30 May 2003.
It was a Friday morning in Kuantan air force base, and I was up early to carry out the ground run on the SAR aircraft. My routine back then was anytime I was the SAR Detachment Commander, I would do an airborne check every Friday before handing over the duty and the aircraft to the next Detachment Commander.
This morning, though, I was nagged by a discrepancy I noted on the Automatic Stabilising Equipment (ASE) check. In simple English, it looked like something was wrong with the pedal stabilising circuitry. This meant that if I took to the air, and encountered turbulence or other destabilising elements, the pedals would start to kick, causing the Nuri to start random yawing. All of us helicopter pilots hate it when we lose directional control. In all other emergencies, engine failures, servo hardovers and pressure failures, for as long as we can keep the aircraft straight, we know we can bring the lady down for a landing. But should she start spinning, it becomes in all likelihood, the Last Waltz.
I called my flight commander and reported the situation to him, stating my intention to snag the aircraft. Now, snagging the Kuantan SAR aircraft was a touchy matter. Squadron executives who don't want to rock the boat, who want to look good to superior commanders, who struggle to make it appear that all things are fine, do not see the snagging of the SAR aircraft as a desirable thing. I was told that I shall NOT snag the aircraft. Seeing that the ground crew on detachment did not have the stabilising equipment specialist, a Blackhawk was placed on a navigation sortie to ferry the chap over. So I left the aircraft documents open and waited.
The Blackhawk was in Kuantan in an hour, and dropped off the technician, Cpl Wahab, who looked like he was out on a first date, all clueless grins, body tense with bracing for the unknown but with his toolbag clutched behind his back instead of a dozen red roses. I learned after the fact, that he had never rectified the Automatic Stabilising Equipment in his life. However, the ground crew supervisor was suddenly inspired to elevate this corporal's proficiency by allowing him ASE rectification experience. Yes, nothing inspires my confidence like a newbie fiddling around with pedal controls on my watch.
At the estimated readiness time, I authorised the airborne check in the record sheet and strolled out to the aircraft. The PASKHAUs (air force commandos comprising the Combat Air Rescue Team) followed me out, as they always liked getting on board for a ride whenever there was an airborne check being conducted. The good corporal was just tidying up, and the rest of the ground crew were carrying out the loose-article and preflight checks. Soon, we were ready and I whispered to myself, 'Here goes nothing.'
No 1 engine was started , the main gearbox accessories were running well, and the generators were switched on. I checked the ASE again. The pedal check still showed the discrepancy of being out of limit. Hmmm. I called Cpl Wahab to take a look at the ASE indicators which were clearly showing that the pedal index was out of limit. He shrugged, scratched his head, rubbed his chin and fiddled at the servo controls again. Then I ran the check once more. The pedal check index showed itself to be within limit, but just very arguably so.
No 2 engine was started. Rotor engagement went smoothly, no pun there. My copilot, Lt Hissyam Paimon made the radio call for lift off, while my crewman, Sgt Raden monitored the undercarriage for lift-off patter and I gently raised the collective. I noticed that the aircraft was showing poor response to my right pedal input to keep the heading straight as compensation to the greater torque reaction to the increased collective settings.
Could I have so lost my touch on one week's standby and no flying in Kuantan that I couldn't raise the aircraft to a straight and steady hover now??? As the collective was raised further, I was listening to the crewman's patter, "Up 3, up 2, light on wheels, up 1....." The aircraft continued to show left yaw tendencies. Then we broke ground contact, and the left yaw refused to be corrected by right pedal input. I knew at once that I could not bring the aircraft down, because without heading control, once the undercarriage touched down, a spinning aircraft would topple, with the rotor blades striking the ground first. Once all the blades were snapped off, then the whole aircraft would rotate on the main rotor shaft like a green beached whale threshing on its head in the throes of agony. I also knew we were too close to the Air Movements buidling, and that striking the building was imminent. I raised the collective higher, and this time the uncontrolled yaw became violent. I noticed the ground crew running for cover into the building.
I do not know how I did what I did next, but all I know is that I did it. I manage to raise the aircraft, still in carouselle motion, away from the Air Movements and draw her out to the runway as I held her up at about eighty feet, the world spinning around me. I looked at the compass rose change heading like a record on a turntable, and thought to myself, "Hey, we're not dead. And surely I can't be twirling here till I run out of fuel. We can tackle this. We have the opportunity!!!" I was suddenly overcome with "battle-lust", and wanted to see what I could do to bust this bucking bronco of a Nuri.
First, I disengaged the ASE, hoping that when power was no longer supplied to this over-correcting left pedal all would be well. The spinning went on. I concluded that the pedal now must be in hardover. Only one thing to do...I switched off the auxiliary servo pressure. The aircraft snapped into steady heading lock, as if nothing had gone wrong for the past several minutes. Then I realised that the internal ambience in the cockpit and cabin was one of pin-drop silence. Now I was miffed. All this time my crew was on a terror ride, and the idle air traffic controllers said nothing, not so much as a "Rescue 02, confirm simulating an emergency?" I called in myself, as I could read that Hissyam was too petrified to speak. "Rescue 02 request air taxy to SAR helipad." Rescue 02 clear taxy SAR helipad came the nonchalant reply.
Were those guys with me at all????
I air taxied back, the adrenalin surge making the struggle against the controls in servo-off mode a piece of cake. I got the crewman to patter me so that my 3-point landing was dead on the 3 yellow rectangles for the undercarriage and finally, called for the shutdown checks. Lt Hissyam's readout of the shutdown checks suddenly seemed loud, fluent and very fast. Poor sod, he must have had quite a fright. I held a deadpan face and voicetone response, but I was grinning in sympathy and affection at his manifestation of post-traumatic distress. After the shutdown was complete, I unstrapped and clambered out of the cockpit, and the first sight to greet me was that of a cabin full of commandos with post-roller-coaster ride vacuous grins which said, "That was scary fun....what the hell was it? Didn't feel like an autorotation to me!!" Of course, being in the cabin, they could not have had a clue as to what was happening. I can imagine that they, as I sometimes had at the hands of idiot aircraft captains during my copilot days, witnessed their entire lives flashing before their eyes moments before supposed death.
Sgt Raden and I walked around the aircraft for the post flight check as Lt Hissyam sat regaining his composure, still buckled in his seat.
"How many revolutions per second was that thing just now, Raden?" I asked. "One? Two?"
"No sir. Five," came Raden's grimly succinct reply.
I called my squadron commander immediately and related the entire episode from the early morning ground run to the tail rotor control failure I had just experienced. "Sir, now may I snag the aircraft?" Lt Col Razak gave his consent, but advised that I should not precede the snag with a Special Occurence Report, as it bore the posibility of turning around to bite me.
I had just been penalised by his junior flight commanders a few weeks earlier for an honest confession to practising an emergency and consequently running over a runway edge light. In a posterior-covering defensive manoeuvre, my flight commander had me locally investigated for practising an unauthorised emergency.
Whilst my boss was annoyed that I didn't confess to him first so that he could clamp down on asinine repercussions, his executive proceeded to file a Special Occurence Report on me which led to allegations of blatant disregard for orders. However, everything in print showed that as a C category aircraft captain, I could disengage the auxiliary servos in simulation of an emergency, and I was cleared to practice emergencies during training sorties. I could not be legally pinned down.
The SOR process, upon reaching the Air Divisional Commander, ended with a stalemate whereby he penned it down to an incident caused by aircrew factor and that I needed guidance and supervision. This was an acquital that left the stains of bad blood between my squadron executive and I, with a squadron commander who did not vindicate their ill intent. Ah, squadron politics! I was ever more a threat because of my service seniority, the boss's remarks on my categorisation form that I should attempt a B cat next, and now I had insulted them by NOT getting punished by Air Division Command in spite of an SOR being raised on the incident of running over a runway edge light whilst practising a tail rotor control failure. My progress was to be held back for many years by my squadron over this.
In light of these undercurrents, my boss advised against raising an SOR over the tail rotor control failure in Kuantan.
After my conversation with my boss, and snagging the aircraft, I called Brenda. I knew that I owed her the truth about this incident. She was surprisingly calm. I reassured her that all was well. When I was asked if I was afraid, I confessed, to my surprise, "No!"
If anything, my confidence in the machine I flew had taken a ballistic leap. I knew now that I could trust her completely. All I had to do was to listen to her, and try to understand what she was saying to me, so that I could avoid trouble and ride on longevity. This, of course, would place demands on all of my husbandly skills, and I had hoped that after surviving 11 years of married life at the time, I could press them into service when deciphering symptoms of an impending systems failure on the Nuri.
I still do not know how I got the spinning Nuri up and clear away from the Air Movements building adjacent to the SAR helipad. Maybe we helicopter pilots just fly that way; when under duress we do not think of how to execute control inputs to effect movement, we just keep the aircraft moving in the direction we want, and our hands and feet move as necessary to keep the aircraft on the path that we intend. Maybe that is it, because if I were to consider the kind of control inputs to effect such a manoeuvre on a spinning aircraft, it would mean that I would have had to keep altering the cyclic input as the aircaft spun just as long as my position, nearest to the axis of rotation under the main rotor shaft, traced an escape path away from the infrastructure and onto the middle of the runway. Is that what happenned? I know not. It all happenned too fast for chamber deliberation at the time or autobiographical recall after its passing. But yes, it was scary and thrilling all at once.
And yes, it got away. And it was actually that big.
In the final analysis, as I 'examine my briefs', I find my sense of mortality still quiveringly intact. I will not fool with this woman, the Nuri.