Rescue agency chief mixes calm with candour

Taking cover in the clouds, swooping like an eagle and soaring like a kite, Bambang Soelistyo, then a junior officer in the Indonesian Air Force, delighted the crowds with his solo aerobatic display in his Hawk MK-53 trainer attack aircraft at the Jakarta Air Show two decades ago.

Now, as head of Basarnas, Indonesia's rescue agency, Air Marshal Soelistyo has to draw on all the skills and reflexes he has acquired as he steers the agency through its most high-profile assignment in years - the search for Indonesia AirAsia Flight QF8501.

With three major air incidents involving South-east Asian airliners in the past 10 months, the crash two Sundays ago of the Airbus A320-200 flying from Surabaya to Singapore has focused attention as never before on the region, particularly Indonesia, where the budget carrier is registered as a joint venture. And as head of the government outfit tasked to locate and recover the plane and the 162 people on board, the spotlight is firmly on the 57-year-old air force officer.

Unflappable, never at a loss for ideas, or words, weaving his way from one press briefing to the next on-air interview a nd then darting into the operations room to direct a helicopter or ship to a new search area, Air Marshal Soelistyo has held a normally cynical world media in thrall.

Mixing controlled candour with an ability to produce a droll remark, he has disarmed the toughest questioners, communicated consistently to assuage grieving relatives of passengers, and always taken care to ensure that only confirmed news of debris or bodies was released.

Thus, when reporters pressed him on rumours that five of the bodies recovered from the sea were found strapped to their seats, his response was unequivocal: Only two were found in that situation. Likewise, when it was sensationally reported that some of the passengers were found holding hands in death he firmly quashed the rumours. In between, he bantered with a prematurely balding reporter, calling him a gundul, or skinhead in Javanese.

"Results are only the second priority," Air Marshal Soelistyo told The Straits Times in a late- night interview at the central operations control room in central Jakarta last Friday. "Motivation, planning, implementation, team work, firm command, smooth communications are No. 1. When you do that, results will follow."

Hours after the plane went down and the rescue effort began, Air Marshal Soelistyo divided up the search zone and allocated responsibility to various nations that rushed to help. Although the sea where the plane fell is relatively shallow, swift currents flowing south-east pose a huge complication in spotting debris, and in underwater search and recovery.

Under his leadership, Basarnas tracked down the first signs of debris and the first body of a passenger on the third day of the search. By the weekend, the search operations, assisted by vessels and planes from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, the United States, South Korea and Russia, had managed to locate what was thought to be the fuselage, even as navy divers waited for 5m-high swells whipped up by 35-knot squalls to settle before going down for the delicate task of recovering bodies.

Starting his day at dawn and seldom ending before midnight, Air Marshal Soelistyo has set a hectic pace for his team, which includes a two-star general, and the ever-present media scrum. Always accessible, his style of accepting live TV interviews just a few minutes before airtime every night and, occasionally, early in the morning, has won him many admirers. His self-confidence comes through as he never asks for prepared questions.

"I see it as part of my responsibilities to disclose as much as I can," he said. "This also comes from a sense of accountability to the families of the victims and to the public."

His juniors warm to their boss' style.

"He is firm but always lets us take our time," said Army Major- General Tatang Zainudin, Basarnas' deputy operations head. He admires his boss for his quick decision-making, clear instructions and clear planning.

Few of the senior Basarnas staff go home to rest. Agency spokesman Dianta Bangun sleeps on a sofa on the fifth floor of the Basarnas building, as do 20 other people who, in the past week, have slept in the office.

Air Marshal Soelistyo, who has a son and a daughter, was born and raised in Yogjakarta, famous for its proximity to the Borobodur world heritage site and the Prambanan temples. The small-town boy, whose favourite food is tofu and tempe, a soya-bean product, dreamed of flying from his childhood. But it was not until he finished his training at the Air Force academy in Yogjakarta that he got to see a bit of the world.

"I guess because I never went anywhere back then," he said with a smile. "The only airport that I had ever seen then was the airport in my hometown."

Six years into his military career, he took state administrative studies and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Merdeka in Madiun, East Java. He served as a United Nations military observer in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1993 to 1994.

Before he was appointed head of Basarnas last April, he served as director-general of defence planning at the defence ministry. His previous postings included command of Indonesia's air defence base in Medan, North Sumatra, and as the principal spokesman for the air force.

In 2010, as a one-star general, he co-chaired the Joint Air Force Training Working Group of the Indonesian and Singapore air forces that planned and implemented programmes which forged closer ties between the two outfits.

Where did he acquire his controlled efficiency? Air Marshal Soelistyo paused to consider.

"Golf," said the officer, who has a single-digit handicap in the game. "It teaches you to assess direction, wind and so much more before even striking the ball."

Little wonder then that they say the easiest way to judge a man's character is to watch how he behaves in golf.

This article was first published on Jan 05, 2015.
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