12 February 2010

A Frightful Fortnight

25 Nov 08 began at 0500H with a frantic rush to the squadron because Capt Ian was waiting to run a currency check on me. The exercise in question was a parajump at 6000 feet for a bunch of special forces and para-brigade personnel overhead the Labuan Sports Complex prior to the Labuan Liberty Port Cup Parajump Challenge due on 26 Nov 08.

I hate high altitude flying. The only times I have flown at heights higher than 4000 feet were when the weather ahead was more fearsome than the prospect of wrestling with the encroaching aerodynamic limitations encountered by a helicopter at high altitude. But a job was awaiting its execution and this was how I made bread, so it needed doing without personal queasiness rising like a regurgitative lump in my throat.

Climbing to 6000 feet at 0600H was surreal, the horizon a sombre blue-grey, blending cloud and terrain in one dimensionless backdrop. Labuan's miniscule land mass became claustrophobically apparent. The feeling that you couldn't complete a racecourse circuit without straying over water for greater portions thereof made you wonder how on earth so tiny an island managed to keep itself afloat amidst the world's dervished spinning towards self-proclaimed progress.

But there we were, the aircraft vibrating like the eggbeater that it was so fondly nicknamed, the reduced air density causing the blades to flap harder to restore the required rotor thrust for the payload at height. We contacted the Drop Zone, determined the surface wind speed and requested the Green On (jump commencement) from the DZ Safety Officer, and began the run-in to the DZ with the Red On light illuminated to warn the jumpers to be ready. Moments later, we heard Green On, switched the green cabin light on and the jumpers began their egress. "No 1 jumper gone, 2 gone, 3 gone, 4 gone, No 5 gone, stick safely gone, all chutes deployed," the crewman reported. Phew!! Two more passes and this run would be over for the 15 we had carried. Another 20 jumpers awaited their turn on ground. At the end of the third pass, Ian reminded me that in ten minutes, the mas-wings budget carrier would be arriving and recommended that we shut down and recommence after Air Asia's scheduled departure at 0950H. I contained the relief from my discomfort behind a vehement concurrence of his recommendation and began the descent from 6000 feet without further delay.

I shutdown, strode to the ops room and penned a second entry for the subsequent parajump run into the authorisation sheet. I then waited in the crew room for 0930H for my walkout time. In minutes, the jump coordinator, Leftenant Nasir, came up to see me to say that the jumpers would not be requiring my services as he had arranged the next jump on board the visiting CN-235. I again concealed my delight by expressing regret that we could not do him the honours, but that however, if he did need a Nuri, he would find me waiting for him in my office, at the edge of my seat. He thanked me profusely, compensating for missing the meaning of my sarcasm with spirited gratitude. The day was beginning to look imminently better. However, events were taking place behind his back that backfired on me. At the last minute, the CN-235 was assigned a priority task which meant that it could not carry out the parajump. Lt Nasir then attempted to engage the services of the resident C-130 from No 14 Squadron, but the serviceability state had fallen that morning to zero, and left Nasir no choice but to come back to the Nuri. The hour was advanced, lunch was due and I believe that prospect of having a meal and raising my blood sugar level above that of the pre-breakfast morning sortie made me feel like I could overcome the willies in the full light of midday. Walkout was synchronised to Air Asia's pushback and start so that we lined-up on the runway just as the Airbus rolled thunderously to its departure.

Everything seemed to be going well, and we climbed to 6000 feet with 10 jumpers. The temperature differential in the afternoon was reduced, so it didn't get much cooler up there. It was in fact, a little stifling. I called in to the DZSO, and got the ground wind velocity, turned the Red On and positioned the aircraft at the downwind leg before turning on for a run-in. The DZSO was cooperative and provided Green On, and the first pass was completed quickly.

As I positioned for another pass, I could hear over the tower's frequency, the rejoin call from Rescue 01 and Rescue 02 returning from SAREX MalBru 08, the annual search and rescue exercise between Malaysia and Brunei along the joint Malaysia-Brunei Flight Information Region boundary. The tower controller provided priority landing clearance to the two helicopters and required that I delay the parajump pass till they landed. I asked for the expected duration of the delay. The controller replied that estimate was at 31, meaning in 3 minutes time. I continued the racecourse circuit, keeping an eye on the clock and the fuel gauges. 3 minutes passed. The radio was silent. My patience began to dwindle rapidly. "Tower, check position of inbound traffic," I called. "Rescue 01 and 02 are six miles inbound," came the reply. 6 miles inbound meant another 3 minutes.

With only a thousand pounds of fuel remaining, I would not be able to safely take another stick of the aforementioned ten jumpers awaiting me on ground, and still have sufficient fuel for a landing at the end of the second sortie. Or at least, not unless I could get the controller to hold off the Rescue Combined till these 5 jumpers had egressed and landed. "Angkasa 512 request delay rejoin Rescue 01 and 02 due to limited fuel," I called. The controller came back with "Negative Angkasa 512, Rescue 01 and 02 RTB from search and rescue." I let loose a bloody hell! curse over the intercom and I apologised to my crew for my outburst. They politely condemned the controller's poor traffic separation abilities with "Takkan rescue helicopter tak boleh slow down sikit." True, as later admitted by the helicopter pilots who heard my request, they not only could but indeed had slowed down in anticipation of my request being approved by tower controller, but were a little disappointed that he hadn't. It is nice being the squadron Executive Officer sometimes.

The duty controller allowed the situation to deteriorate further. To my deepening dismay, I heard Malaysian Helicopter Services, 9MBEG, call in for rejoin. The controller instructed MHS to track for 5 miles over the water and hold to cater to the Rescue Combined's arrival. Dismay gave way to worry. "Angkasa 512 request estimate clearance to release jumpers over the DZ." Expect release after 9MBEG has landed, the controller replied. "Angkasa 512 request priority to release jumpers or I will have to abort the jump due to minimum fuel." Then the controller began frantically re-sequencing traffic quoting my parajump aircraft on minimum fuel as reason for revised traffic priority. In my mind, the word IMBECILE! began to flash in glowing red gothic typeface. I wondered why traffic separation could not have been sequenced earlier before the situation built up to near confliction.

Rescue Combined had landed by the time 9MBEG was directed to hold till my jump pass was completed. There was cloud build-up everywhere in the heat of the afternoon's updrafts, but I hoped that the DZ would miraculously remain clear of them. I positioned for the run-in, but noticed that a huge cloud had now obscured the DZ. I called the DZSO and asked him if he could see me. He replied in the negative. I informed him that I would be aborting the pass and would RTB due fuel restrictions, with an apology at the end. The DZSO replied that he would consider the task as having been completed for the day. An immediate descent was carried out an we returned to base. As I taxied in to shutdown, I thought to myself that this was not good. No sir, it was not good.

26 Nov 08 arrived. All the squadron pilots were due for a currency check on deck landings, as the opportunity was one which depended on the availability of a navy ship suitable for deck landings passing through Labuan's waters. Initially, everything was infused with an air of expectancy-personally, I loved deck landings. In my opinion, it makes one really feel like a pilot. You have to have smooth handling skills, good eye-to-hand coordination and precise judgement of the aircraft's clearance limits so as not to sever the ship's superstructure with either the main or tail rotor blades. Picture this: you have to fly out to sea, locate and identify the ship, fly alongside the vessel at about 15 feet above the deck, then keep station with the ship and ease right over the deck and land positively, all without hitting anything.

The pre-flight brief was delivered in the morning, and the squadron was abuzz with excitement. The boss had offered our ops clerk a seat on board the aircraft, and I told him that he should accept the boss's offer as deck landing was a most exciting exercise. As I walked out to the aircraft, I noticed that not only the ops clerk was coming along, but so was our Engineering officer, Maj Tang. Well, deck landing exercises are always festive. We get to operate with our sister service, the Royal Malaysian Navy, and as many people as payload offer will allow normally jump on the bandwagon for an exercise that is fun to execute as well as awesome to watch.

Capt Ian was the officer who attended the DLE coordination meeting at Sepangar bay, in the Mawilla II (HQ Navy region II) complex. So he took it upon himself to coincide the take off time with the passage of the ship off Labuan's coastline. The time of reckoning arrived and the ship was known to be about 8 nautical miles to the north-east of Labuan. The boss, whose deck landing currency had also lapsed, was the first to take-off, checked by Maj Zamri the examiner from the Ops Readiness Department. The first wave was to be made up of all the aircraft captains for the currency check, while the second wave would be the copilots' opportunity to discover the joy and terror of deck landing under the tutelage of the captains. We joked during the start-up and rotor engagement as the boss and Maj Zamri laboured through the initial sortie. We were airborne in minutes and soon were craning our necks, peering through the hatches, trying to spot the KD Kedah, callsigned Juliet Romeo-JR-and deck marked Kilo Hotel-KH. The wide open sea and the sight of ships perched daintily on the horizon immediately called to mind scenes from The Pirates of The Carribean.

Suddenly my mind began to wander to places I wish it wouldn't at the very time we were over the open sea. All my phobic hallucinations came to me in an instant upon seeing the swirling waves. I began to see myself back in Brunei again, undergoing underwater escape training and wondering, what if we had to ditch?? What if the emergency breathing system didn't work? Well, my answer to myself should have been, If so, I have been trained and prepared, but somehow this prudence did not rise to quell the tempest of my spontaneous terror.

Then the aircraft took a steep bank to the left and from my seat on the starboard side, I could see the emerald wake stirred by KD Kedah's propellers churn a bridal train against the aquamarine sea leading right to the stern of the vessel. I watched as the ship appeared to move astern relative to the Nuri, and for a few moments, we flew steadily alongside her. Then we eased sidewards and hovered over the deck. I sat down and belted up, bracing for the 'positive' landing, and indeed it was, in undampened rebound over the rather confined deck. The rest of us got off the Nuri as the boss took his turn for a take-off and landing.

Normally, as I have experienced on the KD Mahawangsa, a Multi-Purpose Supply Ship, getting on deck helped relieve some of my fears. The Mahawangsa was a solid, steady woman, firm in the waters as she cut through the swells with nary a pitch or roll to her deck. But not so on the Kedah. I was forced into a groggy stagger as I sought shelter under the flight deck bay. The Kedah's tempestuous roll over an untempestuous sea lent nothing to even a semblance of a sense of security . I was too close to far too much water for my comfort, and all my imagination could play in my mind's eye were scenes of a watery death for me. As I stood on deck awaiting the boss to land before my subsequent turn at the circuit, I felt as if my heart would explode in my chest. I felt short of breath and a stab of delerious terror shot through my heart. How was I going to do this?

The Nuri beat ominously closer with each passing second to the ship. It landed and I watched as the boss unstrapped and got off the aircraft. I hurried over to strap in, and carried out the take-off checks. It was time to take off, and I found the aircraft unusually wobbly, difficult to control in the pitch channel. The ship's susceptibility to pitching and rolling aggravated the aircraft's capricious handling. Therefore, as I broke off the deck I hastily climbed the aircraft to a higher hover than 15 feet above deck, figuring that height would compensate for the limited horizontal clearance. I eased further right and took off for a circuit. Turning on to align off-axis to the deck, I commenced approach on a shallower perspective than I would have for an airfield and completed the landing without further incident. Hmmm. That was actually not all that bad. I just needed to trust myself.

When the last aircraft captain had been checked out by Maj Zamri, the Nuri was shut down and lashed to the deck. KD Kedah's captain, Commander Huzilmi greeted us and took us to the wardroom for lunch. You just cannot beat the navy for its impeccable table: polished silver, bone china and marvels, Basmathi rice!!!! Lunch was good, very good. The time for us to return to base for the second wave was upon us sooner than gluttony could delay, so the boss summarily handed over the squadron plaque to Commander Huzilmi, got the required PR shot and called for aircraft start-up. Everyone looked at each other. Who was supposed to fly with the boss?? The aircraft captains had elected to remain on board ship till I returned with the copilots, so it appeared that the dreaded job to fly back to base with the boss had fallen on my shoulders. Okay, what had to be done just had to be done. I wonder what would my choice have been if I were offered a pick between this and a parajump at 8000 feet? "See you later sir, enjoy the flight," was Capt Ian's poorly masked potshot call as I walked in the boss's trail with a leadened heart.

It was a blazing noonhour by the time I had landed and summoned Capt Hanif and the other copilots to the second Nuri for our already late departure. But our call for start clearance was met with a negative reply from tower "due to parajump DZ active". I felt like I was at the mercy of absolute dolts, as I chanced a hint: "Harimau 02 request start for systems check on ground prior departure to KD Kedah." I hoped to buy time from Angkasa 399, the C-130 conducting the jump exercise, so that the happy coincidence would be that I would be ready for rotor engagement just about the end of his jump pass. I was done with the functional checks in no time. "Tower, Harimau 02 request estimate delay for rotor engagement," I pleaded. Harimau 02, expect 25 minutes. I gave the bad news to the crew, that we would have to languor in the cockpit while allowing the downward spiral of inept air traffic controllers to rule the day. Lt Col Raja, the aircraft captain flying Angkasa 399, seemed to have understood my predicament. "Tower, Angkasa 399, delaying third pass to cater to Harimau's departure. Juliet Romeo (the KD Kedah) is asking about Harimau's position. Harimau, can you hear JR's radio call?" I replied in the negative quoting line of sight limitations. "Angkasa 399, appreciate your delay intention, will start No 2 and standby ready for rotor engagement and expedite departure. Advise when at the end of your second pass." Shortly after I had started No 2 engine, Angkasa 399 called tower to advise me to expedite my departure. I was up and out before they could say "Harimau 02".

This time around, as I cruised toward JR, I felt all perked up and ready to execute a VIP landing on the deck. The seascape looked very much the same, with ship and oil rigs pecking the skyline in random silhouettes. "JR from Harimau 02 request ship course and lat and long." The Flight Deck Officer transmitted the ship's velocity and GPS coordinates. Hanif punched them into the GPS, and it displayed the heading to track to intercept the ship at a distance of 20 miles. Very soon, I could make out the shape of the vessel. "Harimau 02, confirm Green Deck," I called to ensure my landing clearance was valid. Harimau 02, JR Green Deck, report finals to land. Taking note that this was Capt Hanif's maiden flight as far as deck landings was concerned, I wondered whether he could handle its intense workload from the word "Go!". I decided that I would show him how it is done, then his running change sortie with Capt Magesh would allow him the opportunity to try it out. It wouldn't be fair to ask him to execute a procedure he had never seen.

This time, when alongside the ship, I asked the crewman to patter me along the bumline painted across the deck. The bumline, as its name suggested, was a line where your bum should be placed so that the Nuri's tail would be inside safe clearance limits of a ship's deck or a dispersal's distance to a hangar. This would ensure that the Nuri was properly positioned on deck, and less to worry about the tail wheel getting snagged on the deck fences. During the underwater escape course tutorials in Brunei, we had watched enough video clips of Chinooks and Sea Knights getting snagged on a moving ship's deck extremities and crashing into the sea . I had diligent crewmen on my side, and with aircraft 38 which had stabilising equipment without a recalcitrant pitch channel the way 28 had, landing on deck was smoother and more controlable. Not much rebound as the undercarriage met the deck and the oleos settled comfortably to take the aircraft's weight. I was done!! Now, to release control to Magesh, Ian and Paranjothi. One by one the crew changed and everyone was made current on deck landing. The ride home was under Paranjothi's command, and I wondered whether he would provide the seamen a flypass. I felt the chopper break from deck and transit into take-off. There were some random manoeuvres, then I could see the crewmen gesture to one another that a flypass was coming up.

The Nuri was brought into a high-speed pass alongside the ship at 30 feet from sea level, then put into a gentle climb for rejoin to Labuan. I was certain that Paranjothi would also face an air traffic controller fathered by Gepetto. The unending orbits 5 miles off from Labuan over the water confirmed that indeed, he had. Gepetto's soul be blessed, but I had lost faith in this cellulose controller ever becoming a real boy.
This was little consolation that the following week, the boss would not be around, and the remainder of the aircrew would be in Tawau for a night vision exercise, leaving Capt Hasto and I as the only aircraft captains available to see to the VIP tasks and parajumps to come. No sir, this was not good. No sir, the fortnight was not yet over.

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