Fair winds and following seas, Fajim

“Bro… hang okay, ka?” I asked.

“Aku okay, bro.”

I was relieved that it was ‘Pejump’ on the other end of the line.

His voice was hoarse and weak – probably from exhaustion, dehydration, and the fact that his neck was in a neck brace.

Considering that he had just punched out of a flaming MiG-29N at 300 knots, this was good news.

I had first met ‘Pejump’ a year earlier, around 2003, when he was a Major in the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF).

Lt Col (Ret) Fajim Juffa Mustaffa Kamal was assigned to 17/19 Squadron out in RMAF Kuantan. He had one of the hottest, most coveted seats, flying the agile MiG-29N ‘Fulcrum’. He was at the tip of the spear. And he knew it.

Being at the apex of the ziggurat would understandably give someone a sense of supreme overconfidence, a certain ‘arrogance’. A swagger. But not Fajim.

He was one of the rare breeds – able to strike a balance between being a genuinely nice guy, and a cold, calculated fighter pilot that you could count on in a dogfight.

He welcomed me to the squadron shack at the 2003 Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition with open arms, full of exuberance.

An ebullient man in his CWU-27 Nomex flightsuit and a squadron scarf around his neck, the ‘Tedung Selar’ squadron patch on his right shoulder and the Malaysian flag on his left, Fajim cut quite the figure and looked every bit like the quintessential fighter pilot.

By all accounts, he was a livewire, the life of the party, the perennial jokester. But he was good at taking it as he was at dishing it out. Everybody liked him.

His callsign, ‘Pejump’, was a play on the Malay word ‘pejam’. He earned it during one of the many 1v1 mock dogfights he flew.

In the course of pulling some high Gs during that ‘furball’, ‘Pejump’ suffered what is known as G-induced Loss of Consciousness, or G-LOC, in which the Gs forced the blood to drain from his brain, to his lower extremities.

His brain, now starved of the oxygen-rich blood, just blacked out.

In the air, he was as good as the next man. His air discipline was sound, and in 2006, he attended the Flying Instructor Course. ‘Pejump’ continued to the QFI – Qualified Flying Instructor phase and rose to the highest level – Category A. He had a knack for teaching.

In 2004, while flying a MiG-29N ‘Fulcrum’, ‘Pejump’ suffered a catastrophic engine failure.

One of the MiG’s two Tumanskii RD-33 turbofan engines had exploded and ripped apart the fuel lines, hydraulic lines, and control actuators.

‘Pejump’ felt the aircraft judder, and looking at the three rearview mirrors on his canopy bow, he saw that the back of his aircraft was engulfed in a ball of fire.

He pulled the throttle to the damaged engine back to idle and activated the fire extinguisher bottles to kill the fire. It didn’t work.

His wingman, ‘Ice’, sidled up offset behind him to assess the damage. He came to the inevitable conclusion.

“Eject, buddy.”

‘Pejump’ yanked the ejection handle between his legs on his Zvezda K-36 ‘bang’ seat, which initiated a series of events.

First to go was his Perspex canopy. Within seconds, the solid rocket motors under his seat ignited and launched him into the 300-knot slipstream. As he tumbled in the air, two telescopic arms extended from the seat, and small ‘drogue’ chutes deployed.

These stopped the seat from tumbling end-over-end.

Now hurtling back to earth, a ‘seat-kicker’ kicked ‘Pejump’ out of the seat, allowing him to freefall.

At the assigned altitude, barometric sensors automatically deployed his parachute and deposited ‘Pejump’ relatively safely back on the ground.

I called him the minute I read that they had found him alive and flew him back to base.

‘Pejump’ recounted his harrowing adventure over roti canai and teh ais in Ipoh last year. By this time, he was an instructor with BATS Aviation, a flying academy in Perak.

Joining us was fellow instructor Amir Zakaria, callsign ‘Golake’. ‘Golake’ had come onboard BATS a short while earlier after a long career as a Weapons Systems Officer or ‘Whizzo’ flying in the back seat of the Sukhoi Su-30MKM ‘Flanker’ operated by the RMAF. The two were tight.

‘Pejump’ and ‘Golake’ held centre court, regaling me with stories of close calls, near-misses, brushes with the top brass, misadventures, and scrapes. He was the same old Fajim, boisterous, with an infectious laugh. A barrel of fun. We promised to catch up again, soon.

Last night, I lost my friend.

Fajim, 52, was killed when the Piper aircraft he was in crashed in Medan Gopeng, Perak.

Farewell, my friend. May Allah SWT place you among the pious and righteous. Al-Fatihah.

Main image: The writer (left) with Fajim ‘Pejump’ Juffa Mustaffa Kamal (right) and Amir ‘Golake’ Zakaria.