12 February 2010

Hazy Days Rainy Nights

Friday, August 14, 2009

It had been hazy for the past week in Labuan. I had always believed that Labuan was like Lothlorien, safe from the evils of the world. From my last tour of duty here from 1997 to 2001, Klang Valley residents had endured hellish water rationing, flash floods, Japanese Encephalitis and asphyxiating haze. Labuan was supposed to be safe from all these, and what little haze that visited stayed for not more than three days. Yet, even Labuan could not hold all evils at bay for all times.

The annual Kelawar Exercise was around the corner when the elitist congregation of NVG trained aircrew would rendezvous in Tawau, taking with them the meager mustering of NVG-converted, serviceable Nuris. Labuan managed to assign M2337 and M2338 to the exercise whilst Kuching’s nominal contribution was M2326. We had also been through less of a frenetic week because M2337’s winch cable had ‘bird-caged’; fraying at mid-length. This constituted the aircraft as only partly mission capable, and thereby unfit for SAR standby. We had enjoyed being SAR standby-free for nigh two weeks. Then the beleaguered M2328 had finally received all her required items to be set on her feet, meaning that this partial vacation was drawing to a close. If I, the sole remaining test flight qualified pilot available on commencement of Kelawar, rendered it serviceable for SAR in timely fashion.

The morning of 11 August wore on at a creeping pace for those awaiting M2302’s arrival (the reinforcement from Kuching), namely the boss and his entourage of golfers who were making a habit of latching on to operational tasks to play golf outstation. The newly-promoted Maj Magesvaran joined the flock, recognising the saudara baru-ness of becoming a golfer in the boss’s league.

I rested in the refuge of my humble office, enjoying freshly brewed kopi Tenom kept hot in my coffee-maker as I surfed idly into incendiary political blogs to keep my fingers firmly on the pulse of the nation. Ten o’clock and Kuching reported that M2302 was still snagged on ground due to an unserviceable HF radio.

Wait a minute.

Weren’t we flying around in the Sabahan interior without HF radio? Hmmmm. Nevermind.

The clock turned to 1400H.

As I was busy dreaming of being unshackled from squadron life, Mages walked into my office and grabbed his golf cart and baggage. “See you later sir. We are leaving now.” M2302 had not arrived. Had Division undergone a change of heart?

Later in the evening, M2328 was ready for her flight test, the second this day in 4 months. It was 1600H. I could hardly make out the tower across the runway as I walked out to the aircraft. The sun sat low and smoggy in the opaque evening sky. Power topping on ground was not satisfactory, but the tech boys told me to get airborne and see how the engines behaved in the air. At 400 feet above mean sea level, the haze was thickening, limiting the forward visibility to 3 kilometres. As I rolled the aircraft to fly parallel to Universiti Malaya Sabah’s beachfront, I could see that matters were not being helped by the large number of domestic fires spewing smoke to add to the suspended ash in the air.

The power topping in the air showed itself as unsatisfactory. Down to brass tacks, the way the No 1 Engine behaved hinted that in the event of a single engine failure on No 2, No 1 would not keep us airborne. I concluded the flight test by conducting the vibration signature check at 80 and 110 knots. All was well, and I landed safely at 1700H and promptly snagged the aircraft for No 1 Engine Topping Unsat. The SAR crew for the next day would be glad, namely me, that the SAR aircraft was unserviceable still and therefore, the waking up ritual at an hour of the morning not yet blessed by the Creator would be bypassed.

I returned to the refuge of my air-conditioned office and more coffee. I settled into my chair to check on my mail and seek inspiration for my next blogpost, having been negligent of late as my mind wandered outside the air force and to dreams of what life would be like. Then Capt Tarmizi, the engineering officer, popped into my office with a strained look upon his face. “Tuan, boss cakap kapal tu mesti serviceable juga hari ini. Estimate flight test pukul 1830 tuan.”

I wished I could have walked out of the base that very minute. License, Jeffrey! License!!!

The boss wants the aircraft rendered serviceable today no matter what??? If the flight test at 1830H showed the engine to be underpowered still? I really loathed having my hand forced on matters of integrity and those of life and death. I felt that signing the aircraft as serviceable when it was not, would ensnare another pilot into jeopardy should he be forced into a single-engine failure in flight. In my heart, I told myself that if the engine proved unfit, I would snag it anyway. The lives of the aircrew ranked above political manoeuvreing. It was also most unpleasant to be so pressured when the light of day was failing. I needed conditions of good visibility under daylight VMC, 1000 feet in the air and autorotative distance to the runway to conduct a proper flight test, conditions which were rapidly descending into twilight. The pale crimson sun kissing the horizon gave no hint that he would light the way for me as day gave way to night.

The setting sun actually helped me see better as shadows began to cast themselves long upon the smoky islescape, making the relief visible as the last light of day exhaled.

The engine-men on board shone at their job under pressure. All checks this time proved to be satisfactory. The last remaining tests, the autorotation and compass swing, would have to wait till the next day. The aircraft was rendered as serviceable, and on SAR standby. I was spared the no-win confrontation that threatended my engineer's face an hour ago. The boss had himself covered for flying M2326 off to Tawau before being relieved by M2302, now that M2328 was 'on line'.

The tension passed. Night took over. The day passed into memory.

And the rain fell through the dark hours to soothe the dawn.

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