12 February 2010


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.”


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.

Hazy Days Rainy Nights

Friday, August 14, 2009

It had been hazy for the past week in Labuan. I had always believed that Labuan was like Lothlorien, safe from the evils of the world. From my last tour of duty here from 1997 to 2001, Klang Valley residents had endured hellish water rationing, flash floods, Japanese Encephalitis and asphyxiating haze. Labuan was supposed to be safe from all these, and what little haze that visited stayed for not more than three days. Yet, even Labuan could not hold all evils at bay for all times.

The annual Kelawar Exercise was around the corner when the elitist congregation of NVG trained aircrew would rendezvous in Tawau, taking with them the meager mustering of NVG-converted, serviceable Nuris. Labuan managed to assign M2337 and M2338 to the exercise whilst Kuching’s nominal contribution was M2326. We had also been through less of a frenetic week because M2337’s winch cable had ‘bird-caged’; fraying at mid-length. This constituted the aircraft as only partly mission capable, and thereby unfit for SAR standby. We had enjoyed being SAR standby-free for nigh two weeks. Then the beleaguered M2328 had finally received all her required items to be set on her feet, meaning that this partial vacation was drawing to a close. If I, the sole remaining test flight qualified pilot available on commencement of Kelawar, rendered it serviceable for SAR in timely fashion.

The morning of 11 August wore on at a creeping pace for those awaiting M2302’s arrival (the reinforcement from Kuching), namely the boss and his entourage of golfers who were making a habit of latching on to operational tasks to play golf outstation. The newly-promoted Maj Magesvaran joined the flock, recognising the saudara baru-ness of becoming a golfer in the boss’s league.

I rested in the refuge of my humble office, enjoying freshly brewed kopi Tenom kept hot in my coffee-maker as I surfed idly into incendiary political blogs to keep my fingers firmly on the pulse of the nation. Ten o’clock and Kuching reported that M2302 was still snagged on ground due to an unserviceable HF radio.

Wait a minute.

Weren’t we flying around in the Sabahan interior without HF radio? Hmmmm. Nevermind.

The clock turned to 1400H.

As I was busy dreaming of being unshackled from squadron life, Mages walked into my office and grabbed his golf cart and baggage. “See you later sir. We are leaving now.” M2302 had not arrived. Had Division undergone a change of heart?

Later in the evening, M2328 was ready for her flight test, the second this day in 4 months. It was 1600H. I could hardly make out the tower across the runway as I walked out to the aircraft. The sun sat low and smoggy in the opaque evening sky. Power topping on ground was not satisfactory, but the tech boys told me to get airborne and see how the engines behaved in the air. At 400 feet above mean sea level, the haze was thickening, limiting the forward visibility to 3 kilometres. As I rolled the aircraft to fly parallel to Universiti Malaya Sabah’s beachfront, I could see that matters were not being helped by the large number of domestic fires spewing smoke to add to the suspended ash in the air.

The power topping in the air showed itself as unsatisfactory. Down to brass tacks, the way the No 1 Engine behaved hinted that in the event of a single engine failure on No 2, No 1 would not keep us airborne. I concluded the flight test by conducting the vibration signature check at 80 and 110 knots. All was well, and I landed safely at 1700H and promptly snagged the aircraft for No 1 Engine Topping Unsat. The SAR crew for the next day would be glad, namely me, that the SAR aircraft was unserviceable still and therefore, the waking up ritual at an hour of the morning not yet blessed by the Creator would be bypassed.

I returned to the refuge of my air-conditioned office and more coffee. I settled into my chair to check on my mail and seek inspiration for my next blogpost, having been negligent of late as my mind wandered outside the air force and to dreams of what life would be like. Then Capt Tarmizi, the engineering officer, popped into my office with a strained look upon his face. “Tuan, boss cakap kapal tu mesti serviceable juga hari ini. Estimate flight test pukul 1830 tuan.”

I wished I could have walked out of the base that very minute. License, Jeffrey! License!!!

The boss wants the aircraft rendered serviceable today no matter what??? If the flight test at 1830H showed the engine to be underpowered still? I really loathed having my hand forced on matters of integrity and those of life and death. I felt that signing the aircraft as serviceable when it was not, would ensnare another pilot into jeopardy should he be forced into a single-engine failure in flight. In my heart, I told myself that if the engine proved unfit, I would snag it anyway. The lives of the aircrew ranked above political manoeuvreing. It was also most unpleasant to be so pressured when the light of day was failing. I needed conditions of good visibility under daylight VMC, 1000 feet in the air and autorotative distance to the runway to conduct a proper flight test, conditions which were rapidly descending into twilight. The pale crimson sun kissing the horizon gave no hint that he would light the way for me as day gave way to night.

The setting sun actually helped me see better as shadows began to cast themselves long upon the smoky islescape, making the relief visible as the last light of day exhaled.

The engine-men on board shone at their job under pressure. All checks this time proved to be satisfactory. The last remaining tests, the autorotation and compass swing, would have to wait till the next day. The aircraft was rendered as serviceable, and on SAR standby. I was spared the no-win confrontation that threatended my engineer's face an hour ago. The boss had himself covered for flying M2326 off to Tawau before being relieved by M2302, now that M2328 was 'on line'.

The tension passed. Night took over. The day passed into memory.

And the rain fell through the dark hours to soothe the dawn.

First Night Jitters

Monday, August 3, 2009

A tumultuous week had passed. In a whirlwind, I had flown down to Kuala Lumpur, lodged myself in the Officers' Mess KL Air Base and set to Putrajaya to do my Civil Pilot's License exam together with Capt Ian. By the time I was done, I was in a zombied state when I met up with a blogger friend, and I think I did her an injustice. I was so spaced out I don't think I was as politically correct as I should have been in the presence of a legal officer, and much negativity surfaced in whatever I said to her in conversation. I hadn't had proper coffee since Sunday. It showed.

Then it was back to Labuan on 23 July, armed with me mum-in-law.

This was all to find out that my Categorisation which would lapse on 5 August was being done the following week. A training sortie was quickly arranged on Monday with Capt Mustaqim as co-pilot, the poor sod being on Cat with me. Based on the latest priorities agreed to in the recent RMAF Helicopter Seminar, my boss suggested that the examiner take me on a night sortie to Kota Kinabalu airfield for the night Cat.

Night sorties away from base had been a contentious issue in the air force for several years. Advanced Night flying courses had been abandoned after the cessation of hostilities with the Communists. The Nuri was not a fully instrumented aircraft by aviation law, which led to much dragging of feet with regard to familiarising the younger Nuri crew with the night environment. Then, when a tragic crash of a Nuri occurred whilst conducting a medical evacuation off a Thai ship near Mukah Head in Penang, night flights away from base ceased to be considered altogether.

Then came Abu Sayyaf's abductions off the east coast of Sabah and the Nuri crew employed Night Vision Goggles to carry out special forces operations in the dark of night. A kit-upgrade of the Nuri with the required instrumentation to comply with aviation law and instrumented flight at night, compatibly illuminated for the night vision devices. An NVG course by the contractors was organised for the elect, and teeteringly, allowed the trained Nuri crew to get comfortable with night flying and the Nuri to legally fly by night.

Although the number of NVG trained pilots reflected the serviceability state of the NVG converted Nuris, it recently (just when I was to sit for my Cat) became important that both NVG and non-NVG Nuri pilots were to begin flying airfield to airfield at night to establish the fleet as capable all through the clock.

So here I was, on a night flying exercise for Cat, with 17 years of flying and never having flown at night away from the circuit area. My examiner was an NVG instructor, so his comfort level with the night environment was way ahead of mine.

The weather was gloomy in the evening as we prepared for the night flying brief, the air choked with haze. The brief was covered without much ado, and as the examiner went downstairs to the little surau to keep his observances, Mustaqim and I prepped the aircraft and gobbled down a meal before walk-out time at 1900H.

The start-up and rotor engagement was carried out in the muted ambience of the night, with the reduced visual information providing limited situational awareness. Under the glaring timer-set floodlights from the hangar, rotor engagement had to be done on physical motor memory. I moved the cyclic in harmony with what feedback I could get from the winding-up main rotor blades through my wrist and arm as I could not observe the blade tip-path, being blinded by the lights. The crewman, his back to the lights and facing the Nuri, confirmed flap restrainers out and droop restrainers off as the blades reached 100% rotor speed. He was in a much better position than we aircrew in the cockpit.

It was a relief as we taxied away from the hangar, turning left to the runway, the floodlights slipping out of view as our eyes adjusted to the instrument lights and the ambience of darkness. Lining up on the runway, I lifted up to a vertical take-off and dove to transition and flyaway speed. It was an odd feeling, turning on to a heading of 053 degrees and seeing nothing but blackness envelop me, as I was so much more used to seeing the reassuring outline of Labuan's Membedai beach and familiar lights to take me back to finals approach to the runway. My breath caught in my throat for a second as I shot ahead into the depth of night, instinctively turning to instrumented flying and calling out to the co-pilot for further information, which was to little avail as the '12 months in role' Mustaqim suddenly answered to Gepetto's siring. A few minutes later, I adjusted the cockpit lighting, turning the rheostats lower. The darkness outside the cockpit began to graduate into hues, and I could discern the land from the sea. The main river, Sungai Klias began to make itself visible and soon it was easy enough to make out cars along the kampong roads and the brightly illuminated town of Kuala Penyu.

At a 110 knots cruise, I knew where to expect the horizon to somewhat be. But the night newbie in me began to get alarmed as I saw red lights above the horizon line. I thought aloud, "What's that red light ahead of me?" The examiner was on the intercom through a headset. His voice rasped through the white noise. "That's a transmitting station." He was reading the terrain below the horizon. Knowing the terrain and map by day, and reading the same by night, I found this rather weird. There was no high ground above 2000 feet at the coastline of Kuala Penyu with a hill looming high, and a transmitting station sticking out of it. "Well, if that's a transmitting station, we're headed straight for a mountain!" The cockpit fell silent, Mustaqim offering no information to the contrary. Well, heck. We would have to fight our feelings, trust our maps and instruments and stay the course! A second our two later, the crewman's voice rang out, "Aircraft passing at 11 o'clock high." Well, that's what I was talking about. That light. I didn't know that was what it would look like in the air. Transmitting station my flying boots.

Kuala Penyu soon slipped past and looking out at the grey emptiness, I knew I was over the sea, flying over Kimanis Bay. At my ten o'clock lay Pulau Tiga, its jetty lights visible against the waters reflecting the haze-laden night sky. Looking ahead, I saw what must have been Papar. Kinabalu had cleared us for finals intercept of the Instrument Landing System and we were to report established on the localiser. Overhead Papar, I tuned in to the ILS, but did not hear the identifying morse code. I tuned into the VOR station and still, no morse code could be heard. Kinabalu Tower called us, asking us to confirm airfield in sight. I looked out ahead and saw that I could not identify the airfield against the bright cityscape of Kota Kinabalu and I answered in the negative. I called out to the examiner that my approach aids were dysfunctional and I would elect to return to base. The same intention was made known to Kinabalu and my heart heavy with shame, I rolled the aircraft to the right, turning reciprocal and pointing to Labuan. The lights of KK slipped to the left and the flat darkness leading to Labuan lay ahead. All through this leg, the waxing wedge of moon smudged through the frosted haze to silently say that the night was watchful over my journey home.

As Labuan loomed over the horizon, I began to sit easier in the cockpit. The night sortie away from base was not so bad. I could not see depth and distance save for the hints provided by tiny points of light, but that was alright for as long as map reading in the dark told me where I was. For as long as the rotors were running, the engine and gearbox parameters in the green and the flight instruments showed me at good, level altitude and heading, I had no cause for anxiety. I needed to trust the Lady and myself in this unfamiliar environment, just as I needed to trust her in deck landings amidst the less than welcomed waves that suggested I was going to go down, but had not. I was starting to believe that if I did this often, I could turn out a decent night sortie soon enough.

The island was getting closer. My examiner asked me to try intercepting Labuan's localiser. I first intercepted the finals approach radial 324, and then when steady inbound, I tuned in to the ILS. This time, the instruments talked to me, the morse code loud and clear and the glide slope and centreline localiser telling me which way to turn to establish myself on a good approach to land.

Post-flight, embarrassment notwithstanding, I had a few thoughts as I downed a good mug of Guinness.

I had let my anxieties over flying away from base at night get the better of me, and rendered this night sortie a dismal show of clumsiness. I was too much of a Mark-II Eyeball pilot for too long, and depended much on visual cues to fly seat of the pants. The discomfort had taken too much out of me and I had not thought up redundancies to make good a landing at Kinabalu airfield and return to base successfully should any of my approach aids give out on me at the last minute. In short, I had been a twit. Adding to these musings, I remembered I had flunked one CPL exam paper gloriously. Yes, I planned to redo it in September.

The Guinness told me that I could do both better the next time.

The Harimau Sleeps Tonight

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Flying Tigers.

That's what No 5 Squadron crew members call themselves. The Tiger insignia for the squadron goes all the way back to 1965, when the squadron was incepted in Kuala Lumpur and deployed to the Royal Air Force Labuan base on 13 May of the same year.

Back then the aircrew's bonedomes were painted in tiger stripes, well before pimp mobiles adopted the colour scheme. As say that, I wonder if I have stumbled upon the origin of the species.

Of late, I confess to wanting to purr in plaintive voice that M2333 not be employed for tasks beyond VHF range as the aircraft is not fitted with HF, rendering it a flight hazard in real time. Of course, land-line coordination is carried out prior every take-off so that the controlling agency knows where we are and can tell all hearing aircraft to stay clear of us, but that is really asking the bone china to avoid the bull in the shop. And what a load of bull this is! My pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and we have been left to our devices by our leadership to make good the missions tasked unto us.

Yet, with the waning of the moon, these werewolves that torment and threaten from amidst the shadows are abating into less formidable beasts. We may be saved, from ourselves, yet again by the good old lady the Nuri herself, by her very age. She who bears us upon her wings, now faces the expiry of her flying hours. M2333 will be returned to AIROD for her major calendar check any day now. Such stripdown servicing may well take the gestation cycle of an oliphaunt to complete, and the remaining airframes have only so many hours left to go the same direction. If by a miracle of fraudulent means we get an aircraft or two from the hoarded number languishing under long overdue calendar checks in AIROD, we may have a while yet to flog the old lady to her death, or ours, should she turn around to bite us.

Whichever way we look at it, we are witnessing the Nuri undergo the days of diminishing returns as did the Caribou. She too, was a faithful workhorse from the days of her battles against the Enemy, with a knack for doing the kind of work and executing flight profiles in spartan conditions that modern-day aircraft are just not able to do with equal aplomb and cygnified grace. But when her very numbers died out along with her crew, the leadership's hand was forced to permit her deserved retirement. We can only pray that the Nuri's release not be at similar cost, for even after coming to that and having our comrades pay, we still tarry.

Amidst these nebulous doubts, the sun still rises upon Labuan. Some days are as gloomy and foreboding as the ebonied clouds that creep across the shadowed runway, foretelling of an inclement day for flying. Others begin with a silvery eastern sky bathing the island in the cheeriest sunlight. The seas sparkle and ripple bejewelled, the ships anchored about the port like many drakes, ducks and ducklings with as much awarness and care about the future of the island as the birds that I have likened them to, or the stevedores who determine the moment of their relief from their expectant delivery with lager and ladies at day's end on their minds. Life goes on for everyone else, seasons come and go unlading the unforeseen upon the unsuspecting. People marry, choke the roads of Labuan with their oversized tax-exempted all-wheelers at the berinais, bersandings and the khenduris, and the fisherman and the farmer harvest the hillsides and the highwaters from day to day in this littoral Shire, Labuan. But what of this Nuri's fate, while we who grip the purse-strings drag our mired feet over renewing the decrepit team in the stables?

The Nuri lies still upon the premixed dispersal, always silent, yet symptomatic of how well we tend to her. I wager I may be a free man well before she is finally allowed to rest, seeing the end of her days as sentinels adjacent to guardrooms, sneering at the comings and goings of younger aircraft who have yet to see such glory days as has she, to have carried overwhelming duty upon her ever beating blades into the threat of calamity and back to safer shores.

Come that day, I shall stand sorrowed at her going, but I know that it is not too soon by many years. That I can see her gently fading into what she was yesterday meant to be is a privilege. Many shall bid her farewell teary-eyed.

These twilight days, the Harimau shall have some time to sleep. One ear cocked, one eye open, the reined snarl ever ready to roar.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

I don’t know if I am old enough to claim that the years have surely passed. The incontinent geriatrics may scoff at my claims to age, but youth is not convincingly mine either. Even 35 year-old taukehs call me uncle.

Nay, I do not lament that. I have never feared ageing. I fear the unknown discomfort of crossing over to the next life, admittedly, and my hope is that the progress in medical science will render that as comfortable as passing through a turnstile.

There are many things of particular significance that elude me still. My wisdom is less watertight than this twisted world requires it to be, and my forbearance is not nearly as strong as the daily ordeal behind the steering wheel would demand. So far, frailty hasn't made me resigned to the choices my daughters will make in their suitors. I fear sometimes that my son has not caught on that strength is in being ‘quick to be broken, to heal again’. But these anxieties have not been summoned to the fore, providing some strand of evidence that not all has passed me by, that it is not yet time to panic, as I turn 45. In ammunition, that would denote calibre. That interpretation surely does not apply to one not born with his psyche poisoned by the slow infusion of argentum upon his lips.

But once in June 1964, a babe was born looking as clueless then as he does today.

Life was rather disquieting for an abandoned child, contending for attention, affection and affirmation that was not to be forthcoming growing up amongst those who were not my very own.

Adventure and misadventure were both mine to taste in varying proportions. It was a raggedy life, an awakening to many truths and the sustaining of some inevitable scars. And all that time, I had no idea that four years apart from mine entry into this askewed world, was another born to completely turn my life around.

Today, it becomes difficult for me to recognise yesterday. By her side then, is where I find the greenest of pastures I could ask for, the still waters that revive, that quench, that make me restful. From here springs all in whom I have my delight. I know not what manner of angel or saint resides in her, but I know that I have been tormented into being a better person because she stayed. Likewise, rapture has been mine for the knowing, so to be drawn into trusting that life is as much to be enjoyed as it is to be worked at and nurtured. Surely it has taken more strength than I know any man to embody to risk a journey by my side, to courageously cast out my demons and in so doing sustain as much or more pain herself in my wake as my imagination would have me believe was mine alone.

But do not misunderstand me, because domestication has its delights. I mean, I once hated chocolate, for goodness' sake. But because of her, I would now without second thought trade my soul for Ritters.
Through her I have come to know the laborious joy of raising children, of being part of their rising in the morning to their laying to sleep at night as often as good fortune would allow. Though I have not been there for the better part of their lives, such as this call of duty does dictate, I know that my life would be bitterly impoverished for their absence.

Therefore as I rest one foot upon the juncture of my 45th year, it appears unimportant to muse upon the mercurial evasion of youth, the greying of my tussock top-which actually began when I was twelve, the creeping long-sightedness, the irreversible hearing loss.....

The word here then, is thanks.

That is the only word befitting her gift on this day, when the bottle of oaken gold single malt rested in my hands in stout and reassuring fashion.

Like that gift, some things linger long after the giving.

Moreso now the fear of death for being bereft of all these who make my life worth the living.

I still have today. Perhaps then, I may have tomorrow. Abundant then shall the gift have been on account of that.
And girls, please be smart like your mother and pick someone at least like your father, or just outdo her, that we may all live in peace.

Yes, son. Go forth, get married, be fruitful and multiply. May your joys be plentiful and your parents' vengeance on you complete when you make us proud grandparents.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

M2333, the only aircraft with any hope of being rendered serviceable for Ops Balasah seemed extra reluctant to be set upon the flight line. The No 2 engine kept overtemp-ing, making rotor engagement virtually impossible as the likelihood of the engine turbine temperature exceeding its design limits was imminent.

Our brilliant engineers then set the aircraft through an engine change before she decided to behave.

Or was she toying with us all? Was this some coquettish dance of death?

18 June 09. The young lad, Capt Farhan and Sergeant Dzul were my crew this time around. We took off from Labuan at 0710H, fully laden with the technical crew, portable fuel pump and a two-man Air Drop Service team from the Signals Regiment for absolutely no good reason. Well, the AD team may have been necessary if we were serving Bantul (which we were not), where landings were a high-stake gamble, and discouraged by No 2 Air Division. It does appear that the squeak I had induced in the wheels over this risky LP was beginning to get some grease. For this reason, 2 Div had struck Bantul off from this op, till the LP get reinforced and reconstructed to some semblance of zero-gradient.

From a distance, it looked like the Tenom valley was clouded over. The mountain tops were blanketed, while the gap looked almost impenetrable. However, as is the case usually, we looked through the gap as we got closer and noticed that the town and the bridge were visible, and we could descend to low-level and sniff our way to Keningau.

Though much of Keningau lay under heavy fog, the route towards the eastern LPs such as Seliku and Bantul bore promise of being open to a sortie or two. According to the task sheet, with each LP requiring about a thousand pounds in freight, this task could be over in three sorties. But as I looked out my window at the freight in 3 heaps for Seliku, Saliliran and Long Pasia, each heap did not look like a thousand pounds. It looked as if each LP had two thousand pounds indented to be flown in. Immediately I knew that this op would take as much time as usual although excluding Bantul. The army was beginning to play the old game of under declaring their freight. And yes, as the op progressed, I caught them trying to smuggle in butane gas tanks. This was dangerous cargo and not to be carried without proper certification and other precautions, therefore disallowed on helicopter flights. They knew it. I knew it. They didn’t know that I knew. Over the intercom, I reminded the crewman not to accept the gas, to the troops' bewilderment.

Ploughing through the resupply sorties began at nigh ten o'clock. That one day saw us clock 6 hours, an hour shy of our daily flying limitation and finishing off Seliku and Saliliran. I showed young Captain Farhan how to look out for the limestone outcrops that led to Seliku. Yes, you use the map, compass and clock, backed up by but not relying on GPS. Over that, you should learn to read your way from one geographical feature to the next. The limestone outcrops were unmistakable, like silent sentinels pointing to and from Seliku. Then, when they sit on your left, turn to a heading of 145 degrees, and you would find Seliku on your right in 8 minutes. For Saliliran, ride on the western shoulder of Gunung Antulai till the minor range has been crossed. Then skip from one hilltop to the next and a village with a suspension bridge will be visible on the left. Hereon, keep the heading at 170 degrees and you will be dead on track for Saliliran in 7 minutes.

Okay, Farhan picked up the tips in theory, but strayed in practice. Expected and hugely forgiveable. And when I caught him dozing off at the controls on our return from Saliliran, I rocked the cyclic and he jumped out of his skin, keeping his gaze forward and eyelids narrowed in shielding off the sunlight and pretentious denial of his narcolepsy.

Someone from Keningau must have tipped the boys in Seliku and Saliliran that I was not carrying gas tanks, because I caught the army boys trying to smuggle the tanks out of the LPs by concealing them in gunny sacks. How recently did they think I had become a pilot? I had served here before, and this was my second tour of Labuan’s operational theatre. I came across these tricks years ago. These desperados…..

The weather in Keningau made for a fine operation in the field. It was hot. It was hazy. But the weather held steady. Good weather raised the confidence level for me, even though I was flying without comms. One less hazard to deal with. Before each take-off, Farhan would call Kinabalu Flight Information Service and relay our expected take-off, landing and Search And Rescue times. If we were not heard from for more than 2 hours, it would be time for Kinabalu to launch SAR to look for us. By this irregular but tolerated for military ops arrangement, we finished four sorties, leaving Long Pasia for the next day. Who says we Nuri pilots don’t undertake risks for our ponggo brethren?

So it was a job well done when we shut down at 1730H. We waited with the ground crew as they carried out some servicing instructions and thereby extended the flyable hours on the aircraft. Dusk was settling on Keningau as the army boys drove us to our hotel rooms in the 3-ton truck. It was tiring, but satisfying. No innuendo intended.

The next day, I expected the usual Keningau classic carpet cloud to delay our take-off to 1100H. But the hills I used as references all had cloud way above their crowns, and the promise of a clear path into Long Pasia bore heavy on my conscience to hasten to the airfield and get airborne. Hasten as I may, though, Sgt Ishak, the army quartermaster insisted that the aircrew be fed, in the usual slow, plodding, herd-grazing way that we all sometimes practice. He waited for us, aircrew and groundcrew, in the Sri Keningau restaurant, and patiently sipped his teh tarik as we chomped down breakfast. Government norms prevailed...sometimes. Inter-service fellowship was a nice thing, especially when weather delayed the take-off. Though the day was bright, we only had two sorties for Long Pasia, which I was sure we could finish by 1200H. No rush there.

At 1000H, Farhan and I were crossing Ulu Tomani at 3500 feet, with buffeting from the thermals and the gradients in the rugged landscape leading to Gunung Rimau, at whose feet lay Long Pasia. Turbulence aside, the visibility was so good that we could see the foothills where Long Pasia lay sprawled in cool, gentle green slopes, 30 miles away. I glanced at the engine instruments, and Capt Farhan quipped, “Sir, No 2 engine oil temperature is at 115 degrees.” Hmmm. Even though the temperature band was from 35 to 121, it was not normal for it to pass 100, and usually hung around 90 degrees. How cool could I behave ? knowing that once past Tomani, it was all mountain, river and ravine below, offering no layby for emergency landing or recovery. Yes, and no radio!

“Okay,” I replied. I thought of the weight of the aircraft, at 18000 pounds and at 4000 feet. “Okay, guys, listen. If the engine temperature passes the red line, we will do as the spelled out in the checklist and reduce No 2 Nf to 98%. We will fly with the torque split and I will call for torque to be matched on finals approach to land. However, if reducing the No 2 Nf does not stop the temperature rise, I will call for No 2 engine shutdown, and we will return to Keningau. We will use the fuel from No 2 engine’s aft fuel tank to feed No 1 engine to extend the endurance while flying at 70 knots. It may happen, it may not. But we must be ready for it.”

“Roger sir!!” came Sgt Dzul’s cheery reply. Farhan reached forward and slowly retarded the No 2 engine’s throttle till the Nf (turbine speed) showed a fluctuating 98%. The No 2 engine oil temperature continued to rise. It was now resting on the red line. I cross checked with Farhan for touchdown time, which was four minutes away. I descended to low level, at 100 feet above ground level and brought the speed back to 70 knots. Long Pasia emerged from the slopes on the right, and I positioned for finals and executed a zero-speed landing on the LP, bringing the Nuri to a gentle touchdown on the concrete pad with minimal collective play, so as to minimise the engine workload and hopefully delay the oil temperature from shooting through the roof. I noticed the temperature fluctuate to 150 degrees and swiftly return to 120 degrees. Thankfully, though, as the troops off-loaded the freight, I watched the needle wane down to 115 degrees. I considered a shutdown at Long Pasia, but decided against it as the temperature had now come under the limits.

Dzul called ready for lift-off and we returned to Keningau airfield and landed at 1130H without further incident except for the temperature stubbornly remaining at 115 degrees Celsius.

Sgt Juliyanti, the groundcrew supervisor and engine expert, checked the engine post-shutdown and found that the oil filter was clogged with non-metallic particulate matter. That explained a lot. Insufficient oil in circulation to function as both lubricant and cooling liquid due to clogging would raise the temp a bit now, wouldn’t it? Well, the good news was that since it wasn’t metallic particles, it meant that the engine wasn’t fragmenting on itself and clogging the filter. The likelihood was that packing and seals had disintegrated and clogged the filter, and the rest, was aeronautical engineering.

Under the afternoon blaze, Juliyanti and her men worked hard at rectifying the fault. Borrowing Sgt Ishak's moped, the filter was taken to Ah Chong’s motorcycle shop and air blasted. All the engine oil was drained and fresh engine oil was filled into the 2.5 US gallon engine oil tank. At 1530H, M2333 was ready for the flight test and we hovered for 30 minutes at 1000 feet above sea level and all was fine. Well, it was a hover at 40 feet above Keningau airfield, seeing that the airfield was more than 960 feet high on the altimeter. We flew around for 15 minutes and saw that the temperature was rock steady at 90 degrees, ten degrees cooler than No 1 engine. Alright!!!! We shutdown at a quarter past four, but closed shop for the day as the interior weather was building up and it was no longer favourable to fly into Long Pasia to finish of the last sortie that evening. We would have one more night in Keningau and finish the job the next morning.

I returned to the hotel room, had a hot shower and went down to the hairdresser-cum-reflexologist to get a good head and shoulder rubdown to wash the image of a redlining engine oil temperature gauge out of my head.

20 June 09. We had breakfast in the customary way with the army boys in Sri Keningau. The weather again proved to be brilliant and clear, so we aimed to be in the airfield by 0900H. The groundcrew dragged the Nuri’s jammies off and set to the pre-flight inspection. All was not well. The main gearbox servicing platform, which functioned like a drawbridge so that the crewman could check the main gearbox for leaks upon engine start, could not be locked as the locking mechanism had broken. I checked the thumb-latch button and saw that it had broken off and rendered the platform handle free to turn and thereby make it quite possible for the platform to open up in flight..

Phone calls on a Saturday morning to the engineering officer took several attempts before I was entertained. I voiced my apprehension over the platform, as a platform coming undone in flight could be fatal. It would be carried by the airstream, hit the main rotor blades, ricochet to the tail rotor blades, and render the entire rotating masses uncontrollable. This was how the Super Puma that was supposed to carry Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from Kangar crashed in Kepala Batas on 31 December 1993, killing her four-member crew when its gearbox cowling detached and struck both the blade systems in flight.

My engineering officer had grim news. The only remaining aircraft was the SAR aircraft. It had some technical problems reported by the day’s SAR crew that made it impossible to rotor engage because of the No 2 engine’s overshooting turbine temperature, and a main rotor head spindle leak which could not be rectified unless declared unserviceable and rectified by the overhaul contractor, AIROD. Good heavens, why didn’t this get done? Because the management did not want to declare the SAR aircraft unserviceable. Hmmm. Familiar isn't it? This was supposed to be the aircraft on national search and rescue!!! And now nobody could fly to Keningau to recover me with a spare platform.

The McGyver team decided to wire-lock the secondary latch in place to prevent the handle from turning under vibration and air turbulence in flight, and permit the aircraft to be airworthy. I shook my head in dismay. I have such good comrades in the squadron. And they now want me to fly to Long Pasia with a wire-locked main gearbox platform, return to Keningau and then fly back under the same conditions to Labuan. Yes, from the engineers’ point of view it should hold, but I was not feeling encouraged to carry out 3 sorties this way. And if the worst happened and we went down, we would not be able to transmit MAYDAY because we had no HF and we had that wall of Tenom's mountain range to attenuate the VHF.

I dealt with the ground troops and asked for the last 500 pounds of freight to Long Pasia to be sent by land route. It would take 6 hours compared to our 40 minutes, but the exposure of the aircraft and the crew to questionable conditions of flight safety would be reduced by 70%. The army quartermaster was less than enchanted, but his staff officer at Brigade Headquarters in Lok Kawi did empathise and allow my suggestion to supercede the requested sortie to Long Pasia in this precarious situation.

All through the flight from Keningau to Labuan, my crewman checked the platform, peering through the cabin windows. Yes, it remained secure and did not pop off in flight, even in the turbulence when passing through Tenom valley’s gap.

Half-past twelve, we touched down at Labuan. I taxied in and shutdown wordlessly except for the shutdown checklist patter. I was exhausted. Not so much from the flying itself, but from one snag following another and another after that. A little defeated, for the op taking a course other than the way I would have had it run. I wondered too, if this was the Nuri trying to say something to me, to hint, to let me in on something I could not see. Would she behave so badly one day that the boss would allow us to snag her on the basis of no comms in the interior? Whatever the argument may have been, I was not at the point of expending any form of energy on these thoughts.

Okay. She wins this one.

Twixt The Devil.....

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Saturday morning, 6 June 09. Dawn came cheerfully, the sky coral pink too short a while before giving way to a brilliant blue.

I walked from the hangar, across the parking bay and stood on the grass adjacent to the taxiway and looked toward the north, the direction I would take to Station Lima, or Swallow's Reef, some 120 nautical miles away.

Young Capt Farhan met me as I walked back to the hangar to brief me on the expected en-route weather. All was good, and it was looking like a fair day ahead. There were 7 Royal Military College Boys' Wing instructors, including the Commandant, waiting to be picked up from Station Lima to return to Labuan. The Commandant brokered the aircraft deal as he did not want to come back on a ship, as it would take several hours and lots of pitching and rolling over the sea. I was bemused because the Commandant was a navy Captain. Maybe he had been on shore for too long. Of course, given the choice between an aircraft doing 120 nautical miles per hour and a patrol craft that could never exceed 30, I would love to be a passenger on board a Nuri.

The climb to 3000 feet on the runway heading of 324 degrees brought the Labuan coastline scrolling swiftly beneath and past our feet, giving way to a serene sea, the Nuri creasing the diaphanous cotton cloud tops just below the cockpit windows. The temperature remained as cool as if air-conditioning was turned on. Which the Nuri has not, no matter how many big 'fans' are on the fuselage.

Farhan made most of the VHF radio calls till we were at the Labuan Zone Boundary with the Semarang oil rigs in sight. At this point Labuan tower called us. "Harimau 02, contact Kinabalu HF 6.825." Farhan and I stared at each other, quite unsure as to what to say. We knew before take-off that the aircraft had no HF. It was supposed to be restricted to base for training on that account, unsuitable for tasks as it would not be able to operate under Kinabalu's HF net. However, we were so ordered to fly on account that the Commandant was chummy with the powers that be both in No 2 Air Division and the base and her squadrons. I had taken it on ready to turn back if the situation led to the predictable loss of comms. Or I hoped to remain under VHF all the way to the Spratlys and back. A fool's hope.

"Harimau 02, we have some problems with our HF, request alternate frequencies."
"Harimau 02, contact Kinabalu 133.3."
But none of the frequencies, this and others we tried, under Kinabalu's control yielded any result that Saturday morning. We were gradually creeping past 30 miles outbound with no contact with anyone. We were even out of range from Labuan tower and approach.

"What do you think, guys?" I asked.

Sergeant Suhaidi, my crewman, stood between our seats, gazing at the radio boxes which sat obstinate upon the pedestal console. My eyes were on the Doppler-GPS, noting that another 1 hour and 15 minutes lay ahead before touchdown at Station Lima. I knew what I had to do. I knew that in all likelihood, nothing would go wrong with the aircraft. It would get to Station Lima and back. But if anything did happen, even right now at the 30 mile mark, whom could we tell?

Farhan looked cool still, under the smoked anti-glare visor. "Not good to continue sir."

Suhaidi nodded. Pa-rum-pum pum pum.

I turned back to Labuan, and on finals to land at the intersection, I noticed that the Search-and-Rescue aircraft had started-up, rotor engaged and requesting taxy to Bongawan under the training callsign, Harimau 06, that of Capt Hasto.

"You guys know anything about this?" I asked. Apparently, the boss had a game of golf in Bongawan. Wow. This was true weilding of power. Not the boss's power, but the power of golf across the board, that anyone who so intended could wangle an aircraft on nation search-and-rescue standby to make good the tee-off and nobody in higher authority would stop it. Let that be incentive for anyone wanting to become a golfer. I, for my part will never become a golfer for I do not want to create a golf-widow. Unless I become a widower myself. Even then, I would rather cycle a hundred kilometres instead.

Shutdown and the post-training flight report were all uneventful.

Till I got that phone call from No 2 Division, Pusat Operasi Udara.

"Tuan, from POU and your boss, you must fly to Station Lima anyhow. Any questions call your boss."

I called my boss, hoping that he would not even suggest flying against air traffic procedures without comms.
"Hah, Jeffrey, why did you come back?"

"At 30 miles out, I lost all comms with everyone sir."

"What about V?"

"NO comms on VHF either sir. All frequencies were tried and failed."

His tone changed. "Oh.....they misinformed me. They said you turned back just because you didn't have HF."
"Wouldn't have turned back without exhausting all means, sir."

"Okay. Work out for some other aircraft to do the job."

"Could I borrow the HF from the SAR aircraft sir, just for the sortie?"

"No, that would render the SAR aircraft unserviceable." But it can be used to arrive Hollywood style for my tee-off. "See if Kuching's 09 can help out."

Which was what came to pass.

I stood down that day.

In my mind, it would not have been the responsible thing to do, to undertake a flight, knowingly with complete communications failure, starting from 30 miles out of Labuan, go radio silent for another 90 nautical miles and fly back another 90 before getting into radio range of Labuan. That's too long to be unmonitored. Out at sea, an emergency warranting a "land immediately" response would mean ditching and the imminent loss of an aircraft in the water. Over land, the aircraft would be in contact with terra firma. Then subsequent attempts to contact base or headquarters would incur wrath, embarassment or recovery cost but the aircraft would be safe. And, this was not an operations flight. It was merely training, where risk was not warranted in the least.

Besides, I can't swim. And I didn't want to test the buoyancy of the Mae-West further than 50 yards from shore.

The aircraft should never have left the base to fly over the deep blue sea.

But I am a soldier first, till I trade my olive greens for the white shirt and gold bars of civillian flying. I took it out with my crew, so that I could with clear conscience return and report that it could not communicate when out of sight and range of Labuan.

I thought of Sergeant Suhaidi. He, in all likelihood had his homely spouse waiting for him to parlay the truce between his children at day's end. Capt Farhan probably had sweet young things in every town the Nuri night-stopped at, and he too, had a right to someone to return to and with whom to share his triumphs and woes, safe and sound.

I guess nobody here has learned from Air France Flight 447. Departure was made with known systems failure. More ensued. Aircrew taking on too many systems failures leads to workload beyond their personal limits. Then the next failure will be aircrew failure.

All this because some seaman didn't want a boat-ride to Labuan.

I sympathise.

1 Labuan

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I have been relieved of my appointment as the Executive Officer of No 5 Squadron effective 11 May 09.

Understand that in its military sense. We never say that you are fired. We never say that you are sacked, as that has its own meaning when it comes to war.

We say 'You are relieved of your duties.'

Indeed I am relieved. I know not the real cause which led to my dismissal. I have served as the EXO for a year now. I have been in constant trouble with the boss, but who isn't? The fact is, I have been relieved of my duty!! Phew!!

It does appear that the turmoil in Perak has indeed affected Malaysians outside the Silver State, in that everyone else now has to treat everyone else unceremoniously. I was informed by a Warrant Officer who attended the squadron morning brief, when the boss announced the new line-up. I have not been told directly, to date. At that time, I was in the flight-line office, waiting to take over a Nuri in running change from the incumbent, Major Ah Beng. He had taxied in from the runway and signalled a thumbs-up for me to take over his seat. I jogged to the Nuri and waited in the cabin patiently as he unstrapped. He bent towards me to brief me above the cabin noise, on the aircraft behaviour for the day, but I cut him off with "Good morning sir, you are the EXO!" Even with his bonedome on, I could 'see' Beng's brow furrow in horror as he brought his hands forward to vehemently wave rejection and his head shaking in denial. Then he began slapping his protected forhehead.

I somehow knew that these were the responses that the heralding of such jubilant news would evoke. He screamed above the din of twin turbine engines and the transmission system, "Haiyia!!!" Ground-breaking news, requiring reflection and further thought into its ramifications, especially for poor Beng. But I could not remain in the cabin and give him solace as this was a running change sortie to ferry goods and the advanced party to Pulau Tiga, where they would be setting up camp for our annual Jungle and Sea Survival and Dinghy Drill. I patted his shoulder and took over his seat to fly with a much lighter heart on a beautiful sea route to Pulau Tiga, the Survivor Island.

I mused in flight how my future radio calls would sound: "Harimau 04, request taxy for Pulau Tiga, POB 15, endurance 0230, transponder code 5051."

That didn't sound too shabby.

When I returned an hour later from Pulau Tiga, the gestures of empathy from my mates really moved me. Even the shrewd Capt Mages told me not to feel disheartened. Was something wrong with my face? Did I look crestfallen? Was it sorrow that showed on my countenance or fear that was already brewing in me as I contemplated the dinghy drill I was to endure the following day? I know for a fact it could not have possibly been sorrow.

I was feeling the way I used to feel as an officer cadet under infantry training when the instructors would tell me, "Officer Cadet Jeffrey Matisa, you are no longer the Platoon Commander. Officer Cadet Fikri, you are the Platoon Commander for the next phase of the battle. Do your handing over brief." Following which I would whisper to whomever, "Good luck, you poor sod," as I handed him the armband of the Platoon Commander and hurriedly took my place in the ranks as a common rifleman, chin up, eyes forward and heart singing silently in unbridled joy.

Pulau Tiga lay sleeping 6 nautical miles off the coast from Kuala Penyu. I was a passenger on the second sortie carrying the remainder of the squadron's aircrew to the 'survival camp' on Tuesday morning. The just-promoted Major Ian flew us in, kicking up a mist of fine sand at the landing point on a strip of beach near the jetty. Then as we waddled through the sand to the camping grounds, Ian took off and returned for his trademark fly-by before setting course to Labuan.

As I walked I noticed the 10-man dinghy bobbing 50 yards out at sea. The squadron boys were in it already, cheering others on to make the ungainly boarding onto the dinghy. To someone with morbid fear of the waters as I, it may as well have been 50 miles. I approached our new squadron member, Major Rashidi. He was seated on the gazebo's bench, soaked through his tees and shorts. I asked him, "What's this? Dinghy drill on your own time?" He nodded. Phew. A reduction in the terror index, I thought. I could wade out to the dinghy if that were possible. I looked around and could not immediately find a Mae West. Another reduction in the terror index, because to me, dinghy drill delayed could lead to dinghy drill denied. Hooray!!!

Mae West? That's what we call our life-saving jacket. Upon inflation, the balooned lobes resembled Miss West's famous mammaries, though I see no resemblance between the day-glo lobe skin and anything you may find on her chest. Well, I am not in the know, so I cannot bear testimony to any of her intimate secrets. All I know is that when near open waters, I need my Mae West.

I trudged down the water line to face the dinghy, to rehearse in my mind how I would get out to the crowd of airmen perched on its rim, who were watching me expectantly to make a brave dash for it sans the life jacket. I walked into the water to my courage limit, ie my navel. There was applause for a second or two, which died as instantly as my steps halted. Then they turned to cheer Capt Tarmizi on. He was in the water, on his back, held up by his Mae West, rowing hard to reach the dinghy. In seconds, he was being hauled in. Hmmm. That didn't look insurmountable. I turned to face the camp grounds and saw Capt Mustaqim offering me his Mae West, having done as much snorkeling as he could for the morning. I struggled to button up the jacket, the difficulty being its inflated state. Then I blew through the air valve just to make sure that it was at full capacity, the lobe skins as tight as a drum. I took a deep breath and began wading in towards the dinghy.

However, Pulau Tiga was not Membedai beach at Labuan. There, you could walk out a hundred yards and still be just chest-deep in the sea. I had not gone out 20 feet when I felt my toes lift off the bed, and panic made me turn swiftly around and breast stroke for the beach. When my kicks met sand again, I stood up and faced the sea. I knew I could not outlast the alloted time for the dinghy drill and just wait for the guys to get tired of me and paddle back to shore. I shut my eyes, and mustered my will to trust my Mae West and get this deed done. I recalled my initial survival training in 1987, 3 miles off the coast of Lumut, when I jumped from 40 feet above the sea out of a Nuri, formed the survival circle with my other buoyant mates and was winched up 15 minutes later by the same chopper. Well, wasn't that worse now? Come on!! This one is peanuts by comparison! Yes, but one can drown in a bucket of water....how age heightens one's sense of mortality, huh?

I began to march out to sea again. When I felt the lift-off, I refused to hunt for the sea bed with my toes and concentrated on the breast stroke towards the dinghy, which suddenly looked even further away when my eyes were above the water level than when I was standing feet dry on the beach. But it was not. I was not more than 5 minutes paddling like a pug when I reached for the life-lines around the rim of the dinghy, got hauled in and sommersaulted into it with a loud sigh of relief. Done!! Now to paddle my way back to shore!!

I headed for the gazebo and browsed through the food trays laid out on the table. There were slices of watermelon, which would wash off the dehydrating taste of salt on my tongue. As I ate, the guys had already paddled the dinghy to the beach and moored it to a shrub. Capt Shawal, our engineering officer who was the exercise coordinator caught my eye and motioned with his hand in the direction of the forest. "Tuan, let's go to the volcano mud. It should be good, tuan." I was still in my wet flying suit as I hesitantly walked with the guys toward the direction of the jungle track and then halted in short-term memory scan. I had a pair of shorts in my backpack. I rushed back to the gazebo and changed into my shorts, By the time I headed toward the jungle track, the guys were long gone.

The walk was 1200 metres into the jungle. I was barefoot and clad only in shorts. I lost all fascination for reflexology within the first 100 metres as the roots and twigs provided their own brand of therapy from the forest floor. Deeper into the track I began profanity as brambles pierced my soles and the mud under my feet bore stains of red. Which sod advised me not to wear slippers in caution against slipping over mud on my return leg?? I kept looking forward, eyes peeled for my greatest enemy in the forest: spiders. Yes, the kind which had a leg span to cover your face like the xenomorph in Alien. Whenever I noticed a tree in the way of the track, I took a few seconds to see if a web stretched across the path of least resistance. Hey, didn't the chaps pass this way earlier? Okay, the path was clear. I marched on. At the 900 metre mark, I could hear loud voices, diabolical laughter and simian howls. I was almost in their company.

The ascending jungle track took a left turn and there they were, the colour of a herd of water-buffalo but the behaviour of a barrel of monkeys. If there were dried grass lying around, this could have been a scene from The Ten Commandments. When they saw me approach the mud pit, they said. "EXO dah sampai dah!" I growled back in good humour,"I am not your EXO lah!" They laughed. My eyes began to hunt for a spot from which to step into the pool of mud. I heard Capt Haniff's voice say, "Hah! Terjun!!!"

"No need to terjun lah. I just want to step in a few minutes...." I retorted and promptly missed my footing at the slippery pool's edge.

GLOB!!!KERPLUNK!! was all I heard as I fell like a boulder into the mud, submerged over my head in its gooey mass. I instinctively began to paddle, coming up for air. Mud had gotten into my eyes, and it stung worse than salt water. I could hear the laughter all around me. I bore them no grudge, but the sting was foremost on my mind and I couldn't even laugh at myself though I was certain that I resembled a wild boar falling into a pit trap. I struggled to reach the edge of the pit to gain a handhold and catch my breath. The edge came away in my hands in frustrating fistsfull of clay. The laughter continued unabated.

I summoned Capt Mages and Sergeant Kali into a sacred pact, right there in the mud pit. "Please, make a deal with your gods for me. Tell them never to send me back reincarnated as a water-buffalo. I don't think I want to feel this way to the day I get slaughtered."

But the moments of slience from these two told me that another joke had been wasted. "Don't worry sir, it's only four feet deep," Mages tried to reassure me. I was skeptical. Why can't I feel the bottom of the pool then? I queried, as my physical struggle clouded my sense of logic. "Yes lah sir, you are floating in mud. You will never feel the bottom of the pit." Okay, that made sense. I made a squatting motion and found that I could float in a seated position in the mud. However, my composure in any liquid was easily worn, and I began to roll onto my back, eliciting the reflexed floundering like a distraught mud skipper in the mangrove. My curiosity over volcanic mud was by now fully sated and I looked for a way out of the pit. I found a protruding root and hoisted myself up, then was aided by a slimy Flight Sergeant Suhaimy. I recognised him only by his 5 foot 11 frame. As I stood up, Sergeant Kali said. "Tuan, you look like pre-dater!" Hmmm? I replied. "Commando!" Capt Haniff tried to jog my memory. OH!! Predator! Arnold Schwarzenegger! Haha! Funny!!! I looked down onto my rotund self and wondered what on earth aroused this recall. I am no Arnold. Oh yes, I get it. I was the only muddied one still wearing my dog-tags. Predator indeed.

Capt Tarmizi had also slipped out of the pool of mud made grimy from bits of twig and leaves that had fallen from the jungle canopy to enrich its elixir. We walked back amidst my cursing the brambles. He too, complained that mud had stung his eyes. Yes, we would wash our eyes out in the sea!

After washing off in the sea, I sat in the gazebo to drip dry. I exhibited dark skin in three bands on my body: ankle to thigh, wrist to tricep and above the neck. To my squadron mates who were used to seeing me in flying suit and asking whyfore, I just answered, "Cycling."

Lunch followed. At 1425H the blot of the Nuri against the pale blue sky appeared without warning and we hurried to the spot of beach that was our LP for the past 2 days. The boss took over the controls from Capt PeeJay, who got off to experience a night-stop and 'survival' with the bachelors who remained on the island resort. Not to be outdone by young Maj Ian, the boss manoeuvred the Nuri into a fly-by over the camp grounds before setting course for Labuan, skimming the sea at 30 feet above the water. Hmmm. I remember doing this in Acheh and drawing the French Armee De La Aire Pumas down from 500 feet on the coastal routes we plied back then. Oh, sweet nostalgia.

Back at home, balmed by dear Brenda's consoling fish head curry, I arrived at an unshakeable conclusion. This entire affair, the lifestyle, the reshuffle and all that squadron life entails was getting to be as sordid as they were irrelevant especially when the movers and the shakers were themsleves incorrigibly abominable. Ever more so when the leadership makes known the protracted plan to press the fatigued Nuri into extended service well into the year 2025. If any kid says to me "I wanna be a Nuri pilot, uncle!", I know what I will say to him.

"Sonny, you know what?? I think when you come of age, you can!"