On 26 Dec 2004, the worst disaster to hit humanity struck Banda Acheh, at the Northern tip of Sumatra at about 0930G. It seemed like a perfectly normal day at an hour when people were going about their daily business, when an earthquake measuring 8.9 Richter struck Banda Acheh and Meulaboh, unleashing a tsunami that devastated not just the Achenese province, but reached Penang, Phuket, India, Sri Lanka and went as far as Madagascar.
The world was frenetic with news that trickled out of Indonesia. Even with the spread of photographs in the media, the scale of devastation seemed beyond belief . On 28 December 2004, one Nuri, one set of crew and the Combat Air Rescue Team joined the international community in Medan, flying to Banda Acheh from Medan to obtain the initial information as to how Malaysia could respond to the needs of the water-scoured province. Accurate information was not available as the very infrastructure needed for the transmission of news was wrecked. But our Charlie, or C-130 Hercules aircraft had conducted proving fights into Landasan Udara Iskandar Muda Blang Bintang in Banda Acheh. The runway was declared safe, so the world could now pour into Acheh. However, refueling arrangements in Banda Acheh airfield had to be sourced and an agreement arrived at between Malaysia and Indonesia if we were to operate from Acheh itself. This would not only save operating costs but also preserve the aircraft hours so that they were not wasted in transit flying.
My departure was set for 08 January. A huge number of personnel were gathered at air movements section, Subang Base. The army chaps were there, too. They were going in as doctors to aid the infirm, as engineers to provide reconstruction of roads and bridges and signallers to restore communications infrastructure. Wives were swarming the area, kids dashed about here and there and everywhere. After immigrations clearance, the time came for goodbye. I kissed my wife and kids, and exhorted my son to be on good behaviour and not trouble his mother with more than she had to handle as it was.
The aircraft droned on to Acheh. I looked all around me to gauge the general mood of the other personnel. Many were asleep, as they would be if a military man isn't moving for a time span exceeding 5 seconds. Ah, how easy it is to be blissful if one could succumb to such herd sense. Nothing seemed to bother this lot.
After a length of time, I saw some excitement in the cabin. They guys were crowding around the windows. Acheh was in sight. I unbuckled and tried to get a glimpse myself. As the aircraft circled incessantly while awaiting its turn to land in an increasingly busy airfield, the Achenese landscape showed itself from below a thin layer of cloud, stretched and draped over the city like a funeral shroud.
I could not believe my eyes. There was nothing recognisable as infrastructure at all down below. I could see water, the river, and the sea. Layer upon layer of debris carpeted the ground. Skeletal remains of building structures that had survived collapse stood amongst the total ruin of other buildings which had yielded to the force of diabolically destructive waters. It was utter holocaust. But the view from 4000 feet was ghostly and grey through the cloud, with little sunlight penetrating its gloom to reach ground level. This morbid mask didn't reveal the full horror of the tsunami's wrath, as I was to see in my days to come in Acheh. After a while, disenchanted with the lack of visual detail and information from below, the guys settled down in their seats once again.
My first sortie was to ferry Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) to their destinations, towns along the coast that had been disconnected from each other when the waves had swept away bridges and submerged roads. I obtained my passenger list from the Coordination Post (POSKO) at the TNI hangar, and the crewman got the mixed bag of people on board the Nuri. We took off and tracked north-west for the break in the mountain range known (to the Australians who had taken over air traffic control) as The Gap.
Capt Asari pointed out the various towns as we passed them. The factory was at Lokhnga, then came Lamno, then Girik, next was a crescent cove called Tjalang, and at the end of our route was Meulaboh. Approximately 270 kilometres of coastline, with absolutely nothing left. Not even greenery, from water's edge to about 10 kilometres inland, depending on the terrain, its obstacles and the way the waters would have swirled and eddied. Red clay frescoed the vista. A wave of deep mourning could be sensed in the land, in the sea and in the air. Something had happened here, which was beyond human reckoning.
Meulaboh was in sight. I transmitted my intention to land at Kem JPK (pronounced Ja-Pa-Keh under Indonesian phonetics) to the ground controller. This was yet another POSKO set up by the TNI for the repatriation of IDPs. Orbiting the field that was Kem JPK, I sized-up the field, the TNI-AU (Angkatan Udara) Super Puma parked there and the sufficiency of the remaining grass area for a Nuri. All was in order and the Nuri was set on finals to land and we beat into a touchdown.
On ground, hand signals were used to negotiate with the TNI coordinators as to how many passengers we could offer to take back to Banda Acheh. They would indicate 15 with their fingers. We would look at the fuel gauges, note the lift-off weight and wave No, 9! Then they would acknowledge 9 with their fingers and walk 9 people to the Nuri. The crewman would call out the all-up weight, and we would lift-off vertically and climb away for Banda Acheh. This was how aircraft captains had to wheel and deal every day, every task, with TNI-AU. I thought them hard-nosed, thick-skinned and shameless in the outlandish requests they made during my first few days there. But this was a land of vortexed need. They had no limit to what they wanted, any more than a limit was placed on the severity of their loss. Acheh was the event horizon for international aid. Could they be blamed?
After that famil flight, Asari left me to fly till last light with Leftenant Azlan, my copilot who was involved with me during the fighter jock's rescue. Another 3 sorties and 6 hours were clocked that day. I began to learn the route, its turbulent spots, the landmarks and the best approaches into the various towns along the coast as well as inland landing points.
Safety was a serious issue in this chaotic land. The local air traffic controller was not used to handling more than two aircraft at a time. Banda Acheh had scant scheduled flights. Now, the traffic density was so heavy at no less than 25 helicopters in the air at any given moment. He couldn't cope. Near-misses were reported to the POSKO during the nightly debrief, and the TNI-AU seceded air traffic control to the Royal Australian Air Force. Departure and recovery procedures, reporting points and circuit heights were quickly drafted for all to comply to, and just as quickly and repetitively transgressed by American Marine pilots. They had a habit of flying below the established height, and popping up as they liked, causing us to be rather twitchy while flying. If they had a habit of reporting their position, it may have eased the tension of maintaining a sharp lookout, but they just flew like a bunch of cowboys. Hmmm......so much for leaving the direction that the world should take in their hands.
At day's end, I had the Nuri shut down and its night-stop kit used for plugging air intake ports, the tail rotor clamped down with a gust-lock and the water-proof tarp which covered the cockpit and nose section all gartered into place. We called it the Nuri's jammies!