12 February 2010

First Night Jitters

Monday, August 3, 2009

A tumultuous week had passed. In a whirlwind, I had flown down to Kuala Lumpur, lodged myself in the Officers' Mess KL Air Base and set to Putrajaya to do my Civil Pilot's License exam together with Capt Ian. By the time I was done, I was in a zombied state when I met up with a blogger friend, and I think I did her an injustice. I was so spaced out I don't think I was as politically correct as I should have been in the presence of a legal officer, and much negativity surfaced in whatever I said to her in conversation. I hadn't had proper coffee since Sunday. It showed.

Then it was back to Labuan on 23 July, armed with me mum-in-law.

This was all to find out that my Categorisation which would lapse on 5 August was being done the following week. A training sortie was quickly arranged on Monday with Capt Mustaqim as co-pilot, the poor sod being on Cat with me. Based on the latest priorities agreed to in the recent RMAF Helicopter Seminar, my boss suggested that the examiner take me on a night sortie to Kota Kinabalu airfield for the night Cat.

Night sorties away from base had been a contentious issue in the air force for several years. Advanced Night flying courses had been abandoned after the cessation of hostilities with the Communists. The Nuri was not a fully instrumented aircraft by aviation law, which led to much dragging of feet with regard to familiarising the younger Nuri crew with the night environment. Then, when a tragic crash of a Nuri occurred whilst conducting a medical evacuation off a Thai ship near Mukah Head in Penang, night flights away from base ceased to be considered altogether.

Then came Abu Sayyaf's abductions off the east coast of Sabah and the Nuri crew employed Night Vision Goggles to carry out special forces operations in the dark of night. A kit-upgrade of the Nuri with the required instrumentation to comply with aviation law and instrumented flight at night, compatibly illuminated for the night vision devices. An NVG course by the contractors was organised for the elect, and teeteringly, allowed the trained Nuri crew to get comfortable with night flying and the Nuri to legally fly by night.

Although the number of NVG trained pilots reflected the serviceability state of the NVG converted Nuris, it recently (just when I was to sit for my Cat) became important that both NVG and non-NVG Nuri pilots were to begin flying airfield to airfield at night to establish the fleet as capable all through the clock.

So here I was, on a night flying exercise for Cat, with 17 years of flying and never having flown at night away from the circuit area. My examiner was an NVG instructor, so his comfort level with the night environment was way ahead of mine.

The weather was gloomy in the evening as we prepared for the night flying brief, the air choked with haze. The brief was covered without much ado, and as the examiner went downstairs to the little surau to keep his observances, Mustaqim and I prepped the aircraft and gobbled down a meal before walk-out time at 1900H.

The start-up and rotor engagement was carried out in the muted ambience of the night, with the reduced visual information providing limited situational awareness. Under the glaring timer-set floodlights from the hangar, rotor engagement had to be done on physical motor memory. I moved the cyclic in harmony with what feedback I could get from the winding-up main rotor blades through my wrist and arm as I could not observe the blade tip-path, being blinded by the lights. The crewman, his back to the lights and facing the Nuri, confirmed flap restrainers out and droop restrainers off as the blades reached 100% rotor speed. He was in a much better position than we aircrew in the cockpit.

It was a relief as we taxied away from the hangar, turning left to the runway, the floodlights slipping out of view as our eyes adjusted to the instrument lights and the ambience of darkness. Lining up on the runway, I lifted up to a vertical take-off and dove to transition and flyaway speed. It was an odd feeling, turning on to a heading of 053 degrees and seeing nothing but blackness envelop me, as I was so much more used to seeing the reassuring outline of Labuan's Membedai beach and familiar lights to take me back to finals approach to the runway. My breath caught in my throat for a second as I shot ahead into the depth of night, instinctively turning to instrumented flying and calling out to the co-pilot for further information, which was to little avail as the '12 months in role' Mustaqim suddenly answered to Gepetto's siring. A few minutes later, I adjusted the cockpit lighting, turning the rheostats lower. The darkness outside the cockpit began to graduate into hues, and I could discern the land from the sea. The main river, Sungai Klias began to make itself visible and soon it was easy enough to make out cars along the kampong roads and the brightly illuminated town of Kuala Penyu.

At a 110 knots cruise, I knew where to expect the horizon to somewhat be. But the night newbie in me began to get alarmed as I saw red lights above the horizon line. I thought aloud, "What's that red light ahead of me?" The examiner was on the intercom through a headset. His voice rasped through the white noise. "That's a transmitting station." He was reading the terrain below the horizon. Knowing the terrain and map by day, and reading the same by night, I found this rather weird. There was no high ground above 2000 feet at the coastline of Kuala Penyu with a hill looming high, and a transmitting station sticking out of it. "Well, if that's a transmitting station, we're headed straight for a mountain!" The cockpit fell silent, Mustaqim offering no information to the contrary. Well, heck. We would have to fight our feelings, trust our maps and instruments and stay the course! A second our two later, the crewman's voice rang out, "Aircraft passing at 11 o'clock high." Well, that's what I was talking about. That light. I didn't know that was what it would look like in the air. Transmitting station my flying boots.

Kuala Penyu soon slipped past and looking out at the grey emptiness, I knew I was over the sea, flying over Kimanis Bay. At my ten o'clock lay Pulau Tiga, its jetty lights visible against the waters reflecting the haze-laden night sky. Looking ahead, I saw what must have been Papar. Kinabalu had cleared us for finals intercept of the Instrument Landing System and we were to report established on the localiser. Overhead Papar, I tuned in to the ILS, but did not hear the identifying morse code. I tuned into the VOR station and still, no morse code could be heard. Kinabalu Tower called us, asking us to confirm airfield in sight. I looked out ahead and saw that I could not identify the airfield against the bright cityscape of Kota Kinabalu and I answered in the negative. I called out to the examiner that my approach aids were dysfunctional and I would elect to return to base. The same intention was made known to Kinabalu and my heart heavy with shame, I rolled the aircraft to the right, turning reciprocal and pointing to Labuan. The lights of KK slipped to the left and the flat darkness leading to Labuan lay ahead. All through this leg, the waxing wedge of moon smudged through the frosted haze to silently say that the night was watchful over my journey home.

As Labuan loomed over the horizon, I began to sit easier in the cockpit. The night sortie away from base was not so bad. I could not see depth and distance save for the hints provided by tiny points of light, but that was alright for as long as map reading in the dark told me where I was. For as long as the rotors were running, the engine and gearbox parameters in the green and the flight instruments showed me at good, level altitude and heading, I had no cause for anxiety. I needed to trust the Lady and myself in this unfamiliar environment, just as I needed to trust her in deck landings amidst the less than welcomed waves that suggested I was going to go down, but had not. I was starting to believe that if I did this often, I could turn out a decent night sortie soon enough.

The island was getting closer. My examiner asked me to try intercepting Labuan's localiser. I first intercepted the finals approach radial 324, and then when steady inbound, I tuned in to the ILS. This time, the instruments talked to me, the morse code loud and clear and the glide slope and centreline localiser telling me which way to turn to establish myself on a good approach to land.

Post-flight, embarrassment notwithstanding, I had a few thoughts as I downed a good mug of Guinness.

I had let my anxieties over flying away from base at night get the better of me, and rendered this night sortie a dismal show of clumsiness. I was too much of a Mark-II Eyeball pilot for too long, and depended much on visual cues to fly seat of the pants. The discomfort had taken too much out of me and I had not thought up redundancies to make good a landing at Kinabalu airfield and return to base successfully should any of my approach aids give out on me at the last minute. In short, I had been a twit. Adding to these musings, I remembered I had flunked one CPL exam paper gloriously. Yes, I planned to redo it in September.

The Guinness told me that I could do both better the next time.

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