In the search area loitered another helicopter, a Dauphin belonging to the state royal family. It was flown by ex-air force pilots, who wanted to provide their precious input to the rescue operation, hopefully to reap a media moment if this proved to be useful. The utter fear of failure on the part of the SAR Mission Coordinator would mean that he would entertain any suggestion no matter how ridiculous.
Both the surviving fighter pilot and the one along for the ride got off, the latter to aid the former's admission into a ward. I flew back to base in failing light with a huge lump in my throat. In retrospect, I do indeed know how Frodo Baggins must have felt when he had finally cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. I wanted to blubber like a child, so close to tears was I. He was saved! I prayed my thanks, that for once, there would not be mourning, and this was one crash that did not end in sorrow. I choked back my tears because I still had an aircraft to fly and land, and I still had a crew to think of. Twilight was fading as I rolled into the dispersal. The place was as soulless as a cemetery. All the air force top brass had sped off to the hospital to fawn over the survivor.
I carried out the post-flight check quietly. As I turned toward the SAR office, the base Executive Officer came out to let me know where everyone had gone. It was a long day. I was sorry for my crew. They should have been recognised, even if for what was merely their job. A live fighter pilot rescue on this scale of success, was rare, very rare indeed.
But not all was entirely lost. As I entered the SAR office to sign off my post-flight authorisation and record, I was thumped on my back. The helicopter crew from the other two Nuris had waited, and there was rousing cheer, handshakes and many thumbs were up to greet us. For a few minutes, there were no words, just voices above voices. Then came loud and excited talk and relief from the workload and tension of the mission gave rise to heated recollection of the sortie. It was very much like the end scene of Top Gun, but without the fighter pilot. And this was the real deal.
It was night time. I called my wife first. She was deeply upset from the day before when the news of the crash broke, and I knew she would want to know before the rest of the living world did. Brenda sighed her relief and thanks to God. Then she said words that I now hang on to every time we have a domestic dispute and I am in danger of being called a total idiot: "I am very proud of you." Words to wield in the hour of jeopardy.
Only after that did I report the situation to my boss. He threw the crew and men a dinner in absentia.
It was going to be Raya the next morning. I was to stay the week in Kuantan on SAR standby as the Muslim majority left the base for their ancestral homes to celebrate.
It is now almost 4 years since the incident. Other than for the crew involved in the rescue, the air force has forgotten the events that led to joy substituting sorrow. Timely recognition was miscarried. Lessons as to why of seven aircraft in search for one missing pilot only one yielded results, is now permanently lost.
In case anyone was wondering, the key to this was in flying the Dead Man's Curve, that flight regime of imminent death. It was the rotor downwash from the Nuri which split the jungle canopy open and allowed the crewmen to see the waving pilot below. Anything the slightest bit further above treetop or faster than a walking-paced flight would not have duplicated the precise strength of downwash necessary to spread the forest open and render success to a fighter pilot rescue. The Dead Man's Curve can save lives.
Sometimes, that our friends may live, we must risk death.