12 February 2010

A Mouthful of Heart

The luxury of using the internet while being on standby duties is one of the few forms of relief we have when placed on Ops Pasir Standby detachment in Tawau. I find it dreadfully boring, because there is little else to do. We can't take the aircraft up for a training sortie unless it is well justified, so no activity there. I have attempted relieving some of that boredom by cycling from the detachment office at the airport to the house in Taman Milenium, 28km away. But after being nudged off the road by too many lumber trucks for my comfort, I am reevaluating the prudence of this sport on the jolly-rogered roads of Tawau.

Therefore when we were assigned a Senior Military Communications Flight task (to chauffer a Brigadier General and his party) for Thursday the 12th, it was a welcome ripple in the monotony. It was to be an island hop to Pulau Danawan about 45 nautical miles eastward of Tawau airport. From there we were to fly to Bakapit near Lahad Datu, and finally drop the entourage off at Sandakan. The task was assigned late on Wednesday evening and we did the prep, mananged to secure VIP grade rations in Tawau (an accomplishement in itself), and Lt 'Gomer Pyle', my copilot, provided the pre-flight brief that night itself so that we could settle all loose ends and have a good night's sleep before the task began the next day.

But the 12th of March began ominously on the wrong foot with the ground crew being late to push off to the detachment office because one of them was having a bellyache. I was supposed to have the aircraft ground run and parked at the VIP lounge by 0700H. The ground crew supervisor barked out a hastening command and they soon left. By the time my cockpit crew were packed and ready to roll away from the house, there was a sufficient time gap for the ground crew to prep the aircraft for the task before we arrived at the airport. Well, this was just the beginning.

After doing the ground run, I asked Sgt Nawab, my crewman to prepare the indemnity forms to be signed by the civillian contractors who would be boarding the Nuri. This indemnifies the air force against any liability in the event of an air mishap, God forbid. He seemed to have only five forms for 11 civies. I sought Lt Gomer hoping he would have enough, but he hadn't. This was not good. I snapped at him. "Didn't you know that we were flying civilians today? Didn't you read the task sheet yesterday evening? Don't you know that civies must be indemnified? If I am going to have to tell you everything, then you are no better than a mere passenger on this aircraft, strapped into the aircrew's seat." Gomer looked at me as if he was about to be my breakfast. He hurried to the terminal to look for a photocopier to duplicate the forms. But really! Again, this was just the beginning. There was much more that Gomer had just not thought of doing, which was about to unravel as the sortie progressed.

I hunted around the VIP lounge for the General , but he was nowhere in sight. I got a call from him shortly, saying he was at the security gate. I marched over to give him a brief on the day's sortie profile. He in turn, was apologetic about not declaring in the task sheet that the team of contractors would be carrying soil test equipment and asked if the dimensions were too large for the cabin. One glance told me that it would be no problem at all.

The brief had been given. Once you have spoken to your VIP passenger, and he hasn't chewed your rear end off, you can count yourself set for the day. I always contend that it is much easier flying a four-star army General around than a one-star Brig Gen from the air force. The army brass are just so taken with arriving and departing in a helicopter that little else matters. But an air force chap, well....he would be watching your start-up procedure, eyeballing your checklist and maps, wanting to listen to your cockpit chatter and radio transmissions (if he could grab a headset) and literally want to run the show backseat and tell you what a miserable specimen of cockpit vermin you are. The General seemed affable. Would I be spared?

As I was strapping in to start-up, I noticed the fuel gauges. 3100 pounds. Consumption was 1000 pounds per hour. The airborne leg time was 2 hours 6 minutes. We had a safe excess of 1100 pounds. The ground crew was supposed to have topped-up the tanks to 3500 pounds but the morning rush meant they couldn't. I didn't feel overtly threatended by this, it should not sabotage the entire op. Okay, so on with the flight.

Danawan Island is a bejewelled island adjacent to Siamil island, its sibling. The flight to Danawan was uneventful, the clear weather that day allowing us to spot it from 20 nautical miles away by virtue of Siamil's jagged spine rising out of the sea like Nessie against the grey morning sky. The LP was large enough for one Nuri only, so we would have to fly off to Semporna and wait as we couldn't shut down in a one-Nuri LP. The 7 passengers deplaned, and we took off for Semporna's airstrip. I decided to treat myself to to the pristine view by flying 50 feet off the water's surface. It was just gorgeous. Imagine flying over a sapphire seabed, sparkling aquamarine in the morning light. Fishermen had cast their nets in the shallow waters, in parallel lines strung to trap squid and shrimp and the other goodies that Semporna's waters yielded. Lobster comes to mind. Or so I erroneously thought. After getting better information, it is now certain that those nets were for cultivating algae. Yes, algae.

Upon landing in Semporna's airstrip, I checked the gauges again. 2600 pounds. Well, it looked okay, sufficient for another one and a half hours of flying time. At 1200H, We loitered at the terminal shack, used the facilities courtesy of the army drone unit managing the place and took a breather in the air-conditioned waiting room. In good time, the General called and asked to be picked up at 1230H. Done!! A hot pick-up from Danawan and Lahad Datu, here we come. It was a half-hour ride over the sea, cutting across the huge cove from Semporna to Lahad Datu, the mainland coastline curving leftward away from us and curving right back again to greet us. What were the gauges saying? The forward tank which fed the No 1 engine seemed to be consuming fuel rather quickly. Transferring fuel forward from the centre tank, didn't hold the balance for long. I resorted to cross-feed, running the No 1 engine with fuel from the No 2 engine's tank to finally get it to balance. Closing Lahad Datu, they showed 1100 pounds, with 30 minutes from Bakapit to Sandakan. Dicey. Very dicey.

At Lahad Datu, we dropped the group off at Bakapit, on an LP that was just enough to acommodate the Nuri's undercarriage. We couldn't shut down here either and so we flew around looking for an LP large enough to take two Nuris, just in case recovery was needed. We spotted a football field in an palm oil estate two minutes from Bakapit and elected to land therein.

Upon shutdown, two worried-looking estate workers approached us to ask us if anything was wrong. I assured them that no, all was well, we were here to fly some VIP around and we needed to park here for a while. Their worry gave way to jubilance as they caught scent of a photo opportunity here. In minutes droves of workers, schoolkids and spectators came to snap their cellphone VGA pictures "dengan pilot". We were accidental and reluctant celebrities for a good hour. One of the workers, a young dad, said he had worked on the estate for 20 years and this was his first experience of touching the Nuri's fuselage skin. It was like the scene from Slumdog Millionaire when Amitab Bachan's helicopter had landed, sans the fecal fan seeking an autograph.

I sent Gomer off to get a few cans of Coke from the estate canteen to slake the thirst of waiting for the 1400H pick-up for the Gen. True to form, he was gone for an eternity to a canteen 80 yards away. I called him on his cell, and there he appeared from behind the road bend, striding lethargically but not answering his phone. I was tempted to pass him a Sam Gamgee-to-Gollum remark, but thought the better of it, seeing that he was the one carrying the chilled Coke, and so I remained quiet.

Then came the General's phone call. "Jeffrey, where are you?" I described my location as two minutes flight time from Bakapit. "Is it okay for you to pick us up at 1400? We will need two orbits overhead Bakapit to snap photos like just now at Danawan. Do you have enough fuel? I noticed you had 1000 pounds just now. What's your flight time to Sandakan?"

"Yes Dato', there is enough fuel. We have 1100 pounds. Time to Sandakan is 30 minutes."

"Okay. I thought it was an hour to Sandakan. See you at 1400."

Indeed. We did the hot pick-up and orbit at Bakapit. Setting course for Sandakan, I considered what I was up against with 1000 pounds of fuel and the weather report saying that cumulo-nimbus rain clouds were closing in on Sandakan airfield. First, I estimated that I would be landing with 500 pounds of fuel, a hundred less than the minimum required for landing. Next, I had no option for diversion routes if the weather blocked the direct leg to Sandakan. The prospect of the low fuel warning lights illuminating in the General's backseat view was both imminent and undesirable. "Crewman, stand here between the pilots' seats, " I called over the intercom, glad that no spare headset was available. It was a little too late to block the General's view, but some form of damage control had to be done. The gauge for No 1 engine still showed quick consumption, which shot my pulse into the redline. I checked the flight time on the Doppler navigational aid. 24 minutes to Sandakan. That meant consuming 400 pounds with 800 pounds on the gauges. 100 pounds less upon landing than the previous calculation. This was NOT good. It would mean 200 pounds per tank, and lights go on at 210 pounds each tank in the cruise.

There was only one gamble I could take. Speed up to try and save 5 minutes of flight time to make landing fuel at 500 pounds at least. I trimmed the aircraft to 125 knots and kept my eye on the gauges. At zone boundary to Sandakan, I had only saved 4 minutes. Sandakan was not yet in sight. The gauges showed 600 pounds: minimum fuel for landing.

"How many minutes will we be over water?" I asked Gomer. He scanned the map.

"4 minutes sir." Wow. He seemed calm. But you know the source of bliss.

At long last Sandakan appeared on the horizon, across the bay. Just then the master caution buzzer sounded and the caution panel had two lights illuminated. FWD FUEL LOW and AFT FUEL LOW. I prayed. Gingerly, I climbed to 2000 feet, so that just in case the worst happened, I could range-autorotate into a landing area, hopefully the runway, instead of ditching into the sea. I kept the aircraft at 128 knots now. Crossing the coast, I punched the stop-watch for 4 minutes over the sea. The warning lights were still blinking now and then. Yes, my heart had surfaced over my tongue as I looked down at the sea 2000 feet below and wondered which spot on the water I would choose if I saw the engine rpms wind down. The sound of wind rushing past the cockpit became louder in an attempt to silence the beat of my pulse surfing against my eardrums. I was reciting many a mantra by now. I prompted Gomer to call Sandakan Tower and report our arrival.

I have flown with the low fuel warning lights on many times before. It was not an unfamiliar sight. We used to fly with just enough leg fuel during resupply ops to maximise payload offer into the LPs, carrying two LPs worth of troops and freight to expedite an op. But that was always over terra firma, which works wonders for self-confidence. This, on the other hand, was a leg over the sea, and short as it was, nobody could determine exactly when the point of failure would be, or guarantee that the engines would not quit just 100 yards from dry land. Overwater flights do make me queasy, but when everything looks dandy, the awesome view supercedes my fear. With nothing looking dandy now, my queasiness was quadrupled.

I noticed the Sandakan shoreline approach my feet. We had crossed over. I looked at the clock. 4 minutes. They seemed like 40. The lights were still blinking teasingly as I set up for a run-on landing like an airliner. This was to preclude the possibility of sucking vapour in a nose-up transition to hover and land. Who wanted a flame-out and dual engine failure before letting the passengers off?

We were cleared to land by Sandakan Tower. Lining up on the active runway, I noticed that a wall of black cloud was steamrolling towards the airfield. Was it not enough with the low fuel lights already, that I had to have bad weather thrown in for good measure?

We touched down and taxied to the terminal. As the passengers deplaned, the General came forward and nodded his 'well done' to us. Then he pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows in the direction of the cloudwall, lipsynching "Bad weather. Be careful." I nodded concurrence, and he disembarked.

Shutdown and refuelling went uneventfully. I looked toward Tawau, and noticed an unclouded track home. After signing the fuel chit with a still trembling hand, I called for strap-in and requested an expedited departure from the tower. We were airborne in minutes, and flying below dark clouds heading towards the light which seemed to cast its rays overhead the general direction of Tawau.

What pearl of wisdom can I utter in retrospect? Nothing, except thank God.

Perhaps, in addendum, there is this one: that is is true that all it takes to cause a series of unfortunate events is a troublesome posterior orifice in the form of one ground crew with a bellyache.

Anything in consolation?

Perhaps the wan thought that somewhere in a place called Seberang Palm Oil Estate, I share wallpaper space on many an estate worker's cellphone.

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