12 February 2010

Why We Fly The S61A-4 Nuri

On the 15th of December, I was in Keningau clocking my last resupply operation for the border outposts in Sabah for 2008 before my Christmas leave commenced. I was with my veteran crewman Warrant Officer I Ali, awaiting Capt Ian and the gang to fly in from Labuan en route to our technician's wedding in Ranau, supposedly to change over the copilot I was with as he had to return to complement the crew for Tawau's standby.

So there we were, all refuelled and ready to close shop for the day as the interior weather was also building up, so one more trip was not feasible. Finally, there she came, out of nowhere, low and loud. True to form, Ian did a few low-level pitches before terminating the landing in a low-level flare over the grass strip. Lt Frezal emerged form the aircraft, looking as tormented as ever and exchanged a few words with Capt Khalid, my copilot. WO Ali and I continued our small talk as the handing over took place. In minutes, Khalid and Frezal were done and Khalid had strapped in as copilot, ready to fly.

A change in the rotor beat told us that the collective pitch had increased to raise the Nuri to a hover and there she floated while the crew checked that all was well to fly off.

Then Ali and I stopped our conversation, and almost in reverence, we watched for the umpteenth time, the Nuri climb vertically and transit forward with all the grace of a sea mammal in the ocean meadows where it is most at home. Here we were, Ali and I, limping old dogs that we were after more than 20 years each in service, still gaping in awe and affection at the sight of this old bird taking ever so like a ballerina to the sky. Then he uttered a single word which echoed my thoughts: "Beautiful!" I could only nod and sigh, "Yes."

She, as far as appearances go, is our come-lately, but first love. Even our spouses and offspring take a rear seat when the country calls on us and this Nuri becomes the answer we give.

"Sir, others can say what they want about the Nuri. They can insult us Nuri crew for flying a 40-year old aircraft, the press can make fun of us for our crashes, but when it comes to the years of service, her contributions and deeds and the lives she has saved, they cannot recount her numbers."

I know people shudder when I say I am a Nuri pilot, especially when their full fathom of aviation experience and knowledge is from Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia. Some respond with, "Oh, the flying coffin?" When someone not from the fraternity starts a tirade on this lady, I bristle. You cannot, based on what our maligned press feeds you, make an attempt to come across as informed and knowledgeable on an aircraft that has saved lives many times over those whose she has taken through no fault of her very own. Do you actually intend to sermonise the clergy? Would you who live in danger no greater than the ones of your own making in the foundries of your luxury sports cars, make attempt to preach to us whose lives are on the line in using hardware sinless but for her age in the execution of duty?

During the RMAF Helicopter Reunion 2006, Tan Sri Mohd Ngah bin Said, an ex-Chief of Air Force remarked in his address, "Had it not been for the Nuri in particular, the war against communist terrorists in Malaysia would not have been won in such timely fashion."

When Cambodia had finally come out from under Vietnam's attacks and ran her first ever democratic elections, the RMAF Nuri fleet was assigned under the UN, to aid the ferry of ballot boxes from remote polling centres to be counted, sometimes when the aircrew from other countries would not due to minor snags on their helicopters. We were there in Acheh to repatriate the internally displaced people, to help the volunteers and militaries from around the world set up their field hospitals in areas inaccessible by road, river or sea lane, to treat the wounded and the traumatised Achenese tsunami survivors.

At home, here in this country we love, warts and all, we can't begin to list those whose lives have been succoured by the Nuri. 40 years of lifesaving and medical evacuations cannot be shoehorned into these pages. Let's take recent events. The nasty floods in Pahang, Johore and Kelantan through 2006 and 2007, under the chaotic direction of the National Security Division of the Prime Minister's Department, saw the Nuri freighting loads of food and potable water to stricken victims. When the Somali pirates abducted our MISC seamen off their coast, the Nuri, although unsophisticatedly armed with mere machineguns, was the first to be assigned to the area on board the KD Mahawangsa, immediately halting further attacks on vessels plying the route, holding quiet till the Nuri was recalled. Now, the Nuri in Somali waters has been replaced by the navy's missile-armed Super Lynx, sending Somali pirates fleeing from any ship they may have contemplated boarding at their fancy.

Therefore, this old bird may be one less pretty than those you would pay a ticket to fly in, but it has, in her unassuming way, done good aplenty.

I was having lunch in the navy wardroom in KD Sri Semporna last January as guests of the Commanding Officer when an ex-commander turned naval contractor asked me about the airworthiness of the Nuri, almost kindly and concerned was he. He contrasted this against the Nuri mishaps he had heard of over his own 30 years in service. I maintained as I do with all who ask, that it is not airworthiness that comes to question with the Nuri.

A pilot has all the authority to snag an aircraft less than serviceable for a task if he examines it and finds it so. But with an operational and meteorological environment far changed from that which the Nuri found herself first flying in, greater demands are placed upon an airframe that was designed in the infancy of helicopter history, to operate from sea-going decks rather than where altitude performances would infringe when trying to climb above inclement weather, just for instance. These diversifications and others strain the initial design brief of both the aircraft and the aircrew who must now take on the workload at the point where his aircraft is rendered a mere platform for task execution without integral equipment to absorb the said workload. Eventually breakpoint will be reached and aircrew failure will ensue as human performances and reserves are overwhelmed. An aircraft sporting today's current hardware is better designed to surmount the limitations encountered by older aircraft, delaying the point of human failure, making for better mission accomplishment and flight safety.

When the RMAF asked for the EC-725 helicopter to be bought so that the Nuri could be phased out, we asked for the full Combat Search and Rescue variant for this very purpose. So that we could be equipped to do what we do. To save lives in the face of hostility. To save lives, period. We were in fact on the brink of getting the EC-725 when it fell victim to politicking and blogger sabre-rattling, and hence the fleet replacement programme is now shelved due to the "uncertain global economic climate".

This of course, is absolute hogwash. Wherever the mischief was sniffed, that was not the area where the remedy, no matter its suitability, was applied. Instead, we who work are punished with the indefinite delay of what we need to do our job safely within the demands of today's "uncertain" climate, be it the economics, environment or security which concerns and affects us. If we were anything like England where members of the executive and royal families served in the air force helicopter flying squadrons instead of being served by them, I wonder what this stirring of phanthoms would have produced for us by way of the Nuri replacement programme. Thus do we fly the Nuri, without the luxury of choice but with pride of service currently unrivalled in this neighbourhood.

Well, when this buy comes to pass, if ever it does in my lifetime, it will only be a matter of time before the risks we take in the interest of national security once again end in undesired fatality, and the public whom we serve in quiet can once again hail our helicopters "flying coffins".

14 comments:

  1. the saviors that have passed the test of time, gloriously and humbly.. and piloted by the best of men whose ultimate goal is to serve the nation. thank you.

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  2. You would love her too Nina, and you would know the truth about her; that she will keep you alive in the worst of situations, and she would have given her own life to save yours. All the times when there has been mishap, was when the captains had erred and she had tried to salvage them but yielded her own survival. She is the ship who chooses to go down with her captain.

    This I have learned in my own encounters with her, which is why I trust her with my life.

    http://hobbit1964.blogspot.com/2010/02/30-may-2003.html

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  3. Thank you for the revelation. I'll remember this every time I see it fly.

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  4. Even in the civilian helicopter world, Anon, she is called "The Mother Aircraft".

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  5. What do you think should be the rightful replacement, or if we cannot afford it, to complement the Nuri. The Cougar seems to have been chosen, but do you have a personal preference?

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  6. Hi there James Chong. Yes, we chose the Super Cougar, the EC725. It was one of my recommendations when I was in MINDEF. My personal favourite is an oddity in the helicopter world, but has won its own set of awards in the UK. That is the EH101. It is so good an aircraft that the US Presidential aircraft, Marine 1, in S61 (Nuripedigree)livery is being replaced with the US101, a clone of the EH101. However, the cost is a tad prohibitive for us, and Eurocopter did offer us a good deal with making Malaysia the simulator centre for South East Asia, and that is a benefit that's too hard to turn down.

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  7. Salute you sir, your men and the Nuris. Fascinating account.

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  8. Welcome to these pages Jon. I am quite surprised to have found a new visitor. How did you even find me I wonder :) The Nuri remains my first love, and she is still giving as best she can even in her twilight years. Thank you for coming by.

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  9. each time I hear the sound of a Nuri passing by..I always look to the sky..the Lady that sings as she flies...

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  10. Ha!!!!! Hey Nashri, my old Taiping friend! Memang puitis sungguh Encik Nashri :) Thanks for dropping by. I've been hanging out at your blog too, and having a good read. It's nice to see someone cherishing old school values.

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  11. Hello sir. I'm firdaus fm No 5 skn. I'm now building up the sqn archives. Are there any chances that i may get my hand on all old photos of the 5sqn in your collection.

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  12. Everything I have is here Firdaus. I will look through my Find me on Fb.

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  13. Well written about the old but faithful iron bird.

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  14. Thanks for your visit Mej Nor Ibrahim. I am sure your books are well received by the serving and retired air force boys alike. To be honest, even in my current position flying offshore in rather sophisticated helicopters, I would give aything to be back in the Nuri again. Automation has its moments. But an intimacy with the machine that all call "The Mother Aircraft" cannot be outdone

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