy


Tience Sumartini has turned her passion for flying, stretching back 40 years, into a lucrative business in the Buleleng district of North Bali, Indonesia.

Her Bali International Flight Academy (BIFA), aka Bali Widya Dirgantara, takes in 100 students a year. And some have gone on to work as pilots for top airlines, including Indonesia’s national carrier Garuda.

Pursuing her dream of flying was an uphill struggle at times, including resistance from a traditional family. As a teenager and young woman, Sumartini could only watch from the ground when others soared in the sky. But she was determined to someday combine her consuming passion with her business acumen.

She grew up in a very conservative environment. Her father believed a woman’s place was in the home. “I wasn’t allowed to go for further studies after elementary (school), so I would take odd jobs to pay for my school fees.” Her father could afford the fees, but he thought the money would be better spent on her brothers.

Sumartini had a friend who was a fashion designer and became her assistant. She learned to make outfits for friends to wear to the parties she would miss so she could pay for her studies. She was allowed to use the sewing machines in a small factory behind her father’s house after the seamstresses had gone home.

She also offered extra tuition to schoolchildren, especially in math. “I love numbers and I was a good student in school.”

Sumartini applied to Indonesia’s best universities, but her father would not pay the fees, saying she should get married instead.

There was no other choice but to opt for vocational training, including secretarial, trading and finance courses.

Despite these early setbacks, she dreamed of learning to fly. “I would look at the sky and wonder how it felt to be up there.” And she refused to believe that being a woman was an insurmountable obstacle. She thought if a man could do it, she could too.

She saw a glider while swimming at a friend’s house. After making a few inquiries she learned there was a gliding course. “I followed the glider with my car to find out where the school was and I immediately enrolled.” That was almost 40 years ago, and she was already married.

Despite early setbacks, she dreamed of learning to fly. “I would look at the sky and wonder how it felt to be up there.” And she refused to believe that being a woman was an insurmountable obstacle. She thought if a man could do it, she could too

Sumartini attended gliding school every weekend and also learned how to pilot a single-engine aircraft. She took different flying courses, including in aerobatics, and spent all of her weekends at Jakarta’s Pondok Cabe Airport.

Then she and her husband opened a ground school in Central Jakarta. At the time there was only one flying school in Indonesia, and it was for commercial pilots. There was no opportunity if you wanted to learn to fly as a pastime.

She bought an aircraft kit from the United States, and with the help of friends and video instructions, put it together in her garage in 13 months. She and her husband also built their home and two more aircraft over the next three years. “During this period, my social life was zero.”

She also did skydiving and organized the world skydiving championships in Bali. She proudly pointed to photographs showing her achievements as an aviator, and in most of these pictures with colleagues she is the only female.

All of her hard work has clearly paid off. BIFA is not just any flying school. It looks more like a resort, with a gym and swimming pool. It is well equipped with 25 aircraft — 22 single-engine and three twin-engine Cessna planes. Altogether, 700 graduates have passed out through its gates.

The selection process is rigorous and applicants go through several interviews. They must be under 24 and educated to tertiary level. The first phase of training resembles an army boot camp. 

And they undergo thorough medical and psychiatric tests. Students must also give urine samples to ensure they are not taking drugs. 

As Sumartini said: “We have a moral obligation to the students’ future passengers, so if there is an enrollee who we think is not good enough, we don’t accept him.”

Unlike other pilot schools in Indonesia, BIFA has its own runway, hangars and boarding facilities for the students so they can stay on campus. Each plane has its own instructor, and Sumartini said the focus is on dedication and efficiency.

The students are only allowed to go to the city once every two weeks to unwind. The instructors (including pilots from Canada, France, Australia, India and the United Kingdom) also stay at the academy.

Irrespective of whether they want to be a private or commercial pilot, every student starts in the classroom at ground school, and they have their first flying lessons in small planes. Each student must complete 200 flying hours before graduating.

It takes 13 months before a student qualifies to become a commercial pilot. Following what is known as type rating (to certify pilots to fly a particular aircraft), the airline then picks the students fit to fly their planes. Then they are sent for additional type-rating training.

The most grueling part of BIFA’s course is its guerrilla tactics survival training, where students are thrown into the sea under the supervision of a special trainer. As Sumartini put it: “They will be pilots one day and if anything happens to the plane they should know how to help the people.” 

Only a handful of applicants are women, but one of BIFA’s graduates has become the first woman to pilot a Boeing 777 for Garuda. Airlines had been reluctant to accept female pilots, but BIFA managed to change their mind-set.

Sumartini now wants BIFA to expand and start taking English-speaking foreign students. She said: “English is a language used in all countries; we would like to take in Chinese students in our school.” 

Running a flying school in Indonesia has its challenges. Suitably trained instructors are difficult to find, because of the country’s limits on hiring foreign nationals. BIFA has tried to get around this by training more local instructors. Also, a heavy tax is placed on aircraft imported for training purposes, unlike other countries such as Malaysia where flight schools purchase aircraft free of tax.

Sumartini reminisced about her early days. “I became a waitress, receptionist, trader — from there I formed my aviation businesses,” she said. And she had to understand all aspects. “I had to know the kind of parts needed, how an engine would run. In short, I had to get down to the grassroots.”

She is one of the four female pilot pioneers in Indonesia, along with Desi Sukardi, Rahayu and Lalu Sudrajad. Of all of them, she remains the most active in the industry.

For Sumartini , the future of aviation in Indonesia looks bright — both for economic and geographical reasons.

“Here in Indonesia, any businesses connected with sea or air will always be needed,” she said of the world’s largest archipelago.


Tience Sumartini

Director, Bali International Flight Academy (BIFA)

Career milestones:

2001-present: Director of BIFA

Quick takes:

What advice do you have for young people?

Follow your passion seriously, whatever it is that you like. There can be many opportunities in life, but also much competition.

What are your hobbies?

Watching movies, chatting with friends, reading, social work. 

What is your most memorable moment?

When I was asked to fly the plane all by myself. After I landed, there were the usual initiation rituals — being poured with oil, soil, grass, water. I was the first woman flyer in the school. All pilots have to kiss the ground on occasions like these.

What is your life’s dream?

I want to create a foundation where I can help people. I want to keep my life simple but healthy.

Tell us an unknown fact about yourself.

I have my crying moments in my bathroom. Because I am a pilot, people think that I am stronger somehow.

Date of birth: Aug 1

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