12 February 2010

Free Willies

Friday, February 27, 2009

It seemed the norm that the incidence of the axe upon the necks of the few aircraft captains we had was to rise sharply now that the rules of operational conduct were proving to be more contentious. We had a patchwork of NVG-qualified pilots, sorely lacking in numbers and experience and yet, we were expected to maintain an NVG watch over the operational theatre. There went a set of crew allocated thereto, drawing us into crisis management over an indefinable period of time, and less crew to roll for SAR standby and routine ops. So even though I had done Ops Balasah in December, I was up to do it again in February.

Let's speak of Ops Balasah. I mention it often, now that I am a member of No 5 Squadron. No 5 is, after all, the mainstay of that op. Ops Balasah is a resupply/troop changeover operation to the border outpost LPs (landing points) where the army boys maintain a watch over the Sabah-Kalimantan border.

I should have been elated to be away from the squadron for a few days, but I was tasked to fly with a copilot whose character and appearance would have rung a bell for Smeagol. It's politically incorrect of me to say this, I know, and my disclaimer is in that his name, for the purpose of this story has been changed to protect the guilty, as well as the valid premise that even if he were to read this post, he would not comprehend it any better than when he attempted to read and comprehend the Nuri Standard Operating Procedures.

So come Monday 16 February, and there was Smeagol, delivering a pre-flight brief that raised more questions than he could answer. I could not bear with it and cut it short, providing my own brief to the crew. The take-off was for 0800H, but the weather did not look good. Low, dark clouds swirled overhead Labuan. Exactly the kind of weather I would not opt to fly in. The satellite picture from Brunet's website was not encouraging. The boss was also supposed to ferry an aircraft to Tawau that morning, and I knew he had the option of pushing through weather by climbing above it en route to Tawau airport, which had approach aids, whilst I was supposed to come down into Keningau airfield which was strictly a VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) approach. So as not to be questioned by him for delaying, I told the groundcrew to tow out my aircraft from the hangar once he had signed for and towed out his aircraft. Let this be a lesson to newbie pilots on tactical maneouvring within the hangar space in a hostile environment (milspeak for when the boss is around).

To be fair about the weather, the sun was ablaze with its first piercings through the gloomy cloudswirl as we both started up. The boss called for taxy first, and I was positioned as No 2 in the departure sequence. Before my take-off, he was already at zone boundary outbound, and fell under Kinabalu's advisory authority. I learned later that he had to climb to 7000 feet to clear the weather and had himself gazed towards Keningau, which he deemed impenetrable due to dense cloud cover. I took-off with a very quiet Smeagol who seemed to be in suspended animation, peering worriedly out on to the world as visibility was so poor that Labuan was could not be seen from Menumbok, just 4 nautical miles away. Looking in the direction of the Tenom valley gap, the visibility reduced to a whitewashed wall. The option to climb above terrain limits inside weather could not be exercised as I had no assurance that I could descend into Keningau upon clearing the gap. Given Keningau's unfailing carpet clouds in the morning, I deduced that my chances were no good. All this while, Smeagol remained silent , with his dark anti-glare visor down, looking outside but not providing any advice or suggestion whatsoever, as copilots are expected to in a multi-crew ship. I transmitted, "Labuan Approach, Angkasa 922 RTB due weather. Re-estimate next departure as required and will advise accordingly," and turned the aircraft towards my reciprocal heading, knowing that Labuan lay ahead. I landed and post-shutdwon, had a word with Smeagol, and warned him that if he didn't pull his socks up, I would restrict his flying to base and forbid him from having fun elsewhere on any outstation op.
Herein lay my predicament. I knew well that we cannot always choose our copilots. If I did not fly with him, when would he gain knowledge through apprenticeship under some semblance of proficient captaincy? It dawned on me that I could not turn aside this task, unpleasant and tempting as it may have respectively been. As Brenda pointed out, this would be upon my shoulder on my slow march to Golgotha.

My second attempt at 1330H did not show better promise. Everything still looked bleak after reaching Menumbok. I started to weave between the clouds, and found that I could still traverse ahead in spite of poor visibility. I quickly diagnosed this as haze, not cloud or precipitation, and would resort to flying at a speed commensurate with visibility. The Tenom gap became visible as we got nearer to it, and it was clear to see that we could pass through without much of a problem, and reading the weather conditions gave me the impression that I could fly well into the evening without encountering weather build-up in the interior. Upon passing the gap, forward visiblity improved, with features up to 10 kilometres away being discernible albeit obscurred through the thick haze. Once in Keningau airfield we set onto executing the op without further hesitation and intending to make good use of the remaining daylight hours to clear at least one sortie for...let's do Seliku.

That's all we could do for the day.

I had an axe to grind this op around. Of all the LPs I had ever encountered, the one that regularly gave me the willies was Bantul. When I served Labuan as a copilot and initial D cat aircraft captain, Bantul was an LP next to the river bank, but had been closed for a few years due to its unsuitability to Nuri operations. In all likelihood, it may have been served by the Alouette III, which was smaller and more manoeuvreable in such ravinous confines. The army boys had been using Tamalasak, but that was a further 7 nautical miles downstream of the river (it flowed away from the common border) and hence, not close enough to the border for army foot patrols and policing. So a new Bantul was opened whilst I served in Kuala Lumpur, and it was set atop a hillslope at a height of 1400 feet. The very sight of it could set the adrenaline rushing, and not in a good, bungee-jumping way. It was such a perch that the aircrew could mark off their currency for rooftop landings whenever they landed on this LP. Now, I have done a rooftop landing over University Hospital when delivering an oral cancer patient from Terendak Camp Malacca, and I daresay Bantul could easily, in comparison, float my heart into my epiglottis.

I feel nervous about Bantul because in a straight-in approach to the LP, it has a nose-up attitude when landing. I had a momentary tail-slide when I ran the op last December as the parking brakes could not hold against the aft-set centre of gravity even with the rotor disc tilted forward to hold ground position steady. I jammed on the toe brakes immediately, and all the army boys disembarking at Bantul nigh left their skins on board the Nuri whilst alighting. This indicated to me that the concrete LP had eroded with landcreep, increasing the tail-down moment, which in no way bode well for a Nuri. Yes, I know about not settling the weight entirely on the undercarriage, but keeping an 18-thousand pound helicopter light on wheels atop a wind-buffeted hillside LP makes me queasy even if it is the lesser of two evils next to a tailslide potential at 1400 feet. And with a ravine waiting below to greet us.

Evening came and morning came; the second day. 17 Feb saw me only finish all the necessary sorties for Seliku. The usual 2 sorties per border oupost was increased to 4 in Seliku's case because a party of Medical Corps officers and men had to be flown in and later, out, to conduct a 'hearts and minds' operation. As predicted the day before, the current weather held off till late evening. As was beginning to be the usual case, a change of aircraft was due, so I delayed on ground whilst awaiting Paranjothi to turn up and exchange his aircraft with mine. M2337, the better equipped, better balanced aircraft was needed in Labuan for Night Vision Goggles currency training, and so for the remainder of the op, I was to use M2331, whose rigging was as eccentric as her behaviour. I had experienced her tendency towards a stiff and sometimes unresponsive pedal control input when in high wind velocity conditions, and centreing the controls in the cockpit actually produced a rotor disc attitude tilting towards the left. Hmmmmm. Rhubarb, rhubarb.

Then came 18 Feb. I was determined to prove that I could use the old riverside LP to deliver the goods to Bantul, even if it meant that our dear ponggoes would have to spend an hour carrying the rations to the post uphill. The tailslide was still fresh in my mind, and though I had confidence in the ability to pull-up from a teetering landing or to counter any eventuality with adept handling, my quest was also to establish a failsafe LP for Bantul in the event of bad weather. If low clouds predominated, at least we could course the river and off-load the goods at the riverside rather than hope that the cloud base would be above 1600 feet permitting a safe circuit height for a landing at Bantul's uphill post. These were convincing tactical excuses, I mused to myself, as I briefed the army quartermaster of my sortie profile. With Smeagol as my left-hand man, I had to do all the engine starts myself, remembering M2331's eccentricity, now showing a 'hot temperament' in her tendency to overtemp the No 1 engine when starting up. With Smeagol's deadwooden reactions, he would not know how to assess an abnormal rate of engine turbine temperature rise and anticipate for an abort-start. See how the workload can be disproportionately yoked when copilots are poorly trained in operational conversion units (schools) and the operational squadrons have to close the loop for them? Did I mention that he also consistently got us lost each time he was navigating? I had to intervene and press him into proper map reading before we could resume correct headings to the LPz. Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb!! His sense of direction was such a shadow of his namesake's.

So there we were, doing a thousand feet and flying upstream from Sepulot towards Bantul. I took it slow at 70 knots. I knew that once we spotted the riverside LP, intercepting my glidepath and run-in for a landing from a lower and more controllable speed would be safer than shaving off the larger momentum from 110 knots. The extreme flare combined with a high rate of descent into the riverside could lead to a vortex ring state and deep stall the aircraft into a dangerously, or fatally even, hard landing. We began to countdown the riverside villages leading up to Bantul. At a known riverbend, I crosschecked with the crewman to confirm that the next patch of green would be Bantul, riverside. Getting feedback in the affirmative, I descended to 1000 feet, actually 400 feet above river level and braced for running in.

Then came Bantul riverside into view, and to my disappointment, things had changed since last December. The field I had spied several times before looked smaller now, because more houses had been built around and on it. Rats! Now, after all my lobbying to land down there, I was committed to landing at the uphill post. I informed the crewman, Sgt Dzul, of my reassessment and intention to land further up. Raising the collective to climb, I asked him to lookout for the LP for me and provide clock-code target indication. Bantul was so situated on the leeward side of the slope that you could not see it as you flew towards the border. It could only be seen as it passed about your 8 o'clock. I manoeuvred into a teardrop and positioned for finals and running-in. It was a turbulent day, so I made sure that on finals approach, the glidepath was good, power play was good in my left hand using the collective and that my finals speed on cyclic was good, ever ready for an aborted approach should anything look or feel out of place.

Good girl, steady now.

Closer to the LP, convert to a slow walking pace. Holding height, at forward ten. Down to overhead the landing pad at ten feet above, coming down.

I felt the main undercarriage touchdown, and as I lowered the collective further, something felt amiss. "Hold your collective sir, tailwheel not touching the ground!" came Dzul's patter. "Up gently!" I raised 31 back into a hover and turned anti-clockwise so that the main undercarriage, a shorter distance apart at 13 feet , listed left on landing with much less a moment arm than the long dip effected by the 23-foot main wheels-to-tail wheel distance. Imagine the Nuri as a 6-inch ruler, being placed on an incline. Placing it lengthwise on the incline would more likely slide it than placing it breadthwise. It appeared that things had become worse since last December, with the LP's gradient increasing over the rainy season at year's end.

Dzul was supervising a student crewman for the op, and the greenhorn did not have the operational aggression to hasten the army boys to off-load the freight quickly. As I held the rotor disc steady against the hilltop turbulence, I grunted, "Hurry!!!!" Dzul caught my cue and snapped at the student crewman. "Sani, you jerit at them to cepat lah!!! You don't let them take their own sweet time here." With all that haste and possibly less speed, it was after an interminable wait that the student crewman finally said, " All off-loading and loading complete, crewman ready." I jabbed the ASE engagement button and lifted off to a hover, spot-turned anti-clockwise and dove for a flyaway.

Once out of the canyon, past Sepulot, I handed over control to Smeagol, telling him as unambiguously as possible, what heading and height to fly at and what ground feature ahead to fly to.

Then I reappraised what had just happenned. I suppose Bantul would always be a tension-laden LP to negotiate by virtue of it being a perch with a tail-down attitude. I still had options, though they would never obviate the requisite bated breath atop Bantul.

Let's not forget poor Smeagol. How was he throughout all this??? He was busy getting us lost. I took over navigation till the entire op was over.

We had one more sortie to finish off Bantul, then followed by one sortie to Saliliran. We could finish three sorties the next day, comprising the one remaining for Saliliran and two for Long Pa Sia. Time now was 1725H, and it was enough labour for the day. A welcoming air-conditioned hotel room awaited and a well-deserved meal was to be chosen from the many restaurants surrounding the hotels we patronised every Ops Balasah.

As the student crewmen struggled to don the night-stop kit and tail rotor gust locks, laughed at and watched by the ground crew, I strode to the starboard sponson and gave the Nuri a grateful hug. We would see Bantul again, another day, in another op. And we would return always, to a cool room and a warm meal.

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