26 March 2014

So Long, Ol' Gal

We may never uncover the manner of your passing.

But we know that your going has uncovered the face of the people who surround you.

For showing us who we really are, we have seen that in your final known moments that you have bequeathed unto us more than we are prepared for.

Till we meet at His feet, may you find green pastures and restful waters.

14 March 2014

Yeah? You And Whose Army?

I am loth to speak of the recent disappearance of MH370. The barrage of pseudo-intellectual drivel and vitriol shows to me once again, that we are simply not ready for public opinion serving as an influence towards government policy and practise. We have in overwhelming volume, public opinionatedness in guise of public opinion.
As we speak, much of the accusation has been proven wrong. Ravenous snarling at MAS for having sent families of the victims to India, engines that talked to ground stations 4 continuous hours after being declared as missing, taking the authorities to task for not deploying our submarines for search and rescue, after condemning them as being unable to submerege at at that,  dissing the Director General of the Department of Civil Aviation, and what have you amidst all that you have not, are acts of open burning amidst the haze of misinformation following a tragedy. The obscenity of ridicule makes evident that we live amongst way too many charlatans passing off as moulders of social and political thought.
Let me speak of Search And Rescue. Of the 18 years as an active duty pilot, one of the greatest consumers of my standby time was serving as SAR crew in various squadrons throughout the country.
I was a mere copilot not yet into my second year in my first flying squadron in Butterworth when dear Major David  ditched inadvertantly while attempting a night rescue at sea. His copilot, one of his crewmen and four combat rescue personnel were lost in the incident. That was my first direct involvement with search operations, and in the air force we have the wealth of experience we do not desire when it comes to SAR. Even one friend lost is a friend far too many to lose. The media frenzy and condemning of an aircraft that has saved countlessly more lives than it has been blamed for taking are just one of the many ills that accompany the territory we operate in as an air force. Throughout my remaining years, I gained greater familiarity with SAR through the various incidents we SAR pilots face, actual and in SAR exercises with neighbouring countries' military arms.
This was every day life in service, and now, in this civil incident, the rigours of what follows an air mishap is in the public's eye and many prove graceless in facing matters that they cannot grab and bend with their own hands because we have all become accustomed to being know-it-all critics even when it comes to events outside of our circle of experience. We have forgotten how to trust, to let someone else who has the burden of responsibility by office, to do his work while we wait. Too much conspiracy, too little faith, and the sinking inability to acknowldge the constricting finity of our personal prowess are rapidly eroding our civility.
A layman who has not been on a search operation cannot imagine the weight of the yoke that lays on the shoulders of the SAR Mission Coordinator nor the trickle down psychological burden on the minds and hearts of all those involved in the search. The first truth that all in the mission must acknowledge is that despite all that you possess and all that you can deploy and all that you think you may know, none of these that you put your trust in will guarantee results.
What will then? Persistence. Absolute and blind persistence, against all hope, against all the unwarranted and unfriendly words hurled at you as you return time after time at day's end empty handed, in searching and searching again, in the same area even, till something yields.
On that long and injurous road there will always be some wiseass trying to prove that he can do the job better than you. Shamans, bomohs, politicians, pilots and even senior officers who will try to commandeer the operations according to their unenlightened wisdom and "talk" with the SAR MC. Everyone wants success. But worse, everyone wants the bragging rights should such a sorrowful event break into sunny skies and tearful reunions, so as to say, " I told them to. I told you so."
SAR is not merely a jigsaw puzzle. It is a jigsaw of contradictory messages. That's actually common. Even in the most straightforward incidents of SAR, such as a fighter pilot eject shortly after departure, the muddle can get confusing. You can have an incident so close to home base, yet be so far from finding your friend in timely fashion so as to allow the abatement of anxiety before it cuts raw. Yet in these instances even, you will be the red carpet roll out for snake oil salesmen and witch doctors who will tell you they had a vision of an enormous hand reaching out from the sea to slap the aircraft into its deadly waters or into a mountain or wherever their infusions inspire them to make such wild claims.
The worst transgressions in SAR are interference and speculation. Just log on to facebook or the online news portals and watch the most irresponsible orgy of mudslinging imaginable amidst a time where sacredity, reverence and surrender should be the prime movers of what not to say rather than the airing of gracelessness that it has proven to be.
I do not know if reality tv is to blame for the current attitude I see with regard to the criticism of our leaders, however they may have been elected, but it does not paint a pretty picture of Joe Public nosing in where he cannot lend any improvement to the situation.
The truth is very simple, and I repeat, a layman who has not been on search operations has no idea of the enormity of the burden upon the SAR Mission Coordinator. None of you who fall into this category has any idea of the barrage of information and misinformation that has to be dealt with and verified before they are taken as leads along which to launch a search. None of you have any time frame estimation on these workings. You just think you have the right to know and to know yesterday. If anything is not forthcoming, you scoff at it as the witholding of information. In these circumstances, disseminating information that isn't verified is the worst thing thing to do, indeed smacks of utter irresponsibility. Better to hold fire till evidence vindicates the information. In this age of instant gratification, the idea of waiting for information may be utterly impalatable and alien, but wait you must. There is nobody's hand that you can force, and you cannot secure a better way forward should matters be in your hands anyway. Hence, the question is, you and whose army?
The individuals at the helm are not pulling things out of a hat. SAR Manuals have been promulgated and ratified, and upon DISTRESFA, the final stage of the SAR phases, adhered to. There are methods, search patterns, Most Probable Points to figure out, assignment of assests and what not, all of which have already been determined. Nobody is doing anything by memandai mandai. Interference and speculation not only disrupts the SMC's work, but serves to mask the emergence of truthful and valuable leads. He must follow through with his plans, and wait for results before reassessing the plan and formulating a new plan based on the latest data. The questions you think they have not considered have been pored over and over and yielded naught. Do not be so presumptuous as to think you are better than the trained professionals who are giving their all into a meaningful resolution to this void.
What we all need to learn is a bit of respect. You cannot get respect for your opinions with the way you insult the leadership of the day  based on information you neither have nor can verify. I really don't care about who it is who heads which ministry, but down on the ground is the working man and woman who are making sacrifces in the interest of matters bigger than you have the misfortune or gumption to handle. When the east coast towns went under the floods, these are the examples of the working people who went out dutifully to rescue flood victims to higher ground while their own homes were being ravaged by the wicked waters. Yet, there was no sparing of bloodletting on the social media.
In essence, you don't have to like the people who have to face the crowd, especially if you think he has not been legitimately elected, but taking a swipe at everyone because your personal preferences did not come to fruition in GE13 does not extend you the rights to tarring all and sundry with the same brush. In real life, rarely does the spokesman reflect the labour of the man at the end of the line anyhow. On closer look, in this national tragedy, I do not see the critics convincing anyone they can do a better job themselves should this cartload of misfortunes fall into their laps. The very brand of their criticism itself casts a long shadow on their capabilities were they to trade places with those who have to suddenly face this unprecedented dilemma of global proportions. And you would send offensive submarines out for search and rescue? Why on earth speak of things that you have already condemned as being incapable of submerging? So now they are deployable because it's the "current" thing to say? Make up your mind one way or the other, but this switching of sentiments proves you as being no better than the office bearers you seek to usurp. If all you can do is jeer at things you cannot rectify, exactly what does that make you? A better citizen?
Spare a thought for the many on the ground, in the air and on the waters who are attempting to literally spin gold out of straw. Spare us all the hypocrisy of calling for prayer with your right hand while you condemn the very avenue by which those prayers have a hope of being answered with your left.
That, or volunteer your eyes to the search parties.

21 January 2014

I'm Strong To The Finich, Cause I Eats Me Spinach

The monsoon has hushed. The winds remain mercifully cold even when the sun has shown the strength of his face through the fragments of cloud floating above the roaring seashore. I would not normally venture out on an audacious 30km ride after 0830H. However, as the cycling-inhibiting rains finally broke their sermonising through the nights and mornings, I have moved away from hibernation and into wondering where did that sun come from?
It has been a month since I have taken the time to idly lay my thoughts here. Perhaps it is because the month gone by does not show much in a dazzling light. Glaring perhaps. But dazzling, brill? Resoundingly not.
The turn of the year has not been encouraging of hope so much as it has been fostering of despair and rage. Whilst I loathe preaching, I cannot help but want to scream my head off at the thickening of scum that passes off for governance these days.
Christians, the most recent of bogeymen, continue to be oppressed under state-sponsored bigotry over a name, nay, a word that is manipulated in ever more grotesque machinations than I thought would come to pass in this, the land that I love. I grew up with constant bombardment all my school life, to convert into the chosen religion and later sidelined in my career over the colour of my skin and the faith I profess. I am not embittered by the lopsidedness of these social aberrations because the misrepresentations of these numerous miscreants never for a moment eclipsed the goodwill of the so very many who remain my brethren and beacons of the faith they answer to.
I do not have my finger on the pulse of all that moves in Middle Earth, having no Palantir to gaze into, but surely no real Christian would seek to convert you into us. To do so we would have failed in the first instance of our own creed: that we are to accept you and love you as you are.
God Himself never sought to change anyone, save for His messengers, and I suppose that was His way of preparing them to get shot in the due course of their respective tours of duty. Or maybe spend a few nights in the innards of a whale.
There is no club membership for passage into paradise that we would seek to increase. We are not trying to fill the last busload heaven bound and touting tickets for a price. Salvation does not lie in our hands. We cannot be saved from the infernal eternity or gain entry into heaven on our merit but on His mercies. At risk of sounding like a Christian/Catholic apologist, we are here not to change anyone into ourselves. We are here to live the way we shall, when His kingdom comes and all is made perfect. In short, we are to be a sign of the Life to come. Not to consume in flame then, but to be the light that others may find their own path to where they need to be.
We will fail at times. But we will make that journey even on clay-impeded limbs. Yea, we are called to spread the good news and all that, but there is a way to do it. Seeking to convert the inconvertible does not an evangelist make, any more than believing that God answers to a given religion. Wait....did you say He is Catholic?????!!!!! Okay....and He answers to a name?

Let's get real and be who we are. Be comfortable that we are different. Else what blandness with which we have been created, which lends no credit whatsoever to His creativity.
I have no inkling as to who mired us in this divisive diatribe, but whichever "side" he is from, he would be best handled with a millstone around his neck and cast into the sea.
We have to move away from suspicion as the forming fabric of our society. Forget the idea of hidden agenda, because any hidden agendum lies only in  the kind of mind that conceives the one and the same. The 70s cliché that the next war will not determine who is right, but who is left is indeed prophetic. And lest we forget, the assault against Christians is but the flavor of the season. Therefore we cannot succumb to slumber, for none are safe. We cannot say whom shall be next to be smitten with the axe held in the right hand whilst the left hand has rummaged into the coffers of our contributions.
I really do not know whether to laugh or to cry, or in surrender start with one to end in the other when I read against my better sense, the mainstream media. Can anyone convince himself that passing remarks about an edible gutter-grown weed would win him a cattle drove of believers? If you have election promises to fulfill, then call a spade a spade and stop disseminating Band-Aid fibs believing that such vacuous rostrum drivel will quell the storm that you have stirred by your own hand. Enough about blaming market forces over matters that are under your directive. We can accept that you must keep your word, and we understand that it now succumbs to the market force of the law of diminishing returns.

Hate crimes cannot be committed without endorsement. Have we not enough sponsors? Rattling the sabres of another May 13th inks no credence to your love for peace nor does it edify the faith that you claim to represent. You know as well as anyone in the street, that the success of such ethnic cleansing threat can only be secured by the reinforcement of offensive weapons en masse and with the blessings of those in whose possession they lie. There is no way that such courage comes from an epiphany in standalone form. A tree is recognised by its fruit. I do not see grapes cascading from thistles that adorn this political garden.

Where then shall we look for direction? Any suggestion by the children of this nation to better the way this home is run is met with the blackmail of how much worse they can make our lives. This renders this home as one run by abusive parents. Convince not yourselves that the line where love turns to loathing cannot be crossed merely on the status of paternity. The more often that line is crossed, the easier it is for love to turn to loathing, till love is no more and mere loathing remains. While orcs, Uruks and goblins roam freely and strike at will, even the kings of men have not stopped their advances over this land. In  the end, the direction of this nation lies with the choices we make as neighbours, you and I, as we watch the last of the institutions crumble beneath the mass of graft and inertia thereof.
There are years ahead that appear very very dim. The only light we have, my friends, is that which we light for each other.

Let's have an ale at The Prancing Pony!!

07 December 2013


Moody Blues
The sea is restless. She heaves, she groans, she sighs temperamentally. Her swells rise to pensive peaks, then fall to inconsolable troughs. Then she begins again, as if in pursuit of an ever unanswerable question.
The winds are stronger. I hear of double digit wind speeds, coming from the North-East. I look at the velocity strip on my displays with mild suspicion, as I have to remove twenty, often thirty knots to the indicated air speed on any approach to a platform or deck so as to observe a decent closure rate to the waiting deck. Not two days ago, I executed a landing on FSO Abu, and her radio operator read out nonchalantly that the pitch and roll stood at 3 degrees. That's the maximum limitation for a landing upon any vessel for our operations.

As the prevailing winds favoured the left hand seat pilot, I placed the willing chopper on an alongside approach To FSO Abu's centrally located aft deck. FSO Abu is no yacht, and this was my first view of what such a large vessel looked like rolling at 3 degrees both port and starboard. The captain said it must have been due to the ship being demobilized, the reduced weight making it more susceptible to the sea state. On any other given day, you cannot tell that Abu is moving, till you look away from deck towards the superstructure and watch the horizon in the background rise and fall relatively like an Cartesian diver. I had the gait of a wino on deck, and as I waited for the passengers to board, I caught view of the undercarriage oleos compressing and extending against the deck netting. I appreciated the exacting specifications of the deck netting, being 20mm diameter, with a 200mm lattice mesh. Just thick enough to mildly chock the tyres, but with 2225 Newtons of tension at every 1.5 metres fastenings, not enough to snag upon the lift-off to a hover.

Picture gleaned off the web courtesy of MISC
The rigs have demobilised at random, the story being that the tempestuous seas have made it difficult for the food-laden supply boats to sail and berth in order deliver rations to the rigs. We seem to send less passengers than we retrieve, and it is no longer unusual to find that we are carrying a crate or two of condensed milk along with the luggage. Today, we received something unusual in the doggie bag from FSO Abu; Maggi instant noodles and mineral water. I mean, still in dry ration form in its packet. Gone the fried rice, beef rendang, the muffin or even the black bean bun at its most Spartan offerings from the rigs. This isn't a complaint, but after you have given the Helideck Officer the platform chit and you have relieved him of the doggie bag he proffers, you open it up expecting anything but this staring back at you.

Yeah??? You and whose army???
We are operating in one-kilometer visibility, with cloud base coming to 300 feet, arbitrarily at that. The canyon clouds of cumulonimbus that waited in defensive positions 30 miles from shore have assailed their fury upon the shoreline, unleashing their torrents tirelessly till spent breathless miles inland, swelling the rivers to the peril of all who are not on the sunset side of the Titiwangsa.

Coasting out via Lane 3 overlooking the TCOT
We are into the fourth day without mains water. We have seen the hoarders and the preppers in frenzied buying at the supermarkets. Courtesies have gone shallow, and the cars' headlights draw a long line like streetlamps all at the wrong height leading straight to the petrol kiosks. Our road away from Kerteh has been cut off at Kemaman and for all we know, the toll plaza at Jabor which was, could again be barred due to the waters. 

It's beginning to look a lot like what???
I do not compare myself to the many who have lost all that they have beneath the angry waters that seem to have nowhere to find a resting place. I do not know where their broken hearts will begin to step forward to splint the multiple fractures of their shattered lives. How deep the wounds of returning to a home that is all but gone, the cars that are rendered less than scrap metal, appliances that will serve their purpose no more. In view of how much has been lost, I wonder how the idea of banning vehicles past a convenient calendar date could ever have been proposed with any semblance of a conscience, let alone a clear one. For many even one of these items stands as a reminder of months of saving up, swept away without reason or ceremony.
I find it a very odd time for ministers and members of parliament to lay claim that matters would be so much worse for those so scourged were it not for their parent political party's intervention. How stark the difference to see one moment on broadcast, the utter destitution of those who would even seem forgotten by God, contrasted against those affluent who in vainglorious attempt at playing Him, strain their lungs to bellow in chauvinism about epidermal supremacy, buoyed upon the opulent infrastructure paid for by monies harvested from the blood, sweat and tears of the downtrodden.

How does the Speaker of Parliament decide, that such dire need does not warrant the declaration of an emergency in  order to render aid at utmost priority to those who merely want to live their lives, with or without such political glory-getting, on the unfathomable grounds that a 48-hour formality frame to table the motion was not observed by the member of parliament proposing said declaration. Surely the House has entertained the motions of fools over lesser things than these. Adding insult to injury with aplomb surely has to be the drama queen of Kinabatangan's rabid outburst at the Kuantan MP, and I dread to think that that time has not assured anyone of the last of his constituency's floods anyhow. To harvest airtime upon the backs of the downtrodden is far more obscene than poor taste at its most grotesque. In any other legitimate democracy surely this would not have been digestible.

I cannot claim that my opinion in this matter is humble by any yardstick, but it appears that these are the voices of those who have not suffered enough, not had enough taken away, not toiled enough. Had any of them walked even a fortnight as other mortals scratching up an honest day's wage, identifying readily with those whose time has come to wring their last drop of forbearance would be most natural. The lack of squaring up to adversity does not edify souls, and without delayed gratification in reaping the fruits of your own labour, you would not empathise with Lazarus, O Affluent One. Yet, retribution seems further delayed than their seemingly instant gratification would imply, considering the volume of vile rhetoric they spew in the nation's capitol building.
Delayed gratification. There's a thought isn't it? I too baulk at the idea of not being able to get what I want right away, but the reality of my means falling far short of my desires cuts me to where I belong. Indeed, delayed gratification is less than comforting.
However, I believe delayed retribution is far worse. Suddenly I feel rather sorry for the Affluent One.

What say you, Lazarus?


27 November 2013

Some Days Are Stone


First of all, please forgive the quality of the video. I don't know why that even after 2 hours of video uploading time, the video here is as great as VHS as viewed through frosted glass. I just thought it would be a change to share some footage of an orbit at a rig where our friends were carrying out a passenger drop-off and pick up. The other one below is one of me passing over FSO Bunga Kertas(Floating Storage and Offloading) or Bougainvillea.  We often land on FSO Bunga Kertas. Anyway, on with the matter at hand.

There are days when I get the feeling that the Fellow Upstairs has nodded off in the rising hours of the local sun. Yesterday was one such day. This seeming to be the incipient monsoon, and the fact that I was scheduled for the 0930 muster, egged me on to take an early morning ride to Kemasik and back. I dutifully roused myself from sleep, reverse-engineered myself into the cycling shorts and vest, then set out the gate with Colbie in compressed audio barking through the headlamp mp3 player. A left turn, past the hamlet of Kampung Cabang where I unsuccessfully cast my vote during the general election this mid-year and skimmed past the cow-pie punctuated windies to Kemasik. I struggled my way up the gradients, and kept my butt off the pogoing Selle as I came down at 53kmh, the wind roar rewarding my burning lungs with the mist-laden, chilled air from a very rainy night that rested over the winding streams of the back valleys of Kerteh. The air was so saturated that my rearview mirror clouded up as no matter how often I glove-polished it. I have not seen mornings such as these since Dorsett in winter.
At the end of the road where route T129 joins T13 I checked the time, and debated whether or not to press on to Air Jernih, making a neat 33km circuit for what it was worth on a morning after ten dull days into the cycling hiatus. It was 0745. I had about 6km to Air Jernih, and 16 km on the turnback therefrom. I could make it back home by 0845, with time for a second brewing of espresso. A right turn began the hot and heavy ascends over the rolling road towards Air Jernih, without the option of Milo at the roadside shack for replenishment of body fluids and sugar (!!) before panting my way home.
I made the turnback successfully at the canteen shack when I noticed something peculiar. This is never good news on a two-wheeler. Peculiar always spells disaster. The peculiarity at hand being, that I sensed that the directional control on the Apollo Exceed was getting iffy, but as I gazed down the steering stem, the front tyre looked as turgid as ever. The fact that I was huffing and puffing uphill may have masked the symptoms, but as the road leveled, I had to  conclude that if the front wasn't going flat, then the wandering front was because of a deflating rear tyre.
I had the dreaded feeling that my morning routine was going to be cruelly interrupted. I stifled the profanity which strained against my chinstrap, because it's bad enough having to apply novice tube-changing skills, but to have to do it on a tight schedule before a 0930 muster, at the roadside, knowing full well that mud and other FOD would get into the rims and undo my efforts was enough to strike my name off the canonisation nominal roll. I looked at the clock on the odometer. 0815-ish. I had best get to it. Things went not too annoyingly save for a hand pump tube that was too short to reach the presta valve, threatening to sever the valve where it joined the inner tube and certainly snap the valve tip. It has happened. I considered transmitting a PAN call to me better half, but I opted for the long and winding road so as not to have to unfurl the white flag. But lesser miracles did prevail, only to be thwarted when in my desperation I couldn't align the rear wheel back into the rear dropout. The tyre snagged against the brake pads. I was hard pressed for time, so just snapped the wheel in place with the v-brakes undone as I pedaled my way home drowning my frustration in James Blunt's music.
Thankfully I made the muster on time. Perhaps the Fellow Upstairs had blinked His eyes open before rolling over for an extended nap. That's why I made to work on time. The rest of the proceedings seemed to be uneventful. I prepped the multi-sector log, the platform chits and what have you. Departure was the captain's, and all three stops were my approaches. It was looking up, till the captain looked down at the instruments as I was executing a base turn to Tapis.
There was a red flashing light. There was a numeral value of zero to think about. An emergency was at hand. Spurious as it may have been, it still needed crew handling. It was not about panic. But when you see this, you start thinking, "C'mon!!!!!", in the voice of Ian Gomez's Andy Torres from Cougar Town. "C'mon"!! You have people to whatsapp in the evening, websites to look into, facebook to send snide remarks to, fish curry to drink down and spending the night without so much as a night stop kit on a rig isn't the evening you foresaw for yourself.
I concentrated on the approach while the captain flipped through the checklist. Our symptoms were not listed. We diagnosed collectively that this was spurious. Decisions were made following the diagnosis. I sat in the cockpit while he went down to oversee the passenger drop-off and pick up. Other than for that flashing caption, all else about the mammoiselle stood steady.
Plankton playing under the waters
I was the handling pilot en route back to Kerteh. The sun was blazing cheerfully through broken clouds. As the monsoon had not gained its full swing, the plankton had sunbathing schedules to jostle for. I am still in awe at this sight, as I never thought they would be visible to the naked eye. Sometimes marine scum can come close to looking like plankton when viewed from a distance, but having cruised close to the surface as their cheesy streaks tossed below the waves, you know that it's neither flotsam nor jetsam. This somewhat dismal evening the sight of plankton lines dancing just beneath the rippling crystalline sea surface like submerged cirro-stratus almost seemed consoling, encouraging even, that we were ever surely heading home. I gazed at their patterns lost in my many thoughts, till the next range call reeled me back to the necessary descent profiles as we adjusted for an approach to Kerteh.
A fishing boat harvesting in the rich waters
We all know that we can fall back on our training when the lights start to blink. But we hate having our routine interrupted. Most certainly we hate getting our feet wet.
And Fellow Upstairs. Wake up already okay?

06 November 2013

Rainbows Chasing


The weeks have begun to roll into a borderless mass. I forget where the preceding  month ends and where the one I am in begins. It appears to me that time has passed like flipping pages consisting of flight routes and sector details, local instructions and operations meetings and days off that get consumed in the periodic punctuations of attending mass at church.
The mornings have grown darker. The sun has been veiled in thick clouds that descend to ground, an alarm buzzer that wakes me up to the patter of rain on the driveway and mornings wet from the afternoon before. Cycling is a rare and thereby celebratory event. This hobbit's breakfasts, second breakfasts, elevenses et al have placed upon him a growing girth that would make proud the stoutest grizzly in preparation for a very enduring winter. It is certain that the monsoon has arrived, albeit not it full fury. The certainty that the monsoon has begun its reign, pun inadvertent, is that the captains execute approaches less than half as frequently as copilots, and surely as anything else they like this development less than half as well as they should, seeing that they can gloat about their classic approaches a mere quarter of the time.
This year the monsoon foretold its arrival with frontal rains replete with lightning plunging in bright but noiseless bolts into the darkened sea. I wouldn't know if it was really noiseless or that we can't expect to hear anything above the double jeopardy of the aircraft noise and good insular headsets that carry the noise of radio chatter eclipsing every other sonic nuance in a flight time. Whichever way it went, the sight of lightning is most discomforting as nobody wants one of those on his tail as it heralds the loss of all directional devices such as compasses and radio magnetic indicators, and in the poor visibility which comes with bad weather, not knowing where we are headed.
Along with the gradual change in weather, the management  has done the routine thing by organising the "monsoon brief" which outlines the manner in which we are to conduct our flight operations during this rather testy time. Ticking off currency checklists on precision approaches and special visual arrivals in order to be sure that we can make it home in inclement weather, and if not, select an alternative place to set down, has become the season's in-thing.
It has been three continuous days of departing in bad weather and returning in the same. For now, the nasties sit in the 15-30 mile band offshore, but as I have been witness to, will gradually menace the areas closer to the rigs once they tire of taunting us too close to recovery. But we deal with this year in and year out. The business of drawing black gold out of mother earth is relentless. And right here where we dwell, all the more important it is to drill unabated to buffer our errors in governance.
The offshore theatre has been colourful of late. With the interplay of frontal rains and the sun's track across the meridian, we have often ended up being chased by rainbows. I can't place a smiley here in blogger, right? Last year at this time we were not flying much, with the EC225 being grounded. Today we contend with not just our competitor, but with guest operators from the Middle East.  They were signed up on a contract to fill in where our competitors across the tarmac couldn't in our technical absence. All this makes for a crowded indeed offshore airspace. For instance, it is becoming increasingly common to loiter a mile off from a rig while waiting for our competitors or guest alike to complete their drop-off/pick-up at the rigs of our destination. More mobile rigs and jack-ups have invaded the sea, crowding up the oil rig clusters encircling Kerteh's oil and gas epicentre. I suppose this is why there is always a shortage of helicopter pilots in the oil and gas industry; not just because it's a frenetic industry, but that the drilling points and the operations support barges keep increasing and adding to their existing numbers.
And with that, I believe, I am settled into this job at last.

22 September 2013

Jake The Peg

Let's talk about jack-up rigs.
A jack-up rig can be described as a mobile oil-drilling platform fashioned as a ship or barge, towed by tug boats to the drilling site or oilfield. It is attached to jacks, like long legs. Once in location, the legs are jacked down to make contact with the sea-bed for fixing, while the platform itself is jacked up to a sufficient height to be away from  the elements of tide and current. There are several jack-up rigs in Kerteh's operational area, such as Rowan Gorilla, Enscoe 106, 105, West Leda and so forth.
The three-legged Jack. Jake with the extra leg!!
This week I got to visit West Leda twice. Initially it was when the rig was near the Telok A platform, a mere 60 miles off at about 047 radial from Kerteh. I had the opportunity then to make the approach to West Leda as the platform was oriented such that the south-westerly wind placed the obstructions towards the left, making it the left-hand seat pilot's approach.
I marveled as I usually do, at man's engineering prowess, that we should craft such beasts as these to stand in the sea and draw forth the sap of the earth for our power hungry needs. As I looked toward the left noting the obstructions and jack legs, it didn't quite strike me how clean those legs looked. I had always taken what I had seen for granted.
And then yesterday it was my second trip to West Leda. First thing in the morning, I had to determine the correct location of the platform, as it was on the move. From the platform's radio room, the weather report provided the GPS lat-long as aside Damar A, nearer the Lawit rig, on a the 354 radial and 129 miles up from Kerteh. I was quite pleased as it meant this would be a tad long-haul, though on the EC225 long-haul meant just over 2 hours of flying on one complete sector.
West Leda and the tug-boats
The Captain and I were chatting amiably about cycling, the Harley Sportster 883 and the recent heli Reunion, when it was ten minutes before landing at West Leda. I called the rig to get the weather, pertinent for the wind direction which would determine who would do the approach. After writing the details down, the static-laden voice over the radio said that there was movement of the platform as it was still on tow by the two tugs, and that pitch and roll were insignificant at less than 0.5 degrees both ways. I then requested confirmation that the towing would stop by landing time. The radio operator assured me in the affirmative, as another aircraft would be arriving before us for passenger drop off anyway.

Tug boat left
Slowly but surely, the three jacks and the platform emerged from the obscuring haze as we descended to a thousand feet off sea level. I noted the two tug boats pointing south-west, and concurred with the Captain that on our approach from the north-east to face the south-westerly wind, the boats would not be on the flight path, thereby not posing a hazard in case of a single-engine failure before being committed to landing on the deck. The Captain nodded, but I also perceived his satisfaction that with the helicopter deck canted to the south-east, this would be his approach.
Tug boat right
Upon landing, he elected to get down and do the headcount and jacket return count, so that he could also make use of the relief facilities. I updated the computers with the payload weight, selected our return home altitude on the automated modes and transferred fuel from the right tanks to the left for balance, while waiting for the passengers to disembark and new ones to get on board. I peered towards the right, and I noted that the jack-legs were covered with barnacles sure to rip the hide off an elephant. I had not hitherto noticed that profusion of barnacles on a jack-up rig before.
Blistering barnacles!!!
 I realised that I was such an offshore tourist.  When a jack-up platform is in site, the legs are jacked down. The levels at which barnacles attach to the legs would be way underwater, making whatever is visible to us all squeaky and handsome. Now that the platform was on a break for passenger exchange from towing mode, what is usually underwater was jacked up so that it didn't constitute drag, and to allow the platform to be buoyant for the tug-boats.
Interesting things we see in this business. 

16 September 2013

Sunrise, Sunset

My Office in 2008
I spent an evening with the air force fraternity on September 7, meeting up with serving friends and surviving foes alike, at the 50 Years Anniversary of the Alouette Helicopter Reunion. The Heli Reunion is an annual affair to preserve the fellowship between those serving in the air force and friends who have left for civilian life and other pastures, not always greener for the leaving.

I was quite happy to meet up with my personal Alouette instructor, Lt Col Syed, with whom as always, I spent many wasted moments chuckling over lame jokes that could only be shared in this peculiar relationship. He is now in a non-flying appointment, and we made small talk while waiting for the time to adjourn from the Air Movements Section in KL Base after the photo opportunity session to the Officers Mess yonder for dinner. We gazed endearingly at the three helicopters forming the backdrop for the photo op on the dispersal: the Nuri on the left, Alouette smack centre and EC725 on the right. The Nuri captured us. Col Syed wagered that rusty as we were, we could both strap in right there and then, start-up and rotor engage and take everyone on a city view sortie. Yes, the Nuri stirs nostalgia not just with her crew but with all who encounter her face to face.
A Nuri in a low-level fly by
People curious over my previous life in the military ask about what my daily routine was in the Nuri squadrons. There is no typical routine when we are driven by operational tasks. But what does pose as close to routine as it possibly can is a day on SAR standby.

On any typical day in a Nuri squadron, work starts with the ground-running of the Search And Rescue Standby aircraft, to ensure the squadron's commitment to National Search and Rescue is fulfilled alongside the SAR standby for fighter squadrons on training duties, and their occasional operational sorties.
The first on the scene, about 45 minutes before sunrise, are typically, the crewman, followed very shortly after, by the copilot. This is the routine manner in which the triple-redundancy in preflight checks along the hierarchy of the crew complement is fulfilled. Diligent copilots would arrive extra early and place a fresh operational authorisation sheet on the ops room console, and fill in the authorisation column with the date, the airframe number and aircraft type, the callsign, the captain's name, his own and the crewman's too, the task description and expected duration of the task under the various column headings as appropriate. The copilot and crewman then, often together, walk down first to the engineering flight line office to examine the BAT Book 3053 (Borang Angkatan Tentera or crudely translated as Armed Forces Form), or technical log book to ensure that the various engineering sub-tradesmen have checked and signed for their scope of duties on the aircraft concerned, that the aircraft has been fuelled for the standby task (approximately 4 hours 30 minutes fuel endurance) and that these are all on the correct date and time. Then they saunter to the aircraft and carry out the preflight checks in overlap. Eventually, and about half an hour before SAR standby duties commence, the aircraft captain arrives to sign the authorisation sheet, checks the BAT book, signs responsibility for the aircraft and goes off to carry out his preflight checks before doing the ground run.
The SAR Standby aircraft at the SAR Helipad No 5 Squadron
Upon seeing the copilot and crewman waiting for him, satisfied that the preflight checks have been done presumable twice, he walks around the aircraft and carries out his checks. The captain then straps into his right-hand seat with the copilot in the left-hand seat, connects to the external AC or DC on a trolley accumulator and with the DC buses and some AC buses energised, begins the challenge-and-response prayerful ritual with his copilot for the internals and crewman for the externals. There is a specific dialogue in this, not the Hollywood, "Check" to the items called out by the copilot. For instance, on the pre-start, the copilot starts with "External or Internal Power", and the aircraft commander responds with "External DC on", or "Seat and Pedals" and the response will be "Adjusted my side, check your side". This way, the actual check of each item is executed in detail by the captain, and cross-checked by monitoring by the copilot.
Formation flight over Sabah's west coast
After the pre-start checks, it is time to start No 1 Engine. On the Nuri, a single-engine ground run, a full-ground run or any flying sortie begins with starting No 1 Engine, the one on the left as seen from inside the cockpit. This is because the Nuri is constructed with a feature known as the rotor lockout system, which while in accessory drive selected, diverts the power from No 1 Engine's input bevel gear at the gearbox and rotor drive main bevel gear, via a through-shaft, by freewheeling at the main rotor drive but applies power to the main gearbox accessories such as the hydraulic pumps and generators by powering a secondary gear-train at the rear of the main gearbox. (Imagine a scorpion's tail in its curly poise for a strike, with whatever's happening at its head determining what is being done at the venom sac at the tail. Now you know what we pilots have to deal with when answering examiners' questions on this very favourite topic during our categorisation checks). In this way, all systems on the aircraft can be tested on ground without having to engage the rotors, or powering up both engines. This facilitates system functional checks externally by the crewman or ground crew who carry out some of these duties by climbing up on to the servicing platforms on the starboard side of the aircraft, without worrying about No 2 engine's hot exhausts or hearing damage from a screaming T-58 engine or the added noise and decapitating hazard of rotor blades too close to his bonedome for comfort.
Bambi bucket operations for fire-fighting
As the copilot is seated on the left and has better access to the speed select lever (SSL or "throttle") for No 1 engine, it is his duty to start the engine. The No 1 ignition switch is selected to normal (on) and the No 1 engine firewall shutoff is opened. With the SSL in the fully aft or shut-off position, the starter button is depressed momentarily to energise the starter relays, winding up the compressor spool, drawing air into the combustion chamber, and pilots who haven't completely lost their hearing to years of exposure to screaming turbine engines and grinding and grunting gearboxes can hear the click-clicking of the igniter plugs firing at the ready in their 2-and-8 o'clock positions on the combustion chamber. The winding up of the compressor also runs the engine-driven fuel pump, which draws up fuel from the tanks at low velocity suitable for initial combustion, keeping the fuel waiting at the stop-cock, ready to rush into the atomisers encircling the combustion chamber in two bands. The recipe is almost right, with compressed air and ignition, and all that's missing is fuel. The appropriate mix for this recipe, to obtain the right fuel-air mix occurs at about 19 to 22% compressor turbine speed. This is when the throttle is advanced to the ground idle position, the stop-cock opens to spray fuel into the combustion chamber and then the engine fires up.
Flying on the edge of a storm cloud en route KK to Labuan
Once the engine has settled merrily at about 45-55 % compressor turbine speed upon starter automatic dropout, the throttle is then advanced to 104% power turbine speed, after which all main gearbox accessories are spinning at their 100% optimums. The generators are called on line. With alternating current driving the AC buses and the transformer/rectifiers powering the DC buses, the lubrication, primary hydraulic and auxiliary hydraulic pumps whizzing away, the full system check can proceed. The aircraft captain checks the primary and auxiliary servos which move the swash plates and rotary rudder  spider for proper function and bypass in case of servo pressure failure and accompanying hydraulic lock. The automatic stabilisation equipment computers and devices are checked for function and correction within error limits to determine and predict their dependability in flight. The centre-of-gravity trim, the roll bar lag amplifiers, pitch bar, barometric altitude check and the yaw proportional band check being amongst these, are technical in nature, so I shall pass over the descriptions of these rather in-house fraternity rituals. While the captain and copilot identify and confirm all is well inside the cockpit, the crewman provides external affirmation by confirming the corresponding movements of the servos from the outside, complete with the functional check of the rescue winch and the underslung hook assembly.
Night-stopping at Sepulot due to bad weather
Once all system checks are satisfied, on a single-engine ground run, shutdown procedures would follow. For full ground runs or departures, next on the item is the rotor engagement. Remember that all this while the rotor lockout has allowed the accessories to run without the rotors turning. In order to engage the rotor systems, the aircraft captain fires up No 2 engine, releases the rotor brake and allows the main rotor speed to build. No 2 engine, now driving the main rotor,  is gently brought up to 100% power turbine speed. As No 2 engine is about to reach 100% power turbine speed, it gradually takes over the duty of driving the main gearbox accessories from No 1 engine's through shaft. Because the rotor lockout system was riding on the No 1 engine's power train, and its duties were just usurped by No 2 engine, it would be prudent now for that power to be used to drive the rotors and transmission system in concert with No 2 engine.

To enable this, No 1 engine is brought down to ground idle, and the accessory drive switch now selected to "flight". A nifty set of springs and cages riding on the through-shaft are unleashed, not too unlike the ribs of an umbrella, they now release driving the through-shaft, engage the outer cam races and drive the input gear wheel but oh so cleverly freewheel at the rear secondary gear train!! Now, instead of transmitting engine power to the accessories in a backdoor manner, No 1 engine's input bevel gear is ready to engage the main bevel gear.  The No 1 engine is gently throttled forward. Once it reaches optimum power turbine speed, it  contributes power alongside No 2 engine to the entire transmission and rotor system. Everyone is happy now, all systems have been checked and proven functional and both engines are sharing the rotor and transmission load. The SAR standby crew know that on a quick-start, they can be airborne in minimum time and have checked that all the aircraft primary systems and role equipment are behaving well enough to face mission assignment. Now, shutdown can take place and normal standby resume till sunset.
On anti-terrorism standby in Tawau
After shutdown, the crew walks around the aircraft to ensure that all is okay with the dame Nuri after the rigours of the ground run before the rest of the world starts waking. Minor discrepancies and niggles are referred to the ground crew who vow to clear these up. If anything major surfaces, the aircraft commander confers with the squadron executives whether to snag the aircraft and suspend SAR standby readiness till the snag is rectified or get another aircraft configured for SAR duties whilst rectification is carried out.
The crew then remains on readiness till SAR watch is over at day's end.

This description holds true for most instances of a single-engine or full-ground run. There are times when away from a main base or proper technical support, an accessory drive switch may run foul, mechanically or in  its electrical actuation. During a preceding shut-down, the accessory drive switch may be stuck in flight mode, or before a start-up, pre-flight checks may show the switch not rolling over to flight and back to ground upon selection and deselection of the accessory drive switch. (Yes, the very gremlins that fool around here allowed some mischievous night-stop with fair maidens once in a foreign land, but this blog is to protect the guilty so I ain't sayin' nuthin'!!)

This would require what is known as "emergency rotor engagement". This is when No 2 engine is started first, providing direct drive to the main rotor and accessories (instead of the routine No 1 engine start, running all accessories and then getting No 2 engine to gently take over in preparation for calling No 1 engine on line to join in the powering of all systems through the front door). It is not the  most healthy way to start-up and rotor engage. By starting on No 1 engine first through the rotor lockout system, all pumps and lubricants and servos are already running at 100% efficiency before the heavy work of taking up a rotor system coming to life. Emergency rotor engagement then, engages the rotor dependent on the rotor driving the pumps in slow build-up  in parallel with the rotor RPM. It is harsher than having all pressures ready as in a regular start. Therefore Nuri aircrew know that this is an emergency procedure in case of accessory drive failure away from full technical support for rectifying the failure, allowing for that one-time flight back to home base or detachment base where technical support can be called on for rectification. That, as well as we sometimes have to do it during our categorisation exams, to show the examiners that we are able to engage the rotor systems at low main gearbox lube pressures, and worthy of being in the pilot's seat!
This walk down memory lane hangs in the mists of days gone past. Perhaps my memory does not serve me well. I have lost out on precise figures and technical details. But what my memory will never erase is the many familiar nooks and crannies of the Nuri, the smell of hydraulics drying on her fuselage skin or the unmistakable beat of her rotors tempered by the bifilar  and beanie cap assembly.

She is still my first love.

04 September 2013


Our neighbours busy making hay
The winds have changed.

The receding view of the Kuala Paka coastline
After missing out on flying the EC225 for nigh a year, the raucous controversy and the heart rending despair over the unforseseeable return of the 225 to flying service, we are back in the air at last, drawing to an end the unrequested long hiatus in clocking offshore hours and finding a purpose to my post Nuri days. Our neighbours across the tarmac have had long enough a time of squeezing out the last drops of poor grade humour over our extended leave and I am sure I shall not miss it.

Clouds reflected on the mirror-smooth sea
The timing could not have been better, even if hellaciously delayed, as the resumption was in time with the change of the tradewinds from south-westerly to north-easterly, bang on the date when I started my September's cycle upon completion of my Line-Oriented Flying Training in EuroCopter Malaysia's simulator centre in Subang. North easterly winds favour the left-hand seated pilot in making approaches to the rigs the way their platforms are oriented in our sectors, mostly easterly platforms with the obstacles and structures on the left. It is the pilot who can keep his eye on the obstructions throughout the approach who owns that approach. As approaches must be into wind, it follows that the north east monsoon favours the copilot. I think I would have been sore indeed to resume full flying duties only to sit and watch the captains have all the fun of making approaches, which in this discipline is the proof of the pudding, or that which separates the boys from the men.

Tangga Barat Alpha floating upon the mirrored sea
The initial change in wind direction is a testy time for the left hand seated pilot. The winds are weak, as the north east monsoon is not yet in full bloom. The entire process of judging the closure speed on finals approach to the platform is more difficult in incipient winds, because the speed decay curve is not as rounded, demanding more precision than a windy day would call for. Stronger headwinds help the copilot to gradually reduce the approach speed at a more amicable rate. Yet, I shall not complain as dealing with a difficulty degree can only serve to make me better at approaches, if I do not prematurely yield to despair at my messy approaches. So far I shall say, it has been rather good, and more than anyone else, I have to be happy with what I am doing before anyone else can.

On deck TBA, on a sunny day
It is with much relief that I return to the EC225, an aircraft whose intuition in reducing the pilot's workload makes it a virtual magic carpet ride. Yet, it was not a week in the air before more bad news came out of Aberdeen, the offshore Mecca, announcing the catastrophic crash of the Super Puma L2 in which four out of eighteen passengers perished. While it would seem like a bad year for Eurocopter, looks can be entirely coincidental. Throughout the the months of the EC225 grounding, I do not suspect any of the pilots worrying about flying the machine. However, the industry is rife with pressure groups, and workers unions exert a lot of force upon the decisions made by offshore flying service providers. There was an initial knee-jerk reaction even to this incident, and unfortunate as the crash was, the real cause can be lost in the noise of the impact. Preliminary speculations over C-FIT and erroneous employment of automation hover and abound. In the meantime, the Super Puma L2 has been returned to flying status when technical and design faults were ruled out. 
Flying Into Oblivion
One year away from the EC225, and one month on the Super Puma L2, seems to have done me some good. I believe in my complete resignation towards events in my life that I struggled to control but could not, I have also settled down completely in the EC2225 cockpit. No more wrestling. No more desparation. No more arguing with the aircraft in a language that she would not understand. I can finally just sit back and enjoy going up there into oblivion, whatever the weather, deliver the goods and come back home to face another day of flying on the morrow. The events and non events of the past ten months did make bleak a future I had hoped would not include marginalisation. But we really cannot fight every issue that crosses our patio. At times, we really have to let that which passes, to pass. Other things may come, will come, but this day must pass first. 
A rainbow visiting the supply boats
It is true then. It is an ill wind that blows no good.

27 July 2013

Another Saddle

Dawn, and a red sun rises
The sole Super Puma L2 has been fighting valiantly to put up a good show, after being placed in the hangar for 3 weeks due to lack of spares. It was with some excitement then that I read the text from Sifu that he had spotted the L2 in the air. We would be up to fly again whilst waiting for the grocery list of modifications to be carried out on the EC225, and by our raw but throroughly informed estimates, it would be about a month yet that I would be seated in the baffling L2's cockpit.

Seligi A in a sooty mood
It takes a while, to get into the swing of things once again in the offshore schedule sense of the word. The sporadic flying, mostly done in the general aviation style, barely preserved my faith in my profession. Conversion training on the other hand is  not an indicator of being able to keep up with a brand new way of doing in the L2 what you always have in the EC225, just because its older and houses more user-unfriendly navigational aids and gadgetry compared to the glitzy 225.
An interesting sight, with the crane cab's window pane reflecting the brilliant flare
I am back to the once familiar but long unpracticed odd schedule of reporting for duty well before take-off time with meals taken on the opportunity basis as allowed for between peparatory paperwork and the arrival of the passenger manifest, after which it is a scramble to complete the paperwork and shoot off to start the aircraft. In this month, I cannot leave it to crew-cooperation, as most of the pilots are observing the holy month's austerities. Only if I am teamed with Sifu do we work the documentation out then race off for a meal before the manifest puts us on the launching pad.

A supply boat skating around Bekok C
The haze is here on its second cycle. There have been captains who have rubbed salt in  my non-active-flying wounds by saying I am the common denominator to halting the flying schedule just by turning up for work, either by drawing the haze in or by causing the L2 to go bust. I suppose they all need some form of humour to relieve the arduous wait for the EC225 to return to full active service, but blaming the unavailability of the L2 on the one person who is already the most junior in the company for any prospects of advancement and in desparate need of the flying hours to do so, is humour not merely twisted, but very, very dark.

Approaching a sooty Angsi A
As the prevailing winds are once more south-westerly, and most of the rigs have the platforms canted south, it's the aircraft captains who are having all the fun of doing the approaches. I am keeping my fingers crossed that when the winds change to hail the north-easterly and its accompanying monsoon, the EC225 will be strongly in the air once again. My radio calls have oxidised, much to the amusement of our slick competitors across the tarmac who are quick to make public comment over the company frequency on my errors in radio calls. My only recourse is to be cynically grateful in response. As I know well that they were my squadron mates in the air force once who sought to sytmie my progress should I surpass them, alluding to their come-uppance would falaciously feed their vapid self-worth and quell the radio chatter. But indeed, it is really like riding a bicycle, and all the cycle of activities come back glandularly after several sorties.

Confuse betul lah aku!!!!
Being in the saddle of the L2 is different. I am back to square one of not passing half the quizzes shot at me by Sifu. The short jaunt home is once more a road too far to  a loss of consolation over thinking that I was making it work after all. Yes, I have heard another transitory pilot like me return from flying, wishing everyone with utmost humility and I wondered what possessed him as I kept my nose in my pre-flight paperwork. Then it came out. He lamented, in unburdeing release from internal pain, "Confuuuuuussee betul lah aku!!!!" That's the plaintive cry of a victim of crosss-training, and cross-trained before fully settling in one aircraft, resulting in the neither here nor there feeling.
But we all gotta do what we all gottta do.
I will pull the plough till this field is thoroughly furrowed, and I too will emit that same plaintive call.