16 December 2010

Blue Balls

I am getting impatient. It's bad enough that sleep is such an elusive bedfellow when one is preparing for exams, and worse when I have no reason for interrupted sleep after being a licensed pilot for nigh a year now.

My nightmares or dreams have borderlined on the bizzare.

I believe that I am suffering from some form of sickness, like bends, except that my version is from having been on the ground for too long. I am impatient to fly again, and the closer I get to my reporting date to Sabah Air, the less my patience holds. Part of this insomniac infestation is because I cannot imagine what it is like to fly the Bell, a throttled collective helicopter, and I have been told that my conversion will not take more than 5 hours to complete. That builds some anxiety, as I can't imagine anything, or foresee the conversion process, thereby disallowing my control freak need to always have my eye on the future.

Therefore my dreams are like those wet dreams where you can't see your quick shag's face, with exceedingly higher levels of frustration.

A few nights ago, I dreamt I was in the Nuri cockpit, doing a ground run before taxy for a sortie. In that dream I felt that the copilot was going through the challenge-and-response checklist with me up to taxy time. But of course!! The Nuri start-up procedure and rotor engagement requires a complete crew complement.

Then as I lined up for take off, suddenly I realised that the copilot's seat was empty. I was nonplussed. Where the hell did he go to? I was hard pressed to expedite the takeoff as an aircraft had been cleared for a landing behind me, so I did what I usually do when with an incompetent copilot: manage both throttles from the speed trim switches on the collective. With the throttles at full, I eased the cyclic forward and began a running take off. I broke ground contact and was airborne to 200 feet, when the utter illegality of the entire sortie hit me and I aborted the take-off, kicked the pedals for a taildrop turnback, and faced head-on the Boeing 737 on a landing run swerving on its brakes to avoid ingesting a Nuri.

I woke up, memories of other hair-raising manouvres flooding back to me, and I sighed in relief that this one more was merely a nightmare safely turning over in the graveyard of unfulfilled dreams.

Damn!!

 I need to get off.

The ground I mean.

22 November 2010

Events

When you're about to leave, they tell you many ridiculous things. For instance, how you have to get a photograph of the family taken with you in your ceremonial dress. This is so they can make you a souvegnir of your service history and the bases in which you have served.

They want all the copies of documents that you have already tendered into record since the day you were married and bore children, like nobody knew you existed.

You must consume 90 days of accumulated leave but you can still be hauled in to attend meetings that nobody else is qualified to be in because they don't have another senior helicopter pilot as a staff officer. You have given them 26 years of your life and yet these last days as you leave, they have not been able to get your replacement.

Then there are other things that they don't say that tell you that you are no longer relevant to the system.  Crewmen whom you once flew with and ate with in remote places nod at you but have little to say. A cycling tour is organised for all air force participants but nobody tells you about it though they see you cycle all over Labuan.

Then there are other events that spell out whom will stand as friends and who had you hanging around just to bolster their confidence because they were too afraid of the dark to face the civil aviation exams on their own.
I can say that I have finally settled it. I know that some who believed better of me will disagree with my decision as I opt for the unprofessional way to earn a living. I have decided to become a bush pilot in the civil world.

Though I have been told that being an offshore helicopter pilot is the way to become a professional pilot, I have witnessed the offshore doors drawing to a close on me. One other company while being keen on me, cannot take me in till June 2011. As I will be out of a job in December, I am treading a time-critical line here. The one company that has been compelling me to be amongst their livery of pilots is a general aviation company operating in Kota Kinabalu. Yes, general aviation pays less than offshore flying. However, there is a draw I feel to this company, and seeing that I will be based in Kota Kinabalu, I am wondering if all these transpirations are ominous portents.

I know the terrain and the landing points I will be serving, as these are the same ones I have flown through in about six years as both copilot and aircraft captain in No 5 Squadron. The flying will be Visual Flight Rules, which means I will remain a bush pilot and not puncture weather. The thought of flying a single-operator helicopter is growing more appealing as the days pass. I have not flown solo since my days as a flying student in the Alouette.

Owing to courting this prospective job in KK, it appeared that December would be a bit of an unpredictable month for me. Brenda conferred with the kids and the consensus was that their annual trip back to KL would be forfeited on the air force's ticket in favour of a short holiday by way of joining me in attending a friend's wedding in KK.  We took the evening ferry to Menumbok and drove the Vios through the single carriageways till we hit the duals of KK.

The first day, the  morning of the wedding, was spent on shopping in the 1 Borneo mall. Brenda was convinced to buy a nice LBD, while the girls scoured the racks for their personal delights. Ethan was not to be seen as he devoured the bookstores for his own fetishes.

The second day I met up with various realtors to check out the kind of place I would live in while working in KK. Yes, found one, just 5 minutes from the hangar. Very sweet!!

Then on the third day, the day of our return, just for the heck of it while driving about town, I stopped over at my childhood supermarket at the harbour side of the city. Rowena had a near cardiac event in the aisles at the sight of all the various olives, chocolates, snacks and what Labuan would not shelve or stock in its freezers. I too, could see that the living here would be good. The draw was just getting stronger.

It may be that all was indeed a blessing in disguise. It may not be the ideal academic choice to exercise, but if I don't venture this open door, I will not know what I originally intended to defer in favour of an offshore flying career. Furthermore, I want to see if Datuk Donald Mojuntin would keep his word when he told his entourage one lunch encounter we had, that if I joined this helicopter company, he would make me his personal pilot. It tickles me to think of checking out the extent of his rhetoric.

I now wait to sign my name and begin learning to handle this contraption as my next breadwinning machine.

15 November 2010

It's All In The Delivery

90 days of pre-retirement leave does sound generous.

How on earth can I possibly put 90 days to good use on a wild tropical island, duty free for all possible vices, and avoid running out of all 3 months and not plead for more? After all, Labuan is such an exciting place.

I fill my time cycling.

With one admission of guilt.

Being on leave does not make me cycle any more frequently than when I was at work. That says a lot more about my work than the quality of my leave. Really.

Yet, it is cycling that helps my mind undwind, to induce some measure of expenditure so to sleep and to help me keep my eye on what really matters.

I often take the eastern coastal road that faces the mainland. I like the view as I can spot the weather changes over the mainland and see if Kinabalu has unveiled her face in the amber evening light, or sits in mysterious blue silhouette in the pale morning sunrise.

On one such morning ride, coasting downslope from The Chimney, as I passed the juction to Anjung Ketam I spotted a pair of storks from the Chinese Egret flock, looking busy on the grass next to the refuse bins.

Labuan's storks are ubiquitous, and when I first got here, I was fooled by them. They are so porcelain white, I was convinced they were decorative plaster figures planted in the playground. Till one moved and I laughed at my own gullibility.

But here they were, and by now knowing they were real, I admired their satiny plumage as I freewheeled approaching the junction.

They were quite voracious as they pecked at some white moving mass on the ground like a couple pawing at popcorn in a cinema.

Then what they were feasting on registered as I swept by.

Maggots that had hatched out of crabshells from Anjung Ketam's seafood swill.

I am glad I am done having kids.

I wouldn't want any infant of mine being delivered to his crib underslung in one of those beaks.

25 September 2010

Reunions and Partings

Facebook is such a wonderful web tool for keeping voyeuristically in touch with friend and foe alike.

You can laugh in unavengable scorn at how ugly and fat your old belligerent school bully has turned out and  pore through his pictures to satisfy yourself that his fugliness is spawned yet onto another generation of people who will find his entire family insufferable. You check out his wife; if she's pretty then you know he has one nice woman who lives in regret. If she's ugly you surmise that this marriage was of equal partners. Only much later you find out that he is obscenely rich, the woman in the pictures is merely one of the many consorts in his life except that she is the only one he legally wed, and his kids are enjoying life the way you and yours can't dream of in a million years. You then  see that life is very very unfair.

Through 'fb' I caught wind of the La Salle Kota Kinabalu's 49th Annual Reunion (funny how that word, annual is sidelined by the popular yearly nowadays) scheduled for the night of the 21st of August, and I sent word to Anthony Mojitoh that I would surely be there. There were friends whom I had not seen in 30 years whom I hoped to see there. I needed to get a feel of KK, as it may yet prove to be the last resort as a place for me to seek employment. There was also the thrill of meeting my old, and once best friend, Dato' Donald Peter Mojuntin, just for the sake of saying hi.

The ferry departed Labuan late. It rained from Kuala Penyu to Kota Kinabalu. But the old Toyota SEG pulled faithfully along the twisty roads and land slides in the wet, the Levin engine not showing any signs of being edged out by the younger Vios that was bought three months back for the wife and kids. I'll keep her. She stands for the number of years I have survived marriage---18 and counting.

The hunt for KK's StarCity Convention Centre was done by calling up my other old buddy, Veeramani Selvaraju for interactive voice GPS, but he having never been for a reunion, did not know the place. Ah well, it was his birthday and he had other plans at home. But he did give me a foggy idea and with helicopter low-level sniff my way there skills, I wound up in the convention centre's parking lot before I could end the conversation with him.

Being a senior air force officer, I am used to being amongst the older ones arriving at any function. You know how it is: you walk in and newbie officers from all trades see your silver head and just know that you must be addressed as sir and they rush forward to greet you and ask socially correct questions with the ineptitude of a teenage nerd. Alternatively when you have answered as much small talk as you can suffer, you spot your office mate and hail him as if you hadn't seen him in the 26 years of your dead end career and you jettison the load of ditchwater younger officers for the company of guys who can hold a conversation long enough for you to consume your pre dinner drink.

But here at the convention centre as I walked up the stairs and into the lobby, I recoiled for a moment at the stark absence of youth save for those manning the registration counter. Everybody was old. Some looked positively geriatric. How do you know you're old?? It starts when the band sings Tom Jones' Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow, and gets emboldened and underlined when everyone at your table joins in, verbatim to the original singer. That's when the league I actually belonged in hit home: I am them. I am going to die very soon......



The night was a blast! The La Sallians year 1981 were seated at two tables. Dato Gordon Leong, another old classmate kept the wine pouring at our table and the conversation was simply rib tickling. Anthony, dear old chap, went so boldly as to engage me on why I should not fly the Nuri. He is an old friend. As with insurance salesmen, you never say no, you never argue. Just say yes and do what George Harrison recommended in his song.

The next morning was a mad rush back to Labuan.

The annual Kelawar Exercise on night vision goggles role and rescue flying had already begun on the 20th. My flight to KLIA was set for the 23rd, and I was to be picked up at the airport and driven straight to Kuantan. Though I was picked up and yes, driven to Kuantan, the proceedings of the day were not anything resembling straight. I was sharing transport with a Major Daud who had come down from Kuantan for a meeting in KL Base. That ended at 1300H, but the driver had to refuel and send a patient to hospital which dragged our pick up time to 1500H. Then we were informed that we had to pick up a Colonel's son from an LRT station in Setapak and get him home to Kuantan. Numerous cellphone calls to both father and son revealed that neither could provide directions to the station he was waiting at. You can't go hunting down a nebulous LRT station in KL on any given afternoon!!! I decided to interfere and navigated the driver to the LRT station near my old superbike mechanic's shop. Incidentally the boy was a 5 minute walk away from that point and he finally turned up looking as bright eyed and bushy tailed as a marten in the midday sun. Our departure from KL was at 1730H, with all the passengers save for me, anxious that the breaking of the Ramadhan fast would ingnobly, be on the road.

Thanks to the military driver breaking the speed limit from Karak to Kuantan, Major Daud and the  Colonel's son were dropped off at home eight minutes before berbuka, and did not miss the breaking of fast with their families. I, on the other had, was to be dropped off at the Mega View Hotel in Kuantan town which meant the driver would be at the wheel at berbuka time. I told the driver that I could wait in the officers' mess while he broke fast with his family in the Airmen's Married Quarters, but he opted to finish the job, end his duties and just head straight home after. I pressed my suggestion no further. As we exited the main guard room, we heard the base muezzin ululate the call to prayer. The driver made a brisk turn into the petrol station a kilometre away and I bought us drinks from the convenience shop therein, as that was all he wanted for breaking his fast. When he noticed I wasn't saying any prayers before guzzling my sparkling Ribena, he turned all apologetic.

"Tuan ni....bukan Islam ke tuan?"

I shook my head.

"Alamak tuan, kenapa tuan tak cakap? Tuan lunch pun tidak, teh petang pun tidak. Saya boleh masuk mana mana pekan on the way tadi."

I set him at ease and said that he should expedite to the hotel so that he could get home fast.
And the next day began Kelawar.
Mega View was a riverbank hotel where the exercise coordinators were housed. It was quaintly located. I used to watch the otters play like lovers on the pier. A bookshop a stone's throw away just screamed of Austin Powers to me. What a welcome to the witless!!

I turned up for the Exercise Coordination brief that afternoon at 1400H, being a member of the Exercise Secretariat. As soon as the Exercise Director saw my face, he said, "Ah Jeffrey!! You are here!! The report writing for the exercise is all yours."

The Kelawar Exercise had nothing to do with flying at night as far as I was concerned. For me, it was to say goodbye to my freinds. Capt Marina had invited me to her berbuka puasa at her home where I met Capt Paranjothi, my old copilot from No 5 Squadron and now aircraft captain and instructor to be, Capt Ahmad Tarmizi, the new aircraft captain, and Capt Khairani, my old air traffic controller form KL base when I was serving there from 2001 to 2005. It was more about updating each other on Major Sukumaran's recovery from his coma and to find out the latest repercussions of the Operation Deerhunter.

At the berbuka puasa to mark the closure of the exercise, I was forced to sit at the table with the exercise Director which was not so bad, but the unsettling thing was having to make idle chatter with the base commander, whom I was acquainted with. Yet there was consolation when shaking hands with one and all at the end of dinner, when they would say. "Okay Major Jeff, see you again."

To which I invariably answered, "No sir. Goodbye."

13 August 2010

Cabin Fever

The frequency of meetings held in Kuala Lumpur picked up over the past few months.

I have been in KL so often that in any given month since April, I have been at home only about ten days.

The discussions at the meetings have been largely parochial. Discussing the criteria for the Airman Of The Year award. Career progressions for pilots. Management of the helicopter fleet into 2025. Exercise Kelawar. All irrelevant to me now that the Air Board has approved my request to leave the force.

I fly down and back on civil airline military charter. The passengers you meet are varied. Some talk, some don't. It was taking on the pre-fisticuff tone of Fight Club. Definitely I didn't have the friendlier encounters of Up In The Air.

Then there are the wannabes. Ah Bengs in compensatory shoes that would make Alladin curl his toes in embarassment. The Indian yuppies replicating black American yuppies.

I was on route to Labuan one evening on the 1845H MH2636 MAS flight. As the call to board the aircraft was announced, I trailed a young Indian chap, replete with stubbly Van Dyke and frameless spectacles. I was ensuring that I didn't stand too close behind him as we shuffled into the cabin, as he had been ardently picking his nose from the departure lounge all the way into the aircraft, going at it like he would never be done deboogering himself. I discovered that I was to be seated in 22C, and he was just next to me with the aisle separating us. He was still picking his nose after buckling in, his indexed right hand rotating through all headings on the compass as he endeavoured to have the most sanitised nose in the country. He looked affluently grunge enough to never have lived hand to mouth, though hand to nose was another matter.

Meanwhile, one seat away from him, a cute old Makcik was reading a tabloid at the window, the centre seat between them empty. While the passengers settled down, the safety and emergency brief was given by the cabin crew while pushback and start was executed by the aircrew. We taxied to the runway threshold and lined up for take off. The first officer called for the cabin crew to be seated while the lead steward announced that the cabin lights would be dimmed for take off. This is normally done to unload the generators so that maximum engine power is available for take off. Indian yuppie had not completed his nose sanitation.

As the cabin lights flickered to near darkness, the Makcik fumbled at her tabloid, screwing her eyes at the overhead switches, wondering how to turn on her reading lamp.

Indian yuppie gallantly reached over and turned her reading lamp on. Makcik gasped Terima Kasih repeatedly and returned to her tabloid, pressing her spectacles against the bridge of her nose to continue her page turner. I  was touched at the Muhibbah spirit exhibited by the debonaire Indian yuppie.

Makcik, whatever you do, don't turn that lamp off yourself.

Relative

Quality time, bonding with the wife and kids.

We were gathered in the hall one night recalling how once when we were on Christmas holiday in KL, we returned to Labuan after our home had blacked out for two weeks and the smell of putreficiation red carpeted our luggage-laden way up the stairs. Ethan and Ellen were young kids then, Brenda full in the belly with Rowena.Then how I had to clean the fridge of wrigglies, from every conceivable point the eye could see.

"EEEwwwww, that's gross!!" Ellen quipped in typical Yank teen fashion. Rowena was in concurrence with her elder sister.

"It's all in the attitude, how you see the maggots," I insisted."Yes, it may appear disgusting at first, but you put your hand to it and then you will find that you can do it, pong and all. They are used to clean up rotten flesh on patients suffering from gangrene in hospitals."

Ethan listened silently. I continued, sensing that my point was being made.

It's like all that plastic dog shit from Hong Kong. I was in school once and while I was away from my desk, my classmate placed an authentic-looking turd on a piece of paper and positioned it dead centre on my desk hoping to gross me out. When I returned to my desk, a few guys were gathered 'round me to see what I would do. I gazed at it calmly, and picked it up with my hand, returning it to the waiting owner and to the disappointed surprise of my friends. It's relative. It looked disgusting, but once I told myself that real dog crap doesn't end up neatly on a piece of exercise book paper, I could pick it up with my hand. Just like with maggots."
"Oh," said Rowena, her mind a million miles away in absorption of the concept. Then her face piqued in puzzlement.

"Dad??? When on earth did you ever get to Hong Kong?"


07 July 2010

Operation Deerhunter

There are those who will reminisce on their glory days in the air force and speak of times when they got up to all manner of mischief, shake their heads and say, "Those were the days."

Yes, all of us from the military background will remember near-death episodes and adventures of a roguish quality. Some of these do not carry consequence further than the acceleration of the pulse rate or raising the hairs on the back of one's neck. Yet, there are others that are far-reaching, that while thumbing one's nose foolishly at death, still one may not be made to pay for such foolhardiness. Yet, it is the glorified tales and encouragement to other flying mates to emulate such derring-do that may unjustly take their lives instead of the life of the braggart and in this, does life appear to be grotesquely unfair. Let us consider one such incident where no dates are mentioned, for the dates and the individuals involved are irrelevant compared to the value of how some boundaries should not be crossed, and if crossed should never be crossed in defiant repetition.

Once upon a time there was a squadron commander who believed that it would do no harm to use the Nuri to hunt down payau, or local deer. When he assumed command of the squadron, he revived the old practise, gathering unto himself those whom he trusted to carry out the deed by showing how it was done. This was such a potentially risky manouvre, where no procedures had been drafted and thereby, no safety measures under practise and none could be published as it was entirely illegal to use His Majesty's aircraft for bloodsport.

At first, it seemed like nothing would come of it. But soon, as base functions and barbequeues were made savoury by the aroma of sizzling payau venison in steaks and chops, the word payau became the stuff of jokes of goodwill, because everybody loved a generous provider even if they loathed him otherwise. The source of the venison was never questioned, as payau was actually sold in markets in Tawau and so forth. The absence of immediate repercussion and reprimand legitimised the feasting. Then the hunts became a routine matter. This was indeed a worrying trend. The aircrew were aircraft commanders and copilots, each with a role to play in the safe conduct of helicopter operations. I had told them what I would not do, hinting that they find their inner compass and steer away from Operation Deerhunter as gently as they could. Unfortunately, everyone sought to be on the hunting bandwagon. I knew well that I was alone in this disobedience. 

However, operation Deerhunter soon turned out to be rampant. When the kampong folk began asking the aircrew who shut down in Kuala Penyu if the Nuri they flew was the same as the ones shooting at payau, no alarm bells had rung with them. With any ordinary person, such remarks should have caused one to cower down and halt all proceedings till the coast cleared. It was the third year of Operation Deerhunter and the successes of the parties and barbies gave no hint that getting away with it did not mean that any of this was right. Emboldened and encouraged by getting away with it, the hunts became a monthly affair, then weekly, then a few times a week. The beneficiaries were many. All this was obviously not restrained, and as a result, was heading towards disaster from the day it began.

One fine day, just after a hunt, there was an inadvertant discharge inside the Nuri en route home. Just when we presume that all is well, something can go horribly wrong, and yet karma is still kind in that none of this ended up with a crash or wounded aircrew given that it happenned inside the aircraft. The bullet instead went through the belly of the beast, leaving a hole in the fuel tank bladder cells which was discovered by the groundcrew upon post flight inspection. The gunshot wound on the Nuri this time around was the surreptitious kiss that gave the game away. It was a caustic scandal on the face of the air force and a souring of the already precarious public relations image of the military. The repercussions snowballed into the boss being relieved of all his functions while the aircrew involved were suspended from flying duties.

I am sympathetic towards those who feel that their only means of survival is to curry favour with perpetrators of offenses. But I also believe that a point arrives where you have to say no. Do as he says if you must, knowing his character, but just say that it's wrong. Especially when the safety of the aircraft and the crew gets so severely compromised. In peacetime, none of this risk is warranted, so voicing your misgivings is still an option.

There is no way that such misuse of the aircraft could have persisted without the knowledge and the blessings of the squadron commander. The burden of responsibility is parcelled with being answerable when the dung hits the fan. And whilst we never wish for the ultimate humiliation upon anyone, there are times when one has to pay for the damages one has incurred. This runs beyond the simplistic surmising of right and wrong. More significant than that, is that those who cast flowers and palms where your feet pass today can and will crucify you tomorrow when you no longer serve their purpose.

The young aircrew in my old squadron will one day serve as her commanding officers. By being direct witnesses to these events, they should draw to the obvious though cliched conclusion that being in power is not tantamount to being privileged with its abuse. I would not have desired this end for my mates, but in hindsight, the carthasis was overdue for the three years since Operation Deerhunter was reinstated. I only hope this is an end to such dark practises and it doesn't become another tool in the hands of an ambitious boss in the future.

05 May 2010

Ad Infinitum Ad Nauseam

I have survived 5 months of being behind a desk. I have done this before. Hated it as much. Wherever I drive on this island, I have the skyline view. I look at the weather, reading the clouds, anticipating what a pilot would do when faced with their associated weather and wind, and the longing hits me like a sledgehammer.

I miss flying.

I miss chatting with the engineers and the technicians as I sign for the aircraft before a sortie. I miss grooming young copilots to take charge of the aircraft. I miss the walkout, preening the twin-turbine metal bird and firing up the engines, the winding up of the gearbox, the engagement of the rotor system.
I miss my Nuri.

However, I shall not despair. I have a Shepherd and through all my guilt and iniquity I shall have to trust Him and yield unto Him even if devastation be His conclusion for me. But I seriously think that not.

Things have been set in motion already. I have sent out my resume to prospective employers, and one has responded right on their reputation for being prompt. The other has fallen deaf, also commensurate with their reputation for being the preceived headhunter spoilt for choice. Of course, my ultimate aim is for the former as they wield greater muscle as a company and are not propped by political affiliation which can change with the seasons.

I have submitted my request to leave the force to my Panglima, and he has followed on by submitting his concurrence of my intentions to Manpower, with a hint of regret at losing someone with my experience in the Nuri world. I feel that pain too, but I have other injuries which demand alternate directions of ambition. I now await the Air Board to deliberate on my application, and the eventual release by the Armed Forces Council.
Here now is the incubation period. I would rather say, kucing mahu beranak.

So what can we do in an incubation period?

Indulge!!

Maybe I should thank the air force for sending me to the only desk where the workload is below my exhaustion level. Having been the Staff Officer2 Heli at Air Ops Command in MINDEF, being posted downstream really isn't something to make me break a sweat. So I say, Thank you. I can surf all day, blog and bitch as I see fit and consume coffee copiously. Yes, I have concurrent matters to see to, reviewing SOPs, operational orders, and paperwork, but it isn't  groundbreaking the way that Air Ops Command was, driving me to insanity and heartbreak for the first fortnight till my 3-star General began to trust my substance.
This place has insanity drivers of its own kind.

For instance, an Ops Division Leader who holds meetings over matters that can be dealt with summarily, just because nobody is going to be at the same table as he is otherwise. As Roger Whittaker would lament, "Sunrise, sunset...sunrise, sunset..." And so goes the entire morning into noon, and noon into evening. Then a new day begins after.

I read recently a directive from the Chief of Air Force's office calling for all men to participate in a competition to pen the Air Force "tagline".  Per Ardua Ad Astra. That's the RAF motto wherever a "royal" air force is, such as in England, the originator, or as is in Australia and New Zealand. It means Through Adversity To The Skies. Malaysia doesn't use it as we penned one in our own language. We say Sentiasa Di Angkasa Raya or in English, Always Aloft. Here, I believe, that the workstyle set by my Ops Division Leader suggests that for No 2 Air Division, we may be the first Command Headquarters to return to a Latin motto that reads like the title of this post. It would fit so well as to never be outdated. If only the suggestion could be so boldly made, but I baulk at the organisation's demised sense of humour after seeing what they told me to do with The Collecttive Consciousness.

Still, I shall concede that the stress levels here are well below that of Air Ops Command. As I look upon my tour here as my run-out-date office, I will agree that this may not be a golden handshake, but a limp one nonetheless.

While I was not watching, the Devil did see this room as his playground.

I have signed my name to a new car, the idea having hatched one afternoon as I sat idly getting my haircut. The trusty old 1984 Toyota LE was growing untenable in Labuan's unforgiving workshops. Its repainted red coat accruing to my mid-life crisis had developed spots from the wallsplash off the new  squadron building during thunderstorms, the airconditioning would have melted the Antartic, and the shimmying wheel at 110kmh threatened to dislodge my fillings that have plugged steadfastly since I was eight. It was time for a fond farewell. I now share the SEG with my wife as I wait over the next three months for the Vios, which she shall inherit. The Beattitudes may have indeed been proven prophetic. I have no regrets, as I shall inherit the SEG powered by a 20-valve Levin.

The cycling has been good. I have remained regular enough not to slap on right back every pound I lost during The Biggest Loser RMAF, though some constipated days can be illusorily discouraging. I wonder if years of domestication has given rise to periodic water retention in my flogged old body. However, being able to dress up in attire that I could not shoehorn into for the past 4 years assures me that not all is lost in this war.

A week  ago I met with the two biggest prospective bosses from the company I intend to join upon leaving the air force. It was a Thursday afternoon at their local branch hangar. It was pleasant enough a chat, and they remembered me as vaguely as I did them from my days as a 2nd Leftenant in the force. I dread to think that anyone remembers me from back then and I hope that the nebulous memories encourage forgiveness. The final word from them was to let them know when I have any information, as to how soon I can leave.
Maybe this isn't so bad.

All I need to work on now is a hastened exit. If only these meetings at Div weren't Ad Infinitum .....

19 April 2010

Where I Left Off

Even though I don the blue uniform that says I am an air force officer, in my mind, I am already on my way out of the organisation that has made up my past 26 years of a life drenched in blood, sweat and bile. Still as has been evidenced by my preceding posts, I know I have laboured out of love.

It has not been without ardour, these many years, and the journey I took to enable myself to leave has been a microcosm of those bittersweet years.

I had spent my last two years clocking hours in the Nuri to qualify for exemption from the full-scale DCA exam, and from July 2008 till December of the same, I was skipping back and forth on the Labuan to Putrajaya leg. I sat for the exams, failed some and re-sat till on Christmas eve, I caught wind of the news that I had cleared all papers. Just in the nick of time, it appeared, as in January this year, I was stuffed behind a desk again to perform staff duties, flying a desk instead of my beloved S61A-4 Nuri. I miss her sorely, and I know I have paid my dues as a staff officer before, so I hope this appointment is my last behind a desk with a cockpit being my next office.

For the last two years as a Nuri captain, I have written my stories in The Collective Consciousness, which was sniffed out by the air force intelligence in February 2010. I was told to shut down the blog, such being the way of the organisation. Its salvage job has been transferred here, because I need to remember those last two years in the cockpit where much of my life was given.

I am now a Civil Pilot's License holder, standing on the brink of my freedom, and all apprehensive over the transition to civil life. I know it will be a roller-coaster ride, and as the embers of my soldierly profession fade into ashes, I intend to savour all the labours of being born into the new life ahead of me.

Everyone who has left the air force says that only now will I begin to be a professional pilot. What have I been all this while then?

I then ask all who have been patient with me in my previous blog to keep the faith and not get irked with me as I fumble towards what I hope will be the better part of my life.

Hang tight.

05 March 2010

The Biggest Losers Report

I am awed that there have been people who did write in to my last posting on The Collective Consciousness. A very few asked to remain on the readers' list, and I have complied accordingly. I saved as many posts as I could, in the middle of the Biggest Loser Air Force programme in RMAF Ipoh, and I am pained to see that saving a post doesn't save the precious pics I gleaned from various air force archives.
Here I am again.

I was on the RMAF's Biggest Loser programme.

I made arrangements with Maj Mok (Firdaus, but his tactical callsign as a fighter controller was Gemok, hence Mok) to drive up to Ipoh with him. We rendesvoused at KL base, officers' mess at 0600H on 26 Jan and I took the wheel to Ipoh from there. We had a fine time pooh-poohing the way the fat guys were being discriminated against whilst we saw the air force as having so many other more important issues to handle than to further humiliate us with a weight-loss porgramme that would be on display on the air force portal.

Upon arrival at Ipoh, we were greeted by Maj Chan and a host of other junior officers and Physical Training Instructors. We were shown to our rooms, nice, comfy and air conditioned. My roommate hadn't arrived yet, and I read the slip on my room door to check out who it would be. Maj Azman Jantan. Hmmm. I worked with Mantan when I was evaluating Search And Rescue beacons for the air force. Not enough to discover the decibular value of his snore. Incidentally, he would turn up late that night which learned me into his signal strength, but then again, I was probably producing the tenor harmony for his bass, so this could turn out to be symbiotic.

The course, Special Survival 01/10 Body Mass Index was officiated on 27 Feb  by the Deputy Chief of the air force, Dato' Sharon whose ferocity as a flying instructor and thereon got him dubbed as Tigeron. Kipling would have been amused. Then the rigours began.

The Diet
1500 kilocalories a day. I was not confident we could keep it up. I spied the thimble sized bowl they used for apportioning our rice, and shook my head. Whom are they kidding? Breakfast was to be a slice of wholemeal bread or one cardboard-consistencied chappati or equally miserable bite to begin the day. Dinner was more of the boiled vegetable and matchbox-sized chunk of meat.

That afternoon, Maj Zin, Mok, Roshaidi and  I popped out to town for essentials such as tongs and hangers. Not before stopping by Salim's restaurant. There were 16 chappatis and 4 bowls of beef and chicken on the table, with orders of biriyani rice to chase down the previous listing. I sat there with them, sipping a cup of tea, and staying true to my cause of weight loss as they surely and steadily put away the lot overcrowding the table top. The aroma of ghee wafting off the top chappati was breaking down my resolve to be faithful. My mates caught my gaze reluctantly zooming to the streetside in evasive manouvre, and they reminded me that tomorrow we would not see food this way again. And so went the last chappati down my gullet.

The Regime

I shall quote a columnist as he mused over the rites of passage in becoming a cyclist. "The hill is not in the way. The hill is the way."

Part of the physical training regime, occupying a good nine hours a day, every day for 3 weeks was jungle trekking. Now I must say, I loathe jungle trekking. Though I am no infantryman my infantry training as an officer cadet in the Royal Military College inspires no irresistible draw to being under foliage at any time. I would rather a nice air conditioned room with satellite television in a heartbeat. But here we were, doing just what I loathe. Even though I had reneged the Saturday night before and sinfully put away a claypot chicken rice dinner replete with chunks of salted fish, I did not see the need for so punishing a penance as 80 degree slopes, up and down. I was cursing at the top brass and the school management with each invitation to a chiropractor that the step up was, and spat profanity at the numerous ten-yard slides I was taking downhill. Then of course there were leeches whose heparin was so potent my coursemates and I bear the bite marks to this time of writing.

Then at lunch I eavesdropped on the recounts of my mates. I gleaned that Mantan was spewing the same profanities as I, at all the same torturous slopes and checkpoints. So I was not demented nor was I the only one who saw this route as being maliciously planned and selected. There was a common bond, when a course was being executed on guys exceeding a hundred kilogrammes each, some sporting a BMI of 42 to 45. No conditioning. just a direct plunge into load-bearing physicals like obstacle courses and compass marches. By the tenth day, many had torn ligaments and knees that were giving way whilst jogging. Capt Siti had twisted her knee so badly she had to be returned to her home unit. My only injury was tendonitis. I had become over enthusiastic at the benchpress. Mind you, we were all old soldiers with service records of up to 31 years. None were unable to scale the hill. Which meant that huge as we were, we were fit. It was just that our joints, cartilege and tendons could no longer take the strain that we could as 20 year olds.

Mutiny
We were informed on the first night that we would not be sleeping in our rooms, but in the "villa", the survival village down by the lakes. These huts were used for the isolation modules of the aircrew survival refresher course. The requirement was not printed in the admin instructions, but were there ordered by the top brass nonetheless.

We debated the move. The orders were preposterous. But we were thinking officers. We would obey. We would go down to the huts and stay till past midnight, then cycle back to our rooms. That would keep us adherent to the 'stay till the next morning' clause.
At 2300H we gathered under the pale light of the lamp post at the back of the officers' mess. We cycled wordlessly down and settled in the individual huts. The instructors were around, and I could sense they were nervous, like a pack of mongrels set to watch over wolves. Would a bunch of officers with near 16 years seniority over them be compliant?

We sat cracking the worst jokes ever heard, the guys cackling like warlocks till midnight. Our course leader, lucky bloke who could sleep once reclined even if it were in a cesspool, was long past his introductory snoring notes. I was sharing a hut with Capt Sara and Maj Kesh. It was stifling, as cushy as a bed of nails and I was swatting whatever was biting me wherever skin was exposed. "Sara," I said. "At the stroke of half past midnight, I start cycling up."

"With you!" he snapped back affirmatively. And so starting with Kesh, Sara and I, began the midnight exodus back to the mess. Our course leader awoke at one in the morning and seeing himself alone, followed suit.
He was nearly charged with failure to contain a mutiny. The next morning, we were informed by the young captain in charge of us that we were to return to parent bases as a result of said mutiny.

We were ready to pack our bags when our course leader issued a letter to the Deputy Chief that we were committeed to losing weight but found the sleeping arrangements as the only niggardly point we could not harbour with. The decision was reversed and the course continued but we were still to sleep in the villa.

Mutiny??

The Generals should have taken our behaviour as a compliment. We had obeyed instructions but used our discretion as to how to obey them. All officers had agreed as to what to do. Everyone cooperated. And nobody ratted on anyone or turned in anyone as a scapegoat.
And so we named ourselves The Bounty.

And everyone proved that we could still lose weight, but it was our accomplishment and not that of the leadership.

Closure
Three weeks passed with much wailing and ganshing of teeth. I was succumbing to burnout. My 1.5 mile run slipped from 14 minutes to 16. I never did the monkey rack or the flying fox. Yes, I have a fear of heights. I snatched claypot chicken rice, unavailable in Labuan, anytime I could, and when I was truant with Maj Keshwinder, it was loading up on chappatis and thick gravies. I lost 4.8 kilogrammes and 2 inches off my waist.

Much water has passed under the bridge. This was a course unlike any other I had been part of. Everybody was everybody's friend and buddy no matter what our differences. We still worked guided by our inner compasses, and saw our organisation as it was, warts and all, but still stayed committed to serve. But the sense of disappointment was not diluted. This course was a PR stunt so the air force could thumb its nose at the army and navy. We knew all this well before the course began and we were scheduled to save the air force from its delayed execution of its annual courses in RMAF Ipoh. Yet we reported to Ipoh to obey. Yet we were labelled as mutineers.

In the middle of all this, smack before Chinese New Year, I was called by the Director of Air Force Intelligence to shut down my blog. I got Kesh to take me to the nearest cybercafe to delete my posts on The Collective Consciousness. Mantan was listening in to my phone conversation with the Director. When I was done, he told me how he was told the same thing, two weeks after he started a blog about flying the Sukhoi-30s. We looked at each other knowingly, feeling each other's dismay and pain. There would never be a cure for such small minds as those in the seats of authority. But as I did say to him, as with anything sacred, when this blog was found and read by air force senior officers, its sanctity was violated and was due for shutdown anyway.

I will miss Ipoh. I liked cycling the perimeter and watching teams of otter cavort and cruise the lakes. I miss my friends. We were without creed or colour.

I guess no tie binds as securely as the sharing of food.

12 February 2010

Curtains

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I moved into No 2 Air Divisional Headquarters on 06 Jan 10.

My predecesssor's office was still strewn with his outsanding bank statements and stacks of unattended military correspondence. The window looked out on the little uphill road that led to the air defence radar installation where some of my other mates worked. It had no blinds, and enquiring into this state of affairs I was to learn that Major Raymond was in the process of acquiring venetians. I sighed. I knew then that I would be out of the air force before that could materialise. Indeed, such remains the aspiration as such.

I would soon learn that much time in the division was spent on briefings. If only they were brief! But such is the nature of government machinations: that it is always cheaper to do things the more expensive way; that you cannot hasten a process without allowing for institutionalised retardation; that briefs were inevitably elaborate and coma inducing.

Then the best news of the year hit me.

The air force's top brass sustained a stroke of genius, as they would congratulate themselves, and came up with The Biggest Loser RMAF, a programme aimed at addressing their discomfort at personnel of a BMI above 26. Of course, moi was the prime candidate for this 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, 3 week course.

I can hear Ginger saying, "There are NO rooms, NO rest, NO weekends and NO electricity." Which inspires me to plot my escape in the same style as the claymation movie, except that I may have to play the part of Fowler too.

So beginning 18 Jan 10, I shall be incommunicado. Perhaps even incognito.

In the meantime, I see no reason why I have to endure the squalor my predecessor left the office in. Last Sunday I redecorated, with all the craftsmanship of the characters of The Lord Of The Flies, my office. Brenda's generosity saw me clamp discontinued curtains onto the office window's security grille using bookbinding rings. The Creative pc audio would be there for me to listen to Whsiperings Solo Piano Radio over the internet. Then a reading lamp in lieu of the glaring factory-grade fluorescents. For aroma, the coffee machine. And to suggest officialesce, a display of plaques from previous units I have served under blu-tacked onto the wall adjacent to my table.

It is too bad that I cannot nestle in here yet, and that I have to plunge into the very antithesis thereof when I get to Ipoh.

Till then I shall just shut my eyes and push forward. I know that I can hack it in Ipoh. I doubt that I need to.

Miffed that I have to.

So this is the view I will have as I work my last days in the air force. I can't say it looks so bad.

Other Roads

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The weeks have crept by silently, and the amount of time I spend in the air dwindles.

While I may be feeling less like a pilot, there are some things I must admit as being well beyond my reach to rein, harness or wield. The availability of aircraft, for one, lies not under my control. This game is in the court of greater powers, and a mere Squadron Operations Officer lies far beneath the shadow of said powers.

Am I merely a pilot? Or are there other facets of my life which lie in neglect when I am chasing the almighty hours in the cockpit? I have often lamented, to myself of course, over what little time I have to go cycling, as I have long been on SAR standby for weeks on end without pause. I have fallen in love with the bicycle, and so I should stop twining my knickers into a knot and start enjoying the doldrums for what they are: an opportunity for alternatives!

Labuan, is as far as I am concerned, a wonderful place for cycling. The roads are relatively quiet, drivers have the patience of the saints and will wait as you heave to pedal past their junction and the scenery is good. The only detractors to this cycling paradise are the early onset of insolation and….dogs!!

Most of the dogs that patrol the roads are mere wage-earners. They have a few barks to emit in the earning of their keep and if their masters are away, they just watch you pass by without a twitch of the ear, appraising if you are worth a blood-curdling chase or no. Most times, those dogs used as cheap security at construction sites deem their measly rations not worth the energy expenditure and nervously turn their heads away as you cycle past. The dogs that are house-proud and guard homes, though, have a higher loyalty clause to honour and will never let you go through their territory without you paying toll with either pedaling your giblets out or the hasty selection of an alternate route. The severity of the problem becomes progressively worse when the ambush is staged on a road that goes uphill and can only be conquered at a mashing pedal pace.

While I do not have a morbid fear of these mongrels, and their body weight would often defeat any ambition they hold of acceleration down their garden path and onto the road to intercept an adrenalin-fuelled cyclist, I like my rides peaceful and canine-free. Cycling is my time, when I push the pace, burst the lungs, and daydream if the chance permits. I do not seek to wage war with a snarling hound whose Doppler accuracy or rather inaccuracy I cannot rely on for a safe margin of escape. So I don’t take any chances. When the mongrel looks like he couldn’t scare a roach, I pre-empt his point of impact by brandishing my bicycle pump at him like it were a flaming sword. Of course, if it were a pedigree like a Rottie or Doberman I could have been driven to cycle through the Mines Of Moria.

So one matter I can devote myself to is cycling. That is a good thing, whichever way I look at it. I enjoy it and it is good for me.

I have been walking the tightrope for so long, I have forgotten how to let go of the things I cannot change when I am in the squadron premises. It becomes difficult to be here and not get up in the air. I remember that this frustration used to reign when I was a flying student and the weather stopped us from getting airborne, or when the serviceability state fell so low the course could not progress for weeks. I would be chomping at the bit, agonising over the inactivity. Then when a chance finally made itself available, all that anxiety made for an awful sortie in the air.

The empty spaces in life do not always have to be filled. Empty spaces can be allowed to just be vacuous. Life is frenetic enough as it is. When the pace falls off, it may well be a blessing in disguise.

I must admit though, that the timing of these doldrums was impeccable. The fall in the serviceability state coincided with the Raya week perfectly. Without a SAR aircraft, no SAR standby could be effected. Without a second aircraft for training, we couldn't clock proper hours for training either. In my 17 years of flying, I have never had such a pleasant Raya where I was actually with my family at so leisurely a pace. I had time to drive my family around and go visiting and sampling the Raya goodies. I should be saying that I could get used to this, but I actually can’t. However, the rest was welcome all the same.

I must remember that there are other priorities now. The lull is merely Providence’s way of saying, “Let me help you with that.”

Stormclouds

Friday, August 21, 2009

On the morning of the 16 Aug 09, the SAR crew was scrambled to Kota Kinabalu.

The Deputy Prime Minister was visiting Kudat and Penampang. Lt Col T, the boss of No 7 Squadron, Kuching Air Base, was assigned the task to fly the DPM from KK to Kudat and then from Kudat to Penampang. One of the Nuris assigned to the Exercise Kelawar would fly to KK and sit there on VVIP standby in case Lt Col T's M2307 went unserviceable. However, at 0930H, it was known that M2326 in Tawau had gone unserviceable, and making matters worse, bad weather obstructed their route to KK. Hence the reassigning of the task to Labuan's SAR crew which I was on and the scrambling of the SAR aircraft to KK.

The scramble had made me a little over zealous when I lifted off to a hover on runway 14 and called ready, only for tower to reply, Angkasa 994A, standby. Impatiently, I asked, "Tower please explain what you mean by standby." I had not known of any air traffic controller to keep a helicopter in hover indefinitely. I repeated my request, and tower cleared me on runway heading.

Passing, 800 feet, I turned in the general heading of Bongawan. The VHF crackled sharply with the indignant voice of the tower controller. Angkasa 994A, I cleared you on runway heading! As he was saying this, I noticed why he was indecisive over clearing my departure. I spotted a police fixed-wing aircraft routing from Menumbok to Kuala Penyu at 500 feet, 5 miles away. I was reaching an altitude of 1000 feet. Whilst reducing my rate of turn to keep the traffic on my left, I replied curtly, "Angkasa 994A, sighted the traffic at 500 feet overhead Menumbok. We have separation." Angkasa 994A contact Labuan approach. And so we did. The approach controller sounded much calmer. Angkasa 994A, you are radar identified, maintain 1500 feet call again abeam Kuala Penyu. "Angkasa 994A, wilco!!"

Dark clouds that bore rain swept in from the sea, threatening our flight path. Offsetting the track to the right, we managed to keep clear of weather until our landing at Kinabalu airfield.

We shutdown and the rest of the afternoon was a long wait for the clearance from No 2 Air Divison to return to base.

We tracked Lt Col T's progress. The DPM's run of Kudat was finished, and he was airborne for Penampang. I walked out of the VIP lounge at Kinabalu airport's Terminal 2 and looked up at a darkening sky. I knew that only by a miracle could T land in Penampang.

The wait was long and I was getting hungry. My crew kept vigil with me, as with the safety consciousness of a lemming, I ordered a snack plate from KFC and ate slowly to pass the time. The storm beat around us and the ambience took on the feel of nightfall instead of midday. As I ate, my crewmen continued to receive text messages from their fellow crewman on Lt Col T's aircraft. It was at about 1330H when we received the message that he had landed in Impiana Resort Tuaran because weather had turned so bad that forward visibility fell below minima. I was thinking, right, you don't say!!

This would mean that the alternative plan for the DPM's visit would come into effect. It was almost 1400H when I got the phone call from Lt Rajen, the duty Operations Officer for the day at No 2 Air Division. "Tuan, the DPM's movement from Tuaran to KK airport will be by road. Whenever tuan want to come back, tuan can airborne lah."

I was relieved that we were not committed to a time frame that would have us pinned on ground when the weather was sufficiently marginal above the helicopter visual minima to allow us to plough a route home at low-level.

We began our walkout to the aircraft at 1415H. I turned to Capt Mustaqim and asked him, "Is there any IFR route to Labuan from here? You know that it's raining." Mustaqim grinned at me blankly which told me that he had not thought at all about how to get home and was leaving it all up to me. This response was the kind that tempted me to wring his neck, but rendering him clinically brain dead was not far from where he was all on his own effort, so my expenditure of energy would be wasted on accomplishing the already well-established.

The visibility was not the 8 kilometres that tower reported. It was more like 3, with the cloud base at 400 feet. I stayed at 300 feet initially and saw the railway track that led to Tenom through the coastal route via Papar and Bongawan. Even before I could reach Papar, the cloud base fell to 300 feet. I retained terrain clearance by flying at 150 feet all the way to Kuala Penyu, and then tuned the Automatic Direction Finder to Labuan, its morse code positively identifying L.A.B. Contacting Labuan Approach, the controller reported Labuan's weather as 10 kilometer visibility with clear skies. That was reassuring, and I flew on the needle back to Labuan, though Mustaqim bafflingly directed me on some other heading, purportedly to Labuan and straight into black clouds that merged with the earth. My patience had worn thin and I snarled at him to explain why in heaven's name he was navigating me to Limbang, asking that I plunge the Nuri into the most evil-looking cumulonimbus clouds to ever descend upon the floodplains and marshes of our training area. I heard some unintelligible sounds from his mouth that sounded very much like static, which died out to a permanent silence as he failed to come up with a plausible explanation. I carried out all the rejoining checks and pre-landing checks till we were on finals approach to land, when he warbled the finals checks worriedly.
I am not normally given to being harsh with junior copilots.

But there are times when I can no longer bear with utter idleness.

You never get airborne in poor weather without thinking of alternatives and keeping navigation razor-sharp.
I would consider placing Mustaqim's nose on the sharpening-stone. Looking around me, I saw better-qualified pilots for that job, who carried instructional credentials with them. Mustaqim's all yours, boys.
Post shutdown, I sat in my office, checking my e-mail and signing off the post-mission debreif reports. Looking outside the window, I noticed that the weather that had plagued the route home was now approaching Labuan. Lt Col T was still out there. I called tower's extension and enquired into his ETA. I looked at my watch. 45 minutes to go.

At 1730H, I packed up and loaded my stuff into the car. I walked slowly to the dispersal and waited in the drizzle for any sign of M2307. The approach path on runway 32 was dark with rainclouds. I texted a message to T. "Runway 14 clear." I glanced at my watch again. Ten minutes more.

Finally, as the clock turned at twilight 1750H, I spotted the Nuri coming in from runway 14's end, her red anti-collision lights strobing brightly in the gathering gloom of the approaching storm. She touched down at the intersection and slowly taxied in to the parking bay under the guidance of the marshaller. After shutdown, I walked over to the cabin to chat with Lt Col T. I let him speak first of how the press had sensationalised his landing in Tuaran, reporting it as an emergency landing, and the many phone calls he had received after it was broadcast on the afternoon news bulletins. Then I enquired I to the task that was lined up for me on his aircraft, to fly the base commander and a General to the Kota Belud firing range the next morning.

"They asked me to fly," he said. "But I have enough hours already, so I offer to you lah. After all, you need the hours." This was classic T, always offering the clocking of hours to someone else when the job was less to his liking than returning to his home base.

"No sir, I don't need the hours any more. But of course I will carry out the request from the base." I had to tread carefully. He was going to be with me on my trip to Bournemouth in four days' time, and friends though you may be with a fellow, odd personality changes followed when they get promoted over you.

The storm finally let loose its load on Labuan as I took leave of T and drove home in slow traffic. I knew the General whom I had to fly. He was a known finicky passenger who would inspect every nook and cranny of the aircraft to decry the diminishing standards and professionalism of helicopter pilots "nowadays".

I really seemed to have my career made for me.

Or perhaps, he knew Mustaqim.