12 February 2010

The Fortnight Ends

"Halo. Itu Jeffrey Marrtisa ka? Hey, you remember me? Ini Kol Halim la. When my officer told me that Major Jeffrey is doing the task for Panglima Tentera Darat (Chief of Army), I said to myself, this must be Major Marrtisa one. So you back to flying izzit? Good, good. Hey, Jeff, I think tomorrow you join the briefing we are giving to PTD lah. Okay? See you tomorrow lah, okay?" Then came the pink noise of a disengaged call. I love army officers, especially recently promoted ones who have the wet rank to outprove and outperform their former peers. A conversation with the "ponggoes" like these is always effortless. You don't have to exert yourself to keep the conversation going. They can bust the theory about the exhaustibility of perpetual motion by keeping the monologue going ad infinitum. Inarguably ad nauseam.

Oh yes, the technical explanation for the term ponggoes, taken from the word pong, originates from the anti-communist insurgency era when we Nuri pilots would snatch them out of the jungles under heavy gunfire from the bandits, and then soon from cockpit to cabin would waft the asphyxiatingly inimitable odour of a quarter year of unbathed male armpits seived through the nauseatingly scented dye of camouflage fabric. We owe the success of the treaty between the Communist Party of Malaya and the Government to these ponggoes in part, therefore please understand that we air force chaps call them ponggoes with the utmost affection. I know from my current tasks and operations during troop changeovers at border outposts that some of these good things never change.

No 2 Air Division assigned the VIP aircraft as well as the VIP standby aircraft roles to be executed by No 5 Squadron (Labuan). No 7 Squadron's (Kuching) aircraft state had deteriorated to zero, leaving it with only the SAR standby aircraft, so they couldn't contribute an aircraft to the VIP task. They were, instead, instructed to cover No 5's SAR area of responsibility while we provided both our aircraft to make all ends meet. Just one day before the task, Div signed my temporary VIP endorsement (as I was not a permanently endorsed VIP pilot), to validate that the VIPs were being flown by a pilot competent for the job. Being on SAR standby the day before allowed me enough time to check the two Nuris, to see that the carpets were laid out, the pair of airline-style Carson Seats with integral table were put in and that everything was vacuumed clean. The ground crew went the extra mile and swabbed the entire skin of the two aircraft down with oil to artificially give it a waxed-like shine. I was impressed! They know how to make this aircraft look good for field operations!!!

The morning of 29 November provided the kind of weather that made a pilot feel like no other job could reward as much. We started up early, eager to make good our take-off time and be in Lok Kawi camp Kota Kinabalu one hour before "door close" (VIP pickup) time. Right from departure and rollout onto heading to KK, Mount Kinabalu stood clear against a backlit pale blue sky, cloudless and majestic, beckoning the way in silent grandeur to the state capitol.

We were overhead Lok Kawi in half an hour. I recceed the 3rd Royal Malay Regiment Batallion's parade square, identified it by the dayglo air panel laid out in an 'H', and traced a good descent path into it, unobstructed by landscaping or high-tension cables. On approach, I spied a soldier hurrying to roll up the air panels and scoot out of the way of the Nuri drumrolling to land.

Kapt Hasto, the VIP standby aircraft pilot, was hot on my heels, coming down to land on my right, further away from the dais, as the dais was the intended disembarkation point for the PTD and entourage of Generals. After we had shutdown, we gathered at the outer edge of the parade square to chat. There was a reason we adjourned quickly for a good chat spot. You see, the parade square might as well have held the Burning Bush, so hallowed were its grounds to the army boys that loitering and strolling in it was deemed sacrilege. That's why you never stroll into a parade square; you march.

After a while, a Land Rover passed near us, its driver looking clueless as he searched us for someone who might look like a 'Major Jeffrey'. Lt Kol Halim had sent him to bring me over to the Brigade HQ to be take part in the aforementioned briefing to the PTD.

Halim greeted me enthusiastically at Brigade HQ. He ushered me into the briefing room, well chilled by the air-conditioning units. The all-grey haired, grey-moustachioed Brigadier-General Masrani was there rehearsing the briefing, looking so woebegone that you would think his career would end with the conclusion of the briefing. The air in the room was near rarified with tension. I introduced myself to Gen Masrani as the acting Commanding Officer of No 5 Squadron and sat down to wait for things to get moving. I kept my eye on the window to track the weather developments, and the golden glare bade well for the proceedings ahead of us. I took a quick glance at the display portraits of the Generals who would be my passengers, to fix their names to their faces, and not succeeding. I cut it down to remembering that the PTD was Tan Sri General Mohammad Ismail, then amused myself with how the ponggoes had each General's portait hung on the wall just inside the door, and wondered if this was how it always was, or was this an arrangement just for this morning?

After much wailing and gnashing of teeth as computers hung and power point animations refused to roll, solutions were in place just as the adjutant announced that Tan Sri was on his way. Everyone immediately found his seat and the room hushed to petrification like the night surveillence scene out of Chicken Run.

The clicking of boot heels on the tiles and swish-swoosh of baggy camouflage as the PTD and stablemates strode in pulled taut the already tense ambience of the room. Gen Masrani reported to the PTD and asked for leave to sit at ease, which was granted. Then with faltering words that age could only accentuate, he began his brief by outlining the purpose of the visit, which was to identify the problems faced, make recommendations to remedy the situation and finally, to overfly all the target points where the infringement of the danger area had been observed and identified.

Kota Belud Range was the mortar firing range for the No 5 Brigade HQ and all the regiments and batallions under its command. It being placed in Kota Belud, the home of the famous centuries-old Tamu or tribal trade market thronged by Bajaus, Kadazans and minority Muruts of the state, that rights to the use of the land and property infringement were contested came as no surprise. The heated situation conflagrated when two villagers were killed when they strayed into the mortar range and prodded a live round which as expected, detonated on contact. What a live round was doing on the range and not retrieved after firing, was an internal matter that was summarily resolved by posting the officer out of Lok Kawi.

This incensed the PTD. He bellowed at Gen Masrani and asked where the officer was. He insisted that he be found and charged. "Come on, men! All this nonsense, accidental discharge lah, loss of firearms lah, inadvertent detonation lah, all this kind of fuck-up, I cannot have, not in my army." Then there were whispers amongst the seated Generals, and a furtive glance thrown in my direction. In the murmur I could hear "....and an F-5 engine went missing!!!"-"Really ah, a whole F-5 engine?"-"What a whole F-5 engine? Two F-5 engines lah!" I was trying hard not to laugh. They must have heard about how in Butterworth air base, it appeared as if two F-5E engines had disappeared. I knew it was a paper glitch, where the paperwork in Butterworth's supply squadron indicated that the engines were sent to Air Logistics Command in KL air base but ALC's registry showed no receipt of the items. I was surprised. Why did the Generals speak in hushed voices when discussing an air force fuck-up? I would have expected a rousting, to be grilled on the matter. But here, they showed gentlemanly restraint, politeness in fact. I was not merely surprised at this consideration. I was.....impressed.

In contrast, I could feel the army officers not in earshot of the above exchange, nor in the know to join the dots thereof start to tremble in their boots. All they heard was the zero-fuck-up tolerance of the PTD. And well, the discomfort that the PTD could inflict if his tolerance limits were exceeded was enormous. Incurring his wrath could bring a backlash that even their Brigade Commander could not protect them against.

Awkwardly, Gen Masrani pressed on to other matters concerning the short-term plan to resolve the question of claims over the land. When he touched on the Special Investigations Officer as being party to the plans, Tan Sri Ismail halted the brief by asking where the officer was. For a minute everyone gaped. Why hadn't they anticipated this query? After all, a Special Investigations Officer would be the most appropriate person to elaborate on whether legal proceedings and summonses would stick in court. The question crescended to all-out screaming as nobody stepped in even to plead ignorance in answer to the PTD. Just before he could burst a blood vessel, Lt Kol Halim stood up to declare that he would find out pronto. The briefing waited in discomfort as near visible fumes liberated from atop the PTD's head. My brief was to be next, on the sortie profile, and I could see Gen Masrani twitching to hand over the brief to me and be out of the glare of six Generals' cold, condescending gaze. Then came Halim to announce that the SIO was in Kuching on an infantry exercise, in plaintive voice as a messenger begging not to be shot. This time all profanity broke loose from Gen Tan Sri Ismail's lips. "What the FUCK is a military police officer doing all the way in Kuching on an INFANTRY exercise when I am coming down HERE for THIS purpose?? Hoy, you think I melancong ke ni?? I am not here for a tour!!"

Gen Masrani feebly proposed to have the SIO returned to unit with urgency. Then he pressed on to brief the PTD on his future plans, which ranged from pursuing legal action, increase in weapons and purchasing Night Vision Goggles. Again, this stirred the PTD's ire.

"Where are your NVGs?" Silence. He repeated his question louder. Even I was tiring of the way nobody would say anything to the PTD. He asked the question a third time before the Deputy Chief of Army intervened and asked Gen Masrani where went the NVGs that were alloted to the brigade at year's beginning. The Brigadier recalled that the devices had been distributed amongst some of the infantry batallions. "So?" asked the PTD. Without elaboration, the conclusion was that the devices would have to be recalled to where their employment would be meaningful, and new purchases were far from necessary. In the air force, the brief would not have coursed so. We would have anticipated the question, made the recommendation and just awaited the concurrence from the powers that be. Cultural differences.

The brief then turned to point when the description of the sortie profile was to be delivered, and Gen Masrani called upon me to proceed, his face bearing the anticipation of relief. He introduced me as the Commanding Officer of 5 Batallion RMAF Labuan. I saluted the PTD and took over the rostrum.

"Tan Sri Mohammad Ismail, Panglima-panglima, Pegawai-pegawai Memerintah dan pegawai pegawai yang saya segani, selamat pagi. Izinkan saya sekarang berbalik kepada bahasa ibunda saya." They did not get my pun about reverting to my mother tongue. "On behalf of my CO and the Base Commander Labuan, I welcome you on board Angkasa 758. We have two aircraft, VIP kitted for your flight. Tan Sri, you and your 7 senior most officers will be my guests on aircraft M2331, whilst the 7 remainder will be on M2328."

"Air-con ada kah?" Tan Sri quipped, while the Generals laughed obediently. I stared intently at my audience to prevent my eyes from rolling backward. The old is the Nuri air-conditioned joke.

"Yes sir, once the big fan on the roof is switched on," I shot back with an agonised smile. If I had a ringgit for everytime this joke was cracked, I could leave the air force a wealthy pensioneer. The army boys loved my answer though, and chuckled appreciably. I continued, "In the interest of flight safety all emplaning and deplaning will be with rotors disengaged. My crewmen will usher you on board, and wave you off when we return. The order of targets we will overfly on this reconnaisance flight will be in the order given to us, form Target 1 to Target 8. Overhead each LP, I will go as low and as slow as possible in order to satisfy the requirements of this recce. Finally we will return to base and end the sortie in the parade square. I apologise that I will not be able to get down with you while the engines are still running, but you will be courteously led off the aircraft by my crewman. In the event of any emergency encountered during the sortie, please proceed under the guidance of the crewman. Are there any questions pertaining to the sortie profile, Tan Sri?"
"No. Sounds good. Let's have breakfast!"

Breakfast was the universally accepted nasi lemak and coffee. The army officers at my table were eyeing their service chief to keep their manoeuvres in cadence with his. If he stood, they stood. When we were seated to be served by the mess butlers, I could overhear Gen Tan Sri Ismail say something about the purchase of new camouflage uniforms. "I just can't see what the advantage is over our current cammouflage. As it is the newer ones look dull in comparison." I looked at the army officers around me. "Aren't you guys going to tell him?" They shuddered and shook their heads. "Biar dia aje yang cakap." They would rather leave their chief in his ignorance than enlighten him. I asked them if they knew how the new camouflage uniforms bettered the current ones. "Entah." Oh, of course they couldn't enlighten the PTD, because they didn't know anything either. The existing cammo uniforms glowed bright under infra-red light as seen through Night Vision Goggles and completely gave the game away. How these guys, also operators of NVGs were utterly unaware of this hazard was a source of wonderment to me. This was why the air force was pioneering the purchase of new camouflage uniforms. Again, a cultural difference that we in the air force would not allow unrighted. We would whisper the information by whatever clandestine means and save our Generals from embarassment. However, I did not myself feel inclined to elucidate an army General. I finished breakfast quickly and requested his leave to proceed to the aircraft to get started up.

The beautiful weather held steady, and both Hasto in M2328 and I in M2331 were ready to rotor engage when the recce party arrived. The PTD was shown on board by my junior crewman, Sgt Asrar. Soon we were airborne and crusing 300 feet above ground level all the way into Kota Belud's mortar and rifle firing range. As the range grew closer, I began to look out for Target 1. I scanned the vista horizontally, then I saw it..."Yellow smoke 2.30 low. Angkasa 758A, tracking to Target 1." Roger, Angkasa 758B in trail, Hasto replied. So down we went and circled the target at 50 feet overhead. After about 4 orbits, we were asked to track for Target 2, red smoke coded. I followed the GPS track command, spotted the red puff and did pretty much the same thing. On it went till we covered all targets and soon were returning to Lok Kawi camp. As we let the PTD and party disembark, they came forward to the cockpit and shook our hands. This was a sure sign that no matter what my manoeuvres were like, and even if one of them nearly puked, they were happy with the flight.

Hasto and I departed in turn from Lok Kawi and steered clear of Kinabalu's extended southern runway centreline to evade incoming traffic. He had a lower fuel state that I did, and so he tracked on a direct line for Labuan. Abeam of Kuala Penyu I called, "Labuan Approach, Angkasa 758Alpha and Bravo abeam Kuala Penyu lateral separation 5 mile standard." There was silence for a moment. I repeated my call. "Er....758 Alpha-Bravo report Menumbok." We continued flight, enjoying the scenery from the cockpit on this very clear and sparkling afternoon. Overhead Menumbok, I made my position report again. Approach advised us to hold overhead Menumbok due to parajump Drop Zone active. Hmmmm. Isn't it always? I mused.

"Angkasa 758 Alpha-Bravo on minimum fuel returning after VIP task. Unable to loiter overhead Menumbok." Angkasa 758 Alpha-Bravo contact tower, the approach controller called. So we did, and we were cleared to land without further delay.

Whatever happenned to the parajump?? We didn't hear anything further on this, and we didn't hear any transmission from any aircraft overhead the jump DZ. Another air traffic controller bearing Gepetto's pedigree?

I shutdown the aircraft and carried out the post-flight check with a sense of relief. Monday would be soon here, and the rest of the guys from the NVG exercise would have returned home. I would be the boss no more, and the fortnight of...well, holding the fort would be ended. I debriefed my copilot accompanied by the enjoyable brew of coffee, then returned home to sleep as do the dead.

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