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Meet Gurcharan, the co-pilot who brought home the body of Malaysia's second PM

Gurcharan Singh Sidhu worked hard throughout his career, eventually becoming the first Sikh to be promoted to captain.

Azzman Abdul Jamal
4 minute read
Gurcharan Singh Sidhu on a flight with Malaysia-Singapore Airlines.
Gurcharan Singh Sidhu on a flight with Malaysia-Singapore Airlines.

For pilot Gurcharan Singh Sidhu, flying has never been just a job to bring in the bacon – it is a career that has shaped his entire identity. 

Yet looking back at his long years in the aviation industry, including his most memorable experience of helping bring home the body of Malaysia's second prime minister, Gurcharan is struck by the challenges he faced in forging his path in life. 

Even as a child, he had longed to be a pilot and to soar high among the clouds. But this dream was met with opposition by his father. 

The third of five children, his father had hoped for him to become a police inspector or a doctor. 

Retired pilot Gurcharan Singh Sidhu recalls his experience working with six different airlines throughout the years. 

Gurcharan grew up in the small village of Kampung Baru Buntong in Ipoh, Perak, where his family moved in 1959 after his father, a policeman himself, retired from the force. 

After finishing school, he applied to become a pilot despite his father's resistance to his desired career path. 

Eventually, an offer came from an airline company – but his father, still hoping that his son would follow in his footsteps, hid the letter from him. 

"He told me to join the police force because he wanted me to become an inspector," Gurcharan recalled in an interview with MalaysiaNow. 

"So I applied, but I didn't get in. After that, he set his heart on me becoming a doctor instead." 

But Gurcharan was determined to become a pilot. Quietly, he submitted another application, this time with the help of his uncle. 

In 1971, he received an offer to work with Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), an airline company jointly owned by the governments of Malaysia and Singapore. 

"Of course, my father found out that I had become a pilot," he said. 

"But everybody in the family, including my uncle, came together and persuaded him to let me follow my dream." 

In October 1972, MSA split to become Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines. Gurcharan chose to remain with the Malaysian entity despite receiving a lucrative offer from the Singapore side. 

Part of his decision was driven by his desire to remain close to his family. But he was also fuelled by a love for his country.

Bringing Abdul Razak home

Five years later, in January 1976, Gurcharan was given one of the most memorable tasks of his entire career. 

The country had just received news that the prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, had died while undergoing treatment for leukaemia in London. 

A compilation of old photos belonging to Gurcharan Singh Sidhu.

Arrangements were made for his body to be flown home from London to Kuwait, and then from Kuwait to Malaysia as there were no direct flights at the time. 

Gurcharan, at 27 years old, was assigned as the co-pilot for the second leg of the flight.

"They told me that Tun (Razak) had passed away, and briefed me about the assignment about 15 hours before we began the flight from Kuwait to Malaysia," he said. 

"I already knew that I would be flying with Captain Arshad Bakar on a Boeing 707 aircraft," he added. "I was selected based on the flight schedule." 

The flight from Kuwait departed as soon as Razak's body arrived from London, he said. Only the prime minister's coffin, which was placed in the cabin, and his family members were on board. 

When the plane touched down at the Subang International Airport, now known as the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, a crowd was already waiting. The atmosphere was quiet and sombre, Gurcharan said. 

Another three years later, Gurcharan was promoted to captain, making him the first Sikh to hold that position. 

His journey with Malaysia Airlines ended in October 1999, after 29 years of service.

Gurcharan Singh Sidhu on one of the many flights he made with Malaysia-Singapore Airlines.

He was then offered a position with India's Jet Airways as the director of operations, before moving to Korean Air and serving with the South Korean airline for 10 years as the captain of a jumbo plane. 

After that, he returned home to Malaysia. But not long afterwards, he received an offer to work with Saudi airline Al Wafeer Air, which sought him out due to his experience in flying Boeing 744 aircraft. 

This stint did not last for long and Gurcharan eventually left due to issues with salary payments. 

"I came back to Malaysia with the thought of retiring," he said. "I was already 60 years old." 

But because the retirement age was raised to 65, he kept working, accepting a contract with AirAsia X. He only worked with the airline for about a year and a half before health problems forced him to stop. 

At that point, he decided that it was time to call it a day. 

Looking back at his long and successful career as a pilot, Gurcharan is proud of everything he has achieved. 

"I served with six airlines, I travelled around the world, and I visited nearly every country," he said. 

But the biggest smile is for his son, Ajit Pall Sing Sidhu, who decided to become a pilot as well. 

He believes with all of his heart that Ajit will achieve even greater things than he did. 

"I tell him to take what I have done as a benchmark, and then to surpass it," he said. 

"He is a good pilot."