12 February 2010

How To Rescue A Fighter Jock

On 9 November 2004, at about 1200hours, I got news from amongst my friends as well as television that a MiG-29 from Kuantan had crashed and its pilot was missing. I was in No 10 Squadron back then, and we had a Nuri detachment in Kuantan to cover the fighter movements in the base and National Search and Rescue (SAR) for the East Coast. I knew the Nuri crew in Kuantan would be abuzz with the search. Within hours, another Nuri from the squadron was sent to Kuantan. Shortly thereafter, one Beechcraft Maritime Patrol Aircraft, One CN-235 cargo aircraft and two EC355 Squirrels from the Police Air Wing also joined the search mission. It was 2 days away to Hari Raya Puasa, a much awaited festival for any Muslim family,and the loss of a husband and father was something the pilot's wife and kids could do without.

I had lost many friends to air mishap, and I was hoping that this bit of news would not end on the same sorrowful note as all the others I had heard over the years. You never get used to this, you never wave your hand in dismissal and quip that this bugger has probably bought it. Even with a successful ejection, there were still other hazards to worry about. Post-ejection injuries, hypothermia, disorientation and sheer bad luck could always congeal to render this incident as a fatality. I could foresee the journalists, newscasters and reporters, and how they would sensationalise the crash. They would, as they oft have, rake up every incident from their archives to not say that we have a bad track record. They would turn the scenes from the hospital and the deceased's family home into an obscenely voyeuristic circus without any regard for the bereavement suffered, all in the name of journalism. They really should try this shoe on their feet, but in this country that looks upon the profession of arms with disdain, empathy is as commonplace as egalitarianism.

By last light on the same day, the two Nuris ended their search while the Beechcraft and CN-235 continued by night using infra-red sensors and distress beacon sensors. I received a call from my boss saying that I would have to fly to Kuantan at first light with spares for one of the Nuris which had sustained a technical snag, and to join in the search.

I arrived the next day to a busy but rather grim base. Everyone's face bore the same expression as to be found at a crematorium. I hastened into the Rescue Coordination Centre to be briefed on the situation. The initial plan was to first locate the parachute which had been spotted by the second Nuri the day before, and then off-load ground search parties into the area. All preparations were made and my crew and I took off to the area at about 1100hours with the ground search party as briefed.

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.

We tracked to the chute location on Global Positioning System coordinates provided, and we circled and circled the area but our efforts were frustrated as we simply could not spot the chute. I took a glance at the fuel quantity gauges and noted that my endurance limits were closing in. Then, as I went in for another orbit, my crewman saw the chute and indicated its position by clock code. Oh, bloody hell, the blighter could only be seen from one height and one heading. The slightest bit off track and the chute would not be seen for the trees of the wood. The jungle was mercilessly dense and the terrain was steep and tight, calling for the utmost in crew coordination, aircraft manoeuvring and concentration. The drab Kentucky Fried Chicken stripes on the chute did nothing to aid its visibility under those conditions.

After looking for a nearby clearing and off-loading the ground search party, we took off and returned to the chute site and decided to expend the remaining endurance in sweeping the search area for any sign of the pilot. As I looked down and saw how thick the jungle was, I asked God how on earth would I ever find anyone down there. There was also no distress beacon signal, which any pilot who had survived a crash should have switched on. This would indicate signs of life, and provide an electronic emission source for us to home on to. In the absence of these, whither the chance of success?

We kept on flying till we needed to return to refuel. While refuelling was under way, all search aircraft crew were called in for an update. Since the ground search parties were in place, the SAR Mission Coordinator now graduated the SAR operation to the aerial search phase. I was allotted a search area eastward of the parachute location, and so on and so forth, the entire probable ground where the pilot could be found was carved up amongst the aircrew.
It was now 1430 Hours. I went up again, coordinating with the other aircraft for safe separation and established myself in my search area. Again, flying a search pattern as per SOP stubbornly refused to yield any result. The jungle was just way too dense. What hope of finding him, what hope of survival in such treacherous terrain and forest? You need not be far from home base, just 11 miles out, in an agrarian area, and yet ruin the hope of discovery and survival because you're in horribly thick jungle, and this really makes for an inch being as bad as a mile. Before long, all aircraft had to return to base due to bad weather.

Back on ground, I prayed once more, and deliberated on what to do once the weather cleared. I must have been agonising for a while, because when I had wearied of it, the weather subsided. While the rain was still trickling to a halt, I was hurried by a senior officer into the cockpit. I thought to myself, rushing is the last thing an aerial search needed, but would a senior officer and a fighter pilot at that hearken to reason? But as I was on my way anyhow, I just continued my walkout and feigned obedience, like it was actually his idea that I take off now. Just before boarding, a young fighter jock asked me to accommodate him as a passenger. Capt John Sham, disc jockey from Ipoh, now the RMAF compere extraordinaire at airshows. Okay, I thought. I have payload to offer, and an extra pair of eyes, whether employed or not, would still be useful at least some of the time. So John was hauled on board to complement the Combat Air Rescue Team who would be keeping their eyes peeled for signs of a survivor.

After take off, as I approached the search area, I asked myself how much should I tell my crew about the method I was about to employ in this run of the search operation. I was about to undertake a risk: to fly the "Dead Man's Curve". This is the combination of airspeed and height wherein if there was a single engine failure on the aircraft, there would be insufficient height to dive for speed and achieve escape velocity for a climb away. We would just drop, with all the aerodynamic properties of an anvil. Death would be imminent.
My deliberations told me that my flight profile, just above treetop and airspeed below critical flyaway, would already tell them what I was up to. The crew needn't be fed with information that would cause them more stress and increased workload to the detriment of their search capability. Their own mortality was ever before them when searching for a missing pilot. It was a reminder of how death was a permanent fixture of our business, and turning up as dead or missing aircrew was a fate that awaited us all the time. I kept in reserve, that my response to any engine failure, singular or dual, would be to settle into the canopy, using the foliage as a cushion to a vertical descent through the trees. It would not be painless, but it would still lean to survivability. This particular bunch of crewmen and CAR Team had been with me in many sticky situations and had unquestioningly placed their lives in my hands many times before, and the unspoken consensus was that this is exactly what we were meant to do, and what we would do again if called upon.

To bring their minds on target, I spelt out their duties. The crewmen were instructed to place themselves at the starboard (cargo door) and port (crew door) positions for the lookout. The copilot was told to time me for one minute for each leg on a cardinal heading in the area as I flew the search pattern. Then I told both crewmen to look out for obstructions as I brought the aircraft down to 5 feet above the treetops, and the airspeed tapered to a walking pace. I flew first on an easterly heading, 090 deg, timed for one minute. The copilot called 'time' and I altered heading to 360, keeping to treetop and walking pace. This went on throughout the area as the creeping line pattern was flown.
I was about to reach the fringes of the search area and so I called out for another search in the reciprocal direction. The copilot responded with "Roger sir, temperatures and pressures good". The crewmen were silent. I was about to prompt a response from them when I heard my crewman say those words that froze my blood: "Tuan, ada orang melambai di bawah, tuan!" Sir, someone is waving at us from below, sir! I got him to fix the ground position as I flew a racecourse circuit to reposition the aircraft for a winching operation. The copilot manned the engine throttles and kept his eye on performance parameters. One crewman operated the hoist while the other doffed his bonedome and descended on the winch strop to retrieve the fighter pilot from below. My job was to hold the aircraft in a steady hover at 200 feet above ground level, and below the tree line. There were branches just a few feet away from the main rotor blade tips, and the fear of rotor downwash recirculating and drawing those branches into the rotors was causing my head to pulse with concentration to the extent that I cannot recall breathing. I believe that one can experience REM while wide awake, as I was scanning the engine and gearbox instruments, temperatures and pressures, plus blade tips to keep the aircraft in an absolutely perfect hover. My eye muscles announced their existence painfully. I had to blink the smarting ache back. In three minutes, I was relieved to hear my crewman say."Pilot safely on board, hoist safely home, up and away sir". Confirming that the copilot had the throttles at full forward, I raised the collective and departed from the search area.

We had been out of radio contact with air traffic control long enough for them to worry if we too, had become an air mishap statistic. Frantically they called, and I responded that we were 'operations normal', tracking direct for Hospital Tengku Ampuan Afzan. They demanded a reason for my intentions, and I replied that I had the survivor on board. That was a real mistake. First, the radio silence of disbelief. Then all hell broke loose over the radio as Generals wrestled for the handset to enquire into the pilot's condition. Was he injured, was he in good shape, was he able to speak? Yes, I said, the pilot is fine, and just a little scratched up, awfully smelly (I didn't say that) but surprisingly fine for a jungle eject survivor. By this time, I had the hospital grounds in sight, the sky was pale orange with the setting sun, and I had a high workload sequence to execute in landing in the hospital's small helipad with a Nuri. Tiring of the airborne interview, I transmitted my apologies: "I beg your pardon, Panglima, I must concentrate on my landing now" and ceased communications. I landed the aircraft in the tiny helipad, and thankfully, the hospital staff seemed to have been expecting us. Well, with a noisy rotor beat that signalled the Nuri's presence, who wouldn't be expecting us?

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.

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