It was Monday the 13th. Ian and I were the only 2 aircraft captains left holding the fort for standby and ops purposes. We had agreed, the week before, with Capt Paranjothi (Capt PJ was his nama glamour) that he would take over the Tawau detachment and I would relieve him this week so that he could go off for his simulator course coming up at the end of the week, and Ian and I could still have Good Friday and Easter at home. Win-win. Doc Oc would have been proud of our juggling skills.
As I drove past the Tiara Beach Resort, I scanned the Tenom valley gap. The mists were rising, immediately making me doubt my chances of crossing over in a Nuri. I say it again, I hate climbing to high altitudes and not be in sight of ground in case of an emergency and an immediate landing became imperative. Good thing was, I had pre-arranged to be on board a logistics run to Tawau so such an iffy situation could be obviated. Then again, if everything had gone so well, would this blogpost exist? Brace yourself. This is going to be a long one.
This was the Easter season, and it was also the season of betrayals for me. The haphazard helicopter simulator scheduling pulled all the squadrons into aircrew depletion. My wayward squadron buddy, Maj Leong chose this of all times to see his family in KL, as he had not been back in weeks, living under self-induced exile in Labuan. The Malays have a joke about this situation: that his ears runneth over. Of course he had to go.
No Operations Programming Officer would dare place the boss on SAR standby. So with the last men standing to hold the fort both being Catholics, we could find nobody to step in to see to it that our religious obligations could be attended to in the same fashion it gets done when the tables are turned. I am sure God had a message in this, for me at least—whether He spoke to someone like Ian is speculative—but the content of this supposed message has yet to dawn on me.
The centurion who nailed me in was the Ops Dept Head in No 2 Div. When the CN235 I was supposed to board went unserviceable, he assigned a C-130 to continue its logistics task but refused to allow it to divert to Tawau for the changeover. Div called me to recommend a training sortie. The usual case of armchair commanders who rise in rank in office and forget the real-world contentions of weather and manpower constraints were beginning to rule in Division, and Lt Col Dimwitted was both typifying of as well as a prime candidate for that breed of commander. So now I had to fly.
Besides my crew, a straggling admin clerk, Airman Naim, wanted to gain “air experience”, so I admitted him as a last-minute addition. I noticed that he had not brought a night-stop kit. I hmmmmed at this, but anyone boarding a Nuri should know better than to leave home without the night-stop kit.
Take–off was at 0900H. I kept the conversation going with my crew, as I assessed the clouds over the gap barring my way. Overhead Weston, the closest town to the gap, which also lay on the zone boundary, I dove below cloud in an attempt to sneak under the cloud base and over the gap, but I looked in the direction of the Tenom valley and saw that it was well and truly blocked. I looked above through the spinning rotor blades and saw that the sky above was blue. Or at least, somewhat blue. So climb I did, above cloud top and cruised at 4000 feet. I asked my copilot, Capt Haniff, to dead reckon the Tenom valley gap. He pointed it out as the heap of cloud reaching 5000 feet at our ten o’clock position. Below and ahead, the bane of Tenom valley lay spread in the form of thick, unforgiving carpet cloud spanning our view from North to South, and Eastward to infinity.
I weighed my options. I knew that if I got to Keningau, I could do an IFR (I Follow Road/River/Railway---the helicopter’s interpretation of Instrument Flight Rules) route from Keningau, via Sepulot to Tawau. I had tested the route before in low cloud, and it was viable. I had a trace of a nagging doubt because this day’s cloud cover did look menacing, but I had Capt PJ to consider. I spied a tear in the cloud cover and warning the crew, did an autorotative descent into its fissure. We broke cloud and found that we were abeam Kuala Tomani, and turned to 040 heading Keningau. Once having the town visually indentified, I called out for the heading to Sepulot. But the range ahead with its crest still in cloud decided the inevitable for us; that we had to stop at Keningau to let the bad weather pass.
On ground Keningau, I contacted PJ, telling him of the weather conditions. A glance at the fuel gauges showed 2200 pounds, sufficient to reach Tawau with minimum landing fuel. PJ would have to top-up for Labuan. At 1200H we got airborne and tracked for Sepulot. We maintained that this would be an IFR route, so we got overhead Nabawan, then went strictly by road to Matikul, the roadside village just before Sepulot. Here, I saw that rainclouds were unusually unyielding. They crawled low over the hill that stood as the gateway to Sepulot, thumbing their noses at my crew to pass them. I told my crew that maybe we should turn back for Keningau. Just as I finished the sentence, a gap in the cloud sneered at us, and the crewman pointed out that the 10 o’clock direction was clear. We punched through and Sepulot lay at 2 o’clock, identified by the large school adjacent to the river which we used for flying along on the way to Bantul. “Sepulot identified, turn heading 115 for Kalabakan, sir,” Haniff called out dutifully so I did. There were streaks of sunlight illuminating the road and we flew on with confidence. Then another thunderstorm stood in our way, even on the I Follow Road method we were depending on. “Men, let’s turn back!” I said, but just as I executed the turn, a path ahead presented itself. Why was I beginning to feel like I was being led on? I told them that this would be my last attempt for Tawau. With fuel gauges reading sufficiency for Tawau, the Point of No Return (PNR) lay an hour away. Beyond that, it would be Tawau or bust.
Once past the storm, opaque shafts of sunlight over the road seemed to glimmer the way to Kalabakan. Once thereat, Tawau would be just a hop, skip and a jump away. Terminal weather for Tawau did say all was fine. So pressing on seemed worth an attempt still.
We were approaching Mount Luis when the sky seemed to consume the road and the range in a pitch-black, impenetrable mass of storm cloud. I thought to myself, that I have to say no this time. “Gentlemen, we abort this attempt. Let’s turn for Keningau.” Sgt Nawab agreed. “Dah cukup lah tuan mencuba."
The way is shut.
I turned around to head back to Sepulot. There was a reassuring glare on the horizon—sunlight. Haniff suggested that we fly back to Labuan. 1400 pounds were on the gauges. That was enough only to get to Keningau. I quizzed him on the distance and the fuel requirements for Labuan, just to elucidate him over my choice of Keningau. He perused the Doppler-GPS and the mileage and then stammered in the negative. “We can’t make it to Labuan sir.”
Looking outside, I saw that we were reaching that same little hill before Matikul, and the rain clouds had now turned black as well. A slither of road was visible, but it ran into that wall of blackness of the storm. I asked the crew, “Wanna try?” Nobody said anything as they were also appraising the weather. As we drew closer to the hill, I expected to see more of the road. But no, where it ended 2 miles ago was exactly where it ended 2 miles closer. There was no way I could fly through that storm as I could not see the road below us.
I conceded defeat. I turned back to Sepulot and set up to land at the school, which looked pretty civilised from the air.
2: There Is Quiet In The Valley
Shutdown was uneventful and the fuel gauges read 1300 pounds. We had just one chance out and no turnback option. Knowing that Sepulot had not a single service provider's cellular coverage, I asked Haniff to find out if there was any telephone line in the school which we could use to contact No 2 Air Division and the squadron. 3 matters must be relayed: one, that we had landed in Sepulot due to weather and exhausted attempts to reach Tawau. Two, that we had fuel just enough to reach Keningau. We would be airborne as soon as weather cleared, failing which we would night-stop in Sepulot. Three, refueling had to be arranged by Division with the Police in Keningau, where our packed fuel stock was stored. Haniff made Airman Naim tag along. I think Naim had much more to worry about. Sleeping in uniform was as uncomfortable as could be, and this was his only choice. Haniff was doing him a favour by getting him involved in post-shutdown chores. Half an hour later Haniff and Naim turn up with the kind of news I had expected. The school’s phone line was dead. There was supposed to be a line in the library, but nobody knew if it was functional. The last resort was a payphone at the clinic, a hundred yards away.
We trudged downslope to the clinic and made attempts to contact Division, squadron and Capt Ian. The line was bad and kept cutting off. We lay about in the gazebo, watching patients come and go at the clinic, wondering what to do about seeing every one of our efforts thwarted from the start of the day. Suddenly, the payphone rang and we all jumped. Naim scrambled for the receiver which promptly went dead. Over the next few returned calls from the squadron, we learned that the receiver had to be held just so to allow a call to come through. We managed this much: we are in Sepulot due weather. Fuel sufficient to reach Keningau. Will airborne for Keningau or stay in Sepulot. Then the two payphones went dead, apparently from exhaustion.
The rain began to pelt heavier than ever. We watched time pass ever so slowly as we kept our eye on the visibility. School children walked past us eyeballing us sprawled over the gazebo, curious but maintaining their distance in silence. 1600H. The rain dissipated for a minute before descending on the valley with a vengeance. I spoke to the crew. Weather was not on our side, and we had best opt for the night stop and prepare accordingly. We would dress the Nuri in her jammies and have some lunch at the school canteen. The teachers had already told us to order our food there.
Naim was assigned the useful task of looking for a ladder which we needed for reaching the blade tips so that the blade cuffs could be slipped on. This was to tether the blades to the Nuri’s mooring rings in order to limit blade flapping in strong winds. The slow process of donning the aircraft’s night-stop kit in the rain was eventually over and we grouped up in the canteen for lunch. A few teachers stopped by us to ask us if the Nuri was well, and we said yes, she was, but weather prevented us from reaching our destination at Tawau. And by the way, where can we bed down for the night?? A teacher named Joseph said he would work something out. We could see him at his flat once we were done with our 5 o’clock lunch.
3: There Are No Strangers...
It was a bit of a climb to the teachers’ flats on the ridge of the hill. We asked for directions to Joseph’s house and we came to his front door on the second floor. He welcomed us in to a most spartan home. Just 2 tables and 4 chairs. He shared the flat with Melvyn, a Malay language teacher and Larry, a Malay Literature teacher. Joseph taught Geography.
I sought information on the essentials. Yes, there was water. It was gravity fed from the roof into a huge poly vinyl chloride tank from which protruded taps. Baths would be on the kitchen balcony, as the bathrooms had no running water either, and this was all that simple teachers fangled for themselves according to their abilities. Mattresses were on the way. Joseph ended his brief with “Beginilah kedaifan kami.” I told him no, that what he was doing for us was grand. Daif should only be for self-inflicted limitations and weaknesses, not those placed upon you by those who care not for your lot. Or so I thought.
I had my bath, the way I did in Acheh. Bathe with the flying suit on first, then bathe au naturel. Laundry and bath are then settled. The water was so chilly that my fatigue was washed away as well. Then as my flying suit dripped over the balcony, I sat with the gang, clad in pajama pants, and we spoke of many things. We discussed politics, the matter of teaching science and maths in English and the way locals were used to fill up teaching appointments in the school where basic amenities were not taken care of. I mused over this: almost all the school’s West Malaysian teachers lived in Nabawan so that they could make the housing allowance claim of 850 bucks a month. Nabawan was 30 minutes' drive away. Why was it that Nabawan had running water and electricity whilst Sepulot, not being in some inaccessible corner of Timbuctoo, had neither? The highly unstable generator was switched on daily from 1800H to 2359H. As they said this, the lamps and fans sprung to light and life. 1800H. It was the cue for Sgt Nawab and Capt Haniff to get dinner. Naim was already snoring on the mattress.
The inevitable question was asked, almost stealthily. “Are you a Moslem?” I told Joseph, “No. I am a Catholic.”
Melvyn reached under the table and brought out a mineral-water bottle, speckled maroon and white with local rice and whatever else they use for fermentation. “This,” said he, “is our traditional drink. Do you drink?”
“Oh, sure. I am acquainted with your traditional drink. But not my crew. They are Moslem.”
Suddenly there was a loud rapping on the front door. I got up and opened it. There stood two men, one a senior school teacher and another, a policeman. My peripheral vision told me that Melvyn could have been David Copperfield himself, the way his sleight of hand made the tapai disappear to its concealed place under the table.
I shook the teacher’s hand and as I turned to face the policeman, he said cautiously and searchingly, “Major….?”
“I am Major Jeffrey” I said, as I reached forward to shake his hand.
“Oh, tuan,” he said, relief coming over his doubt-riddled face.” Selamat juga ya, tuan? Labuan base operations has been calling and calling. They said, find my pilot. We must know he is safe.” Chairs were suddenly thrust at where the cop and I were standing, and we sat down and chatted amicably for a while, me bare-chested and not bothering to get a t-shirt on, as I explained the conditions that led to the night-stop option. He in turn, related his experience of having met Major Halim “Undercarriage” who once was trapped in bad weather in the Nabawan valley, the cop’s beat station, and had to land in the station’s football field. Undercarriage? Halim had an incident in Gurun, near Perwaja Steel when he was a junior aircraft captain: he was doing low flying over his house when the intermediate gearbox chip detector light illuminated and he landed in a nearby field with the undercarriage still retracted. Hence the unofficial callsign.
The cop got up to leave once he was satisfied that I was truly no worse for the wear. “I will report to Labuan that you are well, sir” he said, and I thanked him for his concern. I closed the door and turned to see that all the teachers looked like they had only just started to breathe. Larry said, “Biasanya kalau polis datang ke rumah mesti salah seorang dari kami diseret ke balai.” Hmmm. So the sight of a cop is never good news to civilians, huh?
"NO way!!” Joseph said defiantly, hands akimbo. “You Nuri guys are under MY protection for as long as you are under MY roof.” We had a good laugh at this new found courage.
Dinner was up next when the captain and the sergeant returned. The teachers politely refused joining in our canteen-cooked dinner, as they were ready to go down to the cook-house where their gatherings from the hillside were being turned into their own favourite fare.
We sat eating sometimes by light and sometimes in darkness as the fluctuations in generator output raised and dipped the level of useable power in the flat. After dinner, I lay on my mattress and read my old copy of Evan’s Cycles like it was Playboy till I felt sleep about to take me and I succumbed.
4: The Return to Keningau
Morning came and the first thing I did was to see if my rosary appeals the night before would be granted. I stood on the balcony and looked toward the hills. There were high-altitude stratus clouds, with patches of blue sky above them. The mist was slowly rising off the treetops. Yes, it looked good. We all lay about on our mattresses, listening to the sounds of ablutions and counting them down to three teachers. We bade them farewell, and thanked them for their exemplary hospitality. All the local boys we met were absolutely good value. I was just sore that I could not text them a thank-you message as they lay in such a communications blind spot.
We loitered as we stacked the mattresses and pillows in a corner, wanting to have a late breakfast to allow the mist to rise above the hilltops. Locking up, we walked down the road to the canteen. I could see many faces peering out the classroom windows at us. The schoolboys just stared. The schoolgirls smiled and called “Good morning Uncle.” I took off my cap and waved back at them. Sweet kids.
Breakfast comprised nyonya cakes at the canteen where we met more teachers who spoke of good Sepulot weather for the day, and wished us well on our journey. As we ate, I briefed my crew on the steps to take upon landing in Keningau. Refueling was a priority. Then it would be to save PJ from Tawau. As the skies began to look increasingly promising, we finished breakfast and walked down to the football field to prep the aircraft for the return to Keningau. I walked around the football field and noticed to my amusement that I was immortalised here. There on one of the culvert covers, was a sweetheart engravement. " Jeffrey love Rosalinda Jeanny Rose". Whoever this Jeffrey was, I hope he was worth Rosalinda's consideration.
When the engine start button was depressed and the turbine came to life, the school corridors began to fill again with teachers and students. A minute or two later, it was almost riotous when the school seemed to spill out towards the edge of the field, cellphone and camera trained onto the Nuri as I lifted off into a hover. I air-taxied portside and astern to get to the middle of the field. Satisfied that the Ts and Ps were good, I rocked the cyclic forward to make the Nuri bow to the crowd. Then I spot turned left to face the valley and eased forward into a climb. Seconds later, we were on the road towards Matikul, Johnson Field and Keningau.
Soon, we gazed upon the beautiful face of Keningau, where clean commodes and good food were the comforting rewards for a hard day's flying. A swig of tapai would not be out of place.
I would not readily volunteer myself for a night-stop in Sepulot. I am used to some creature comforts.
But I know now that I have friends there, good men who serve their country, giving hope of education to the children of the riverbanks, that they may in turn better their lives. My hope is that the courage and trust they showed in saying “Good morning Uncle” will not be lost upon leaving the Sepulot valley.