Friday, August 21, 2009
On the morning of the 16 Aug 09, the SAR crew was scrambled to Kota Kinabalu.
The Deputy Prime Minister was visiting Kudat and Penampang. Lt Col T, the boss of No 7 Squadron, Kuching Air Base, was assigned the task to fly the DPM from KK to Kudat and then from Kudat to Penampang. One of the Nuris assigned to the Exercise Kelawar would fly to KK and sit there on VVIP standby in case Lt Col T's M2307 went unserviceable. However, at 0930H, it was known that M2326 in Tawau had gone unserviceable, and making matters worse, bad weather obstructed their route to KK. Hence the reassigning of the task to Labuan's SAR crew which I was on and the scrambling of the SAR aircraft to KK.
The scramble had made me a little over zealous when I lifted off to a hover on runway 14 and called ready, only for tower to reply, Angkasa 994A, standby. Impatiently, I asked, "Tower please explain what you mean by standby." I had not known of any air traffic controller to keep a helicopter in hover indefinitely. I repeated my request, and tower cleared me on runway heading.
Passing, 800 feet, I turned in the general heading of Bongawan. The VHF crackled sharply with the indignant voice of the tower controller. Angkasa 994A, I cleared you on runway heading! As he was saying this, I noticed why he was indecisive over clearing my departure. I spotted a police fixed-wing aircraft routing from Menumbok to Kuala Penyu at 500 feet, 5 miles away. I was reaching an altitude of 1000 feet. Whilst reducing my rate of turn to keep the traffic on my left, I replied curtly, "Angkasa 994A, sighted the traffic at 500 feet overhead Menumbok. We have separation." Angkasa 994A contact Labuan approach. And so we did. The approach controller sounded much calmer. Angkasa 994A, you are radar identified, maintain 1500 feet call again abeam Kuala Penyu. "Angkasa 994A, wilco!!"
Dark clouds that bore rain swept in from the sea, threatening our flight path. Offsetting the track to the right, we managed to keep clear of weather until our landing at Kinabalu airfield.
We shutdown and the rest of the afternoon was a long wait for the clearance from No 2 Air Divison to return to base.
We tracked Lt Col T's progress. The DPM's run of Kudat was finished, and he was airborne for Penampang. I walked out of the VIP lounge at Kinabalu airport's Terminal 2 and looked up at a darkening sky. I knew that only by a miracle could T land in Penampang.
The wait was long and I was getting hungry. My crew kept vigil with me, as with the safety consciousness of a lemming, I ordered a snack plate from KFC and ate slowly to pass the time. The storm beat around us and the ambience took on the feel of nightfall instead of midday. As I ate, my crewmen continued to receive text messages from their fellow crewman on Lt Col T's aircraft. It was at about 1330H when we received the message that he had landed in Impiana Resort Tuaran because weather had turned so bad that forward visibility fell below minima. I was thinking, right, you don't say!!
This would mean that the alternative plan for the DPM's visit would come into effect. It was almost 1400H when I got the phone call from Lt Rajen, the duty Operations Officer for the day at No 2 Air Division. "Tuan, the DPM's movement from Tuaran to KK airport will be by road. Whenever tuan want to come back, tuan can airborne lah."
I was relieved that we were not committed to a time frame that would have us pinned on ground when the weather was sufficiently marginal above the helicopter visual minima to allow us to plough a route home at low-level.
We began our walkout to the aircraft at 1415H. I turned to Capt Mustaqim and asked him, "Is there any IFR route to Labuan from here? You know that it's raining." Mustaqim grinned at me blankly which told me that he had not thought at all about how to get home and was leaving it all up to me. This response was the kind that tempted me to wring his neck, but rendering him clinically brain dead was not far from where he was all on his own effort, so my expenditure of energy would be wasted on accomplishing the already well-established.
The visibility was not the 8 kilometres that tower reported. It was more like 3, with the cloud base at 400 feet. I stayed at 300 feet initially and saw the railway track that led to Tenom through the coastal route via Papar and Bongawan. Even before I could reach Papar, the cloud base fell to 300 feet. I retained terrain clearance by flying at 150 feet all the way to Kuala Penyu, and then tuned the Automatic Direction Finder to Labuan, its morse code positively identifying L.A.B. Contacting Labuan Approach, the controller reported Labuan's weather as 10 kilometer visibility with clear skies. That was reassuring, and I flew on the needle back to Labuan, though Mustaqim bafflingly directed me on some other heading, purportedly to Labuan and straight into black clouds that merged with the earth. My patience had worn thin and I snarled at him to explain why in heaven's name he was navigating me to Limbang, asking that I plunge the Nuri into the most evil-looking cumulonimbus clouds to ever descend upon the floodplains and marshes of our training area. I heard some unintelligible sounds from his mouth that sounded very much like static, which died out to a permanent silence as he failed to come up with a plausible explanation. I carried out all the rejoining checks and pre-landing checks till we were on finals approach to land, when he warbled the finals checks worriedly.
I am not normally given to being harsh with junior copilots.
But there are times when I can no longer bear with utter idleness.
You never get airborne in poor weather without thinking of alternatives and keeping navigation razor-sharp.
I would consider placing Mustaqim's nose on the sharpening-stone. Looking around me, I saw better-qualified pilots for that job, who carried instructional credentials with them. Mustaqim's all yours, boys.
Post shutdown, I sat in my office, checking my e-mail and signing off the post-mission debreif reports. Looking outside the window, I noticed that the weather that had plagued the route home was now approaching Labuan. Lt Col T was still out there. I called tower's extension and enquired into his ETA. I looked at my watch. 45 minutes to go.
At 1730H, I packed up and loaded my stuff into the car. I walked slowly to the dispersal and waited in the drizzle for any sign of M2307. The approach path on runway 32 was dark with rainclouds. I texted a message to T. "Runway 14 clear." I glanced at my watch again. Ten minutes more.
Finally, as the clock turned at twilight 1750H, I spotted the Nuri coming in from runway 14's end, her red anti-collision lights strobing brightly in the gathering gloom of the approaching storm. She touched down at the intersection and slowly taxied in to the parking bay under the guidance of the marshaller. After shutdown, I walked over to the cabin to chat with Lt Col T. I let him speak first of how the press had sensationalised his landing in Tuaran, reporting it as an emergency landing, and the many phone calls he had received after it was broadcast on the afternoon news bulletins. Then I enquired I to the task that was lined up for me on his aircraft, to fly the base commander and a General to the Kota Belud firing range the next morning.
"They asked me to fly," he said. "But I have enough hours already, so I offer to you lah. After all, you need the hours." This was classic T, always offering the clocking of hours to someone else when the job was less to his liking than returning to his home base.
"No sir, I don't need the hours any more. But of course I will carry out the request from the base." I had to tread carefully. He was going to be with me on my trip to Bournemouth in four days' time, and friends though you may be with a fellow, odd personality changes followed when they get promoted over you.
The storm finally let loose its load on Labuan as I took leave of T and drove home in slow traffic. I knew the General whom I had to fly. He was a known finicky passenger who would inspect every nook and cranny of the aircraft to decry the diminishing standards and professionalism of helicopter pilots "nowadays".
I really seemed to have my career made for me.
Or perhaps, he knew Mustaqim.