So I queued up at the latrines for the obvious and then queued up after TNI personnel washing their breakfast items, at the tap at the side of the hangar, to have my bath, out in the open air before the arrival of first light. Then it was a walk to the tent and a change into my flying suit. That was how each day began.
The ministerial party arrived early the next morning on board the RMAF Boeing 737 Business Jet and were transferred to the Blackhawk and the Agusta N1. The limited space on a Blackhawk converted for VIP flights meant that many of the ministers would have to, though much to their pampered dread, board the Nuris for a very long tour of Acheh.
There are many things I will remember of my 26 days in Acheh. The cat that was terrified as it was "treed" up our Nuri's portside undercarriage one misty morning, surrounded by baying dogs thirsty for blood and hungry for fresh kitten meat, just as the ground crew and I were walking out for a pre-flight check. The quiet demeanour of Tun Daim Zainuddin as we took him on a sortie to Meulaboh. Having the esteemed ex Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad as my passenger on a round trip to Meulaboh. Flying to the warehouses in Lokhsemawe port to pay advanced salaries to the navy and army men involved in unloading goods from the KD Mahawangsa for a road trip to bring said goods to the needy in Acheh. Here, I was treated to more kopi Acheh, biasa punya, "standard version", meaning unlaced with narcotics. Other things too, will I remember of the fellowships made, which are different from the bonds of friendship forged under comfort. The good Dr Razak from Mercy Malaysia, who treated me to a sumptuous lunch in a rustic restaurant on the way to town. The offshore power generator ship sitting squat in the middle of town after it was carried in by the tsunami, now turned into a monument of the catastrophe. The French Armee D'La Aire Puma pilots who upon seeing the Malaysians flying 30 feet off sea level bound for Acheh, would descend from the procedural 500 feet and fly in company with us. Not for long, as even those old aircraft were faster than the old lady we call the Nuri, and in a few minutes would cruise past us, unable to hold down to our speed.
I was scheduled to return on 15 Feb 05. I was sad, as usual, to hand over duties to another team of Acheh-newbie pilots and crewmen, concerned over the internal conflicts they would face in the execution of duties in this harsh land. I realised later that they suffered no such conflict, as they did exactly as they pleased in Acheh, even snagging the aircraft in Lamno on a dubious unserviceability to spend a night with their girlfriends. So much for being an ambassador for Malaysia, let alone representing the professionalism of air force helicopter pilots. How depressing to be known amongst the French, the Spaniards, the Pakistanis, the Germans and your countrymen for executing tasks with flair, only to have such opinions eroded by the gross idiocy of those who succeed you by placing self above service.
I was "rewarded" handsomely for the excellence I had shown to all VIPs and foreign nations upon my return to Malaysia. Hardly had I washed my flying suits when my boss called me with the happy news that I was posted to MINDEF, to serve as the Staff Officer 2-Helicopter, under the Air Operations Commander. Inside, I felt that my wings had been clipped. To be behind a desk after flying in an operational theater like Acheh was to me a prison sentence.
But on the bright side, so began my 3 year stint as a staff officer, and the comfort of knowing what undisturbed weekends were like.