12 February 2010

Old Blighty-Departure

Les was a tall, heavy-set fellow who reminded me of my deceased father-in-law. He was polite to a fault like most Englishmen I've known. But there was a traceable veneer over him that I couldn't put a name to yet. What was it? I would find it in a moment of future insult and resultant liberation of fumes, but not now; not quite yet. There was no time for me to ponder the flaws of a person I had just met, as the chill in the morning air had a bite to it, and he had to show us around the simulator school, show us the emergency exits and most important to my coursemates, the smoking area.

The simulator looked fairly accurate, with most of the flight and engine instrumentation in all the right places. I was thrilled to be using a daylight simulator, as for 3 courses in Norway, I had used a night only simulator, very awkward, and not good for judgement when executing a crash-landing with only runway edge lights as depth perception guides. I was scheduled for the first sortie, as Major Azman put on a face that said hey, I've been here 3 times already, you guys jump in anytime you like. Come to think of it, I admit that's how I felt when I had done my simulator course in Norway for the third time. Okay, Azman, I apologise. I have misjudged your character.

When Les was briefing us on Cockpit Resource Management, and the bad press it had received as The School of Chummy Smooching, I had dismissed it as hyperbole. Here was my first error. I had assumed that this Englishman's humour was just that: humour. But I had been utterly deceived.

We clambered into the cockpit, with Azman playing the role as crewman and Wan Hafizul as copilot. It was an instrument flying sortie, departure from Labuan airfield, and the simulator projected the images with less conviction that Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000. But the air traffic tower was immediately recognisable, even if completely lonesome-looking without the accompanying civil terminal building!! For those unfamiliar with simulators, they do not always produce realistic images, nor do the controls have the correct "feel", or motion have the centripetal/centrifugal physical sensations of real flight. This leads to many a pilot experiencing motion sickness, and I have watched as they unharnessed and dashed out with their hands over their mouths after three minutes in the cockpit.

We were supposed to carry out an Instrument Flight Departure out of Labuan and return for a locator letdown. The sortie started out predictably and uneventfully, and I executed the take-off, raised the undercarriage upon passing 200 feet and handed over the controls to Capt Wan. I noticed that he began flying off heading and off airspeed, going way beyond the limits of his "C" category. So I remarked, "Wan, if you can't do this I will have to on your behalf."

Wan replied with an apologetic "Yes, sir!" and continued to struggle like a newbie copilot. The sortie continued amidst much prompting and reminding till finally, the instrument letdown was executed and we landed. Les suggested a safety debrief in ten minutes in the classroom. 

I wasn't prepared for what Les did. He began by asking who sets the tone for the sortie. We all knew the answer to that one: the aircraft commander. He then went on to ask what happens when the aircraft commander says something in the cockpit-and I wrote it down, he said-to the effect of if you can't do this I will have to . You alienate that crew member, he diagnosed. The crewman in the rear will immediately say that he wants nothing to do with this aircraft captain, and the copilot would have withdrawn into his seat.

Nothing secretes the bile in my mouth more than a presumptuous expatriate, though in this situation, the lines of what constituted an expatriate and local employee were not as definite as was necessary to make staging a rebuttal feasible. He went on to deplore how a dictatorial commander would not be conducive to drawing out the best in the crew.

That's when it hit me: Les did recite the disclaimer in his opening pitch: The School of Chummy Smooching. So this is what it really meant. Far from exaggeration, it was the truth in that now the psychologists had jumped on the bandwagon of flight operations to dictate how a crew was to interact and be productive. This smacked of the prevalence of ambulance-chasers in elevating the quality of life in America.

"Ruffled a few feathers there didn't we?" Les said in conclusion to his debrief. How tempted I was to gun down this misplaced holier than thou crowd-pleaser, the utter disappointment he was in my eyes for having been an ex-RAF helicopter pilot, now trying to teach the mollycoddling method of grooming copilots for operations. But I hesitated on account of averting being the kettle with less water and thereby boiling faster, and continued to gaze upon Les with a look reserved for the flotsam in a cesspool. I decided one thing: I would not be cowed into resigned silence by a bulldozing old know-it-all shielded behind his geriatric anecdotes in guise of wisdom, be he an instructor or no. As it was, I found his analogy of cockpit interpersonal dynamics too pre-school for the pressured environment of military operations. I was not dismissing his ideas, as I knew they would be useful the day I became a civil pilot. His input though, was less groundbreaking than it was cliched and forcedly humorous. Yes, the word I was looking for to summarise what I thought of Les's attitude was colonist. Sometimes I wonder to myself if I hadn't in fact meant it anatomically.

I did not allow him to whitewash (sorry, absolutely no pun here) the jet-lagged Malaysian crew with inaccurate perspectives, and provided a difference of opinion whenever I saw it as being warranted. Anytime the shoe did not fit, I called for a resize. The stick in the mud did not yield either. Thus we stood till the end of the course, each on our figurative steed, surveying the other with unflinching readiness to launch at each other's throats should half an excuse for hostilities be proffered. But alas, the occasion never came to pass, as the Englishman in Les always started each day with a cheery morning greeting to pave the way for his opinionated sermonising for the rest of the day. I do not regret to say that we parted not as declared adversaries, yet not as admitted friends. But what more could I have possibly expected of Les?

Along for the ride to ensure that instructional sorties did not end in sudden death without a youthful successor to the Empire, was our other instructor, David. David was more accepting, and open to suggestion that each person's experience was unique. It was easy to like David, as he had the looks and mannerisms of Austin Powers's Mini Me. We had fairly good banter, and he would try and top my jokes with some last word in humour.

Two different instructors, two different styles.

Well, that was the simulator side to my week in England.
What else was there?? In the evenings, after class, Azman would drive with the mind map of a local to the shopping complex which housed Argos, ASDA, Marks & Spencers and Sainsbury's. Here, we'd get whatever we needed for our meals...breakfast and dinner. Lunch would have to be survived at BI's simulator. The guys soaked instant noodles in boiling water and made like they were content with that. Perhaps they were indeed. I too, in moments of desperation, did succumb to the same prescription to stave off hunger till evening when I would cook dinner.

Part of the joy of being in any foreign country is checking out their grub. Walking through the supermarkets showed me that the pickings were good indeed. The choice of cheeses, fish and meat assured me that I had no real excuse to be hungry in England. Browsing through Sainsbury's, I could see the meals I would be having in the evenings with a few brave adventures in the kitchen.

The trouble with meals is, it's better with company. I know what I have said about my coursemates, but I harbour them no ill when it came to enjoying a meal together with me. They, for obvious reasons, were always concerned about whether the food was kosher or not, so that ruled out eating as a group, period.

Azman, however, did not fuss about joining me for fish n' chips and peas at Flyte Bytes, the canteen some 300 yards away from British International Simulator Centre, out in the frigid autumn air.

Wan, in comparison, proved to be a snivelling tyke. He complained that the rice I had microwaved was uncooked. He griped that the trout I fried was still raw, gaping in disgust at its pastel-pink flesh. Without hesitation, I told him that he wasn't being force-fed. I felt like Samwise Gamgee being chided by Gollum over his cooking methods.

That aside, we didn't suffer over meals.

The course drew swiftly to a close. Before we could shop, it was already Friday. Our log books were signed and confidential reports were recorded. Les did ask in his parting brief, where on earth I learned to speak English so well. I clipped the conversation short by replying that I hadn't the foggiest idea. I had a feeling that there was no compliment in his question; rather that he would have preferred the dominance of language to remain his. Maybe I was being biased but I do believe that having been abraded sufficiently, I had earned the right to be so.

We rushed to the house to get our things. Chris was there, puffing away and chatting with the waiting driver, his teeth ever a matt yellow that would make marigolds pale in comparison. I had already packed the night before, knowing that little time existed between the course closure and shuttling to London for a night stop before our flight home. I dragged my bag out to meet the driver, Brian, who again, was such a polite chap and wanted to take my bag for me. I insisted that I do it myself, but that instead, he stop by Cafe Shore on the way out so that I could down a quick pint of cider.

"Oh, you don't have cider in Malaysia do you?" he asked sympatheticaly. "I'll stop for you at Cafe Shore, and still carry your bags into the car, how's that?" Well, that was good.

Cafe Shore was the kind of place that made you want to spend all day drinking and yarning. It had the comfortable feel of a hobbit-hole: the lights were low, the seats were plush and arranged in cosy and friendly circles, and of course, everyone was right about English-brewed cider. It was delicious, the true Ent Draft, which I know made me feel I had gained a few inches in notional height. Chris did assure me that the home brews were better, the ones with stuff at the bottom of the glass. These were supposed to take me to the floor in an instant. Well, this pint of Blackthorne was heady enough, and I savoured the pint to its end before admitting to a smug Brian that yes, the cider was heavenly. He guffawed victoriously at my remark and waved me into the front seat.

Brian and I had a long chat en route to London because again, my linguistically-challenged mates were sleeping in the back seat. That's what happens when you stay awake at night to watch previews of porn on satellite television. I wonder about the English sometimes. Why do they consistently ask me where I learned the language? Here was Brian, after a few minutes letting loose the query like he couldn't help himself. But since he was such a nice fellow, I didn't take offense to it and just continued our friendly conversation till London was on the windscreen. The obliging Brian then decided that he would take us on a scenic route to our hotel (for the benefit of my sleeping coursemates?), through the Thames, Hyde Park, the junction to Albert Hall, The Museum of Natural History and finally to the Belmont Hotel. I thanked him profusely for going out of his way, which he reciprocated for the chat, and we bade him goodbye.

As he drove off, we turned around to be greeted by a dimunitive Malay chap named Man, completely tented in a parka and summer cap. He said that he was here to drive us the next day to Heathrow, and that for now, he would take us shopping along Queen's Way. We had fifteen minutes to check in and then we would be driven down to the souvegnir shops. We checked into The Belmont, manned by a Catholic Pakistani. Your rooms are in The Astoria, and tomorrow's breakfast will be here, in the basement of The Belmont, he squealed like we were supposed to know it.

London was a busy place, and Queen's Way seemed like every nation had encamped therein. On the streets, I could hear people rattling in languages I could not even locate to a continent. Yes, they were diverse, with piercings in every body part. We quickly found the souvegnir shops and started sorting out who would want what. I was beginning to wonder what t-shirt sizes meant in this place, and asking the Sri Lankan proprietor if an English-sized M would fit me, he scanned me and said, "NO, because you are too fat." I concluded that what fit me in Malaysia would fit me here.

We were done in 15 minutes, and waited for 45 for Man to turn up. Our ears were frozen stiff, hunger was beginning to gnaw and I gazed appraisingly at the Thai and Tandoori restaurants along the street, beckoning enticingly for guests to drop in. But I figured that I'd rather be a good team player and eat with these guys in Malaysia Hall. After all, I could still get good food at home, and Sunday breakfasts in Labuan would still constitute crisp rashers of bacon and soft bullseyes.

Man finally turned up and we jumped into the car as if it were a sauna. He scuttled quickly around a few corners and showed us into the basement canteen of Malaysia hall. It is so interesting to watch Malaysians in England. Perhaps that is how Man could spot us, to our amazement, on a crowded street corner at night on Queen's Way. Malaysians are identifiable in their animated chatter, the way they dressed to ward off the cold and the way they wear their money. The affluent ones outdressed the Londoners in winter fashionables. They looked like they had stepped out of a magazine, sitting here in a somewhat dingy canteen for "Malaysians-only Malaysia Hall". As we lined up in the cramped space to choose our fare, we heard a thick Chinese accent behind us saying "Makcik, apa khabar, rendang ada Makcik?" How cute, an Ah Beng in London pursuing rendang on a chilly autumn night; it was almost charming. But there we were, viewing the vegetables floating in yellow liquid, fish fried to crispness in what must have been Gehenna's cauldrons, fried lungs that looked like the cow was a chain-smoker and kopi and teh tarik, all as familiar as the offerings of a roadside warong.

As we sat eating with Man just having a drink, he wanted to catch up on the news. For all his kampong appearances, Man was liberal minded. He did not look upon Malaysia as a land of hope, even if he loved his shire. He saw no potential for personal growth, no educational future for his kids and little in the way of the quality of life for either generation. This was Man, a business administration graduate from a London university, who would be entitled to government handouts, speaking of being hedged in by the country's social and political limitations. I felt so odd listening to him, yet couldn't help seeing his point of view. And what was he doing here? He was shuttling Malaysians around for an average of 50 pounds a day.

Dinner was done, and we were dropped of at the Belmont.

Morning came sooner than expected, and it was welcomed! We had breakfast, the guys having cereal and toast whilst I put away my last English Breakfast in England. Man was there on the spot of eight o'clock. The kindly fellow saw us through our check-in and shared one final smoke outdoors before we adjourned to the Golden Lounge to await our boarding time.

"Finally!", I whispered to myself as I boarded the 747, and I heard "Selamat pagi Major." Yes, I'm going home.

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