12 February 2010

Twixt The Devil.....

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Saturday morning, 6 June 09. Dawn came cheerfully, the sky coral pink too short a while before giving way to a brilliant blue.

I walked from the hangar, across the parking bay and stood on the grass adjacent to the taxiway and looked toward the north, the direction I would take to Station Lima, or Swallow's Reef, some 120 nautical miles away.

Young Capt Farhan met me as I walked back to the hangar to brief me on the expected en-route weather. All was good, and it was looking like a fair day ahead. There were 7 Royal Military College Boys' Wing instructors, including the Commandant, waiting to be picked up from Station Lima to return to Labuan. The Commandant brokered the aircraft deal as he did not want to come back on a ship, as it would take several hours and lots of pitching and rolling over the sea. I was bemused because the Commandant was a navy Captain. Maybe he had been on shore for too long. Of course, given the choice between an aircraft doing 120 nautical miles per hour and a patrol craft that could never exceed 30, I would love to be a passenger on board a Nuri.

The climb to 3000 feet on the runway heading of 324 degrees brought the Labuan coastline scrolling swiftly beneath and past our feet, giving way to a serene sea, the Nuri creasing the diaphanous cotton cloud tops just below the cockpit windows. The temperature remained as cool as if air-conditioning was turned on. Which the Nuri has not, no matter how many big 'fans' are on the fuselage.

Farhan made most of the VHF radio calls till we were at the Labuan Zone Boundary with the Semarang oil rigs in sight. At this point Labuan tower called us. "Harimau 02, contact Kinabalu HF 6.825." Farhan and I stared at each other, quite unsure as to what to say. We knew before take-off that the aircraft had no HF. It was supposed to be restricted to base for training on that account, unsuitable for tasks as it would not be able to operate under Kinabalu's HF net. However, we were so ordered to fly on account that the Commandant was chummy with the powers that be both in No 2 Air Division and the base and her squadrons. I had taken it on ready to turn back if the situation led to the predictable loss of comms. Or I hoped to remain under VHF all the way to the Spratlys and back. A fool's hope.

"Harimau 02, we have some problems with our HF, request alternate frequencies."
"Harimau 02, contact Kinabalu 133.3."
But none of the frequencies, this and others we tried, under Kinabalu's control yielded any result that Saturday morning. We were gradually creeping past 30 miles outbound with no contact with anyone. We were even out of range from Labuan tower and approach.

"What do you think, guys?" I asked.

Sergeant Suhaidi, my crewman, stood between our seats, gazing at the radio boxes which sat obstinate upon the pedestal console. My eyes were on the Doppler-GPS, noting that another 1 hour and 15 minutes lay ahead before touchdown at Station Lima. I knew what I had to do. I knew that in all likelihood, nothing would go wrong with the aircraft. It would get to Station Lima and back. But if anything did happen, even right now at the 30 mile mark, whom could we tell?

Farhan looked cool still, under the smoked anti-glare visor. "Not good to continue sir."

Suhaidi nodded. Pa-rum-pum pum pum.

I turned back to Labuan, and on finals to land at the intersection, I noticed that the Search-and-Rescue aircraft had started-up, rotor engaged and requesting taxy to Bongawan under the training callsign, Harimau 06, that of Capt Hasto.

"You guys know anything about this?" I asked. Apparently, the boss had a game of golf in Bongawan. Wow. This was true weilding of power. Not the boss's power, but the power of golf across the board, that anyone who so intended could wangle an aircraft on nation search-and-rescue standby to make good the tee-off and nobody in higher authority would stop it. Let that be incentive for anyone wanting to become a golfer. I, for my part will never become a golfer for I do not want to create a golf-widow. Unless I become a widower myself. Even then, I would rather cycle a hundred kilometres instead.

Shutdown and the post-training flight report were all uneventful.

Till I got that phone call from No 2 Division, Pusat Operasi Udara.

"Tuan, from POU and your boss, you must fly to Station Lima anyhow. Any questions call your boss."

I called my boss, hoping that he would not even suggest flying against air traffic procedures without comms.
"Hah, Jeffrey, why did you come back?"

"At 30 miles out, I lost all comms with everyone sir."

"What about V?"

"NO comms on VHF either sir. All frequencies were tried and failed."

His tone changed. "Oh.....they misinformed me. They said you turned back just because you didn't have HF."
"Wouldn't have turned back without exhausting all means, sir."

"Okay. Work out for some other aircraft to do the job."

"Could I borrow the HF from the SAR aircraft sir, just for the sortie?"

"No, that would render the SAR aircraft unserviceable." But it can be used to arrive Hollywood style for my tee-off. "See if Kuching's 09 can help out."

Which was what came to pass.

I stood down that day.

In my mind, it would not have been the responsible thing to do, to undertake a flight, knowingly with complete communications failure, starting from 30 miles out of Labuan, go radio silent for another 90 nautical miles and fly back another 90 before getting into radio range of Labuan. That's too long to be unmonitored. Out at sea, an emergency warranting a "land immediately" response would mean ditching and the imminent loss of an aircraft in the water. Over land, the aircraft would be in contact with terra firma. Then subsequent attempts to contact base or headquarters would incur wrath, embarassment or recovery cost but the aircraft would be safe. And, this was not an operations flight. It was merely training, where risk was not warranted in the least.

Besides, I can't swim. And I didn't want to test the buoyancy of the Mae-West further than 50 yards from shore.

The aircraft should never have left the base to fly over the deep blue sea.

But I am a soldier first, till I trade my olive greens for the white shirt and gold bars of civillian flying. I took it out with my crew, so that I could with clear conscience return and report that it could not communicate when out of sight and range of Labuan.

I thought of Sergeant Suhaidi. He, in all likelihood had his homely spouse waiting for him to parlay the truce between his children at day's end. Capt Farhan probably had sweet young things in every town the Nuri night-stopped at, and he too, had a right to someone to return to and with whom to share his triumphs and woes, safe and sound.

I guess nobody here has learned from Air France Flight 447. Departure was made with known systems failure. More ensued. Aircrew taking on too many systems failures leads to workload beyond their personal limits. Then the next failure will be aircrew failure.

All this because some seaman didn't want a boat-ride to Labuan.

I sympathise.

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