12 February 2010


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

M2333, the only aircraft with any hope of being rendered serviceable for Ops Balasah seemed extra reluctant to be set upon the flight line. The No 2 engine kept overtemp-ing, making rotor engagement virtually impossible as the likelihood of the engine turbine temperature exceeding its design limits was imminent.

Our brilliant engineers then set the aircraft through an engine change before she decided to behave.

Or was she toying with us all? Was this some coquettish dance of death?

18 June 09. The young lad, Capt Farhan and Sergeant Dzul were my crew this time around. We took off from Labuan at 0710H, fully laden with the technical crew, portable fuel pump and a two-man Air Drop Service team from the Signals Regiment for absolutely no good reason. Well, the AD team may have been necessary if we were serving Bantul (which we were not), where landings were a high-stake gamble, and discouraged by No 2 Air Division. It does appear that the squeak I had induced in the wheels over this risky LP was beginning to get some grease. For this reason, 2 Div had struck Bantul off from this op, till the LP get reinforced and reconstructed to some semblance of zero-gradient.

From a distance, it looked like the Tenom valley was clouded over. The mountain tops were blanketed, while the gap looked almost impenetrable. However, as is the case usually, we looked through the gap as we got closer and noticed that the town and the bridge were visible, and we could descend to low-level and sniff our way to Keningau.

Though much of Keningau lay under heavy fog, the route towards the eastern LPs such as Seliku and Bantul bore promise of being open to a sortie or two. According to the task sheet, with each LP requiring about a thousand pounds in freight, this task could be over in three sorties. But as I looked out my window at the freight in 3 heaps for Seliku, Saliliran and Long Pasia, each heap did not look like a thousand pounds. It looked as if each LP had two thousand pounds indented to be flown in. Immediately I knew that this op would take as much time as usual although excluding Bantul. The army was beginning to play the old game of under declaring their freight. And yes, as the op progressed, I caught them trying to smuggle in butane gas tanks. This was dangerous cargo and not to be carried without proper certification and other precautions, therefore disallowed on helicopter flights. They knew it. I knew it. They didn’t know that I knew. Over the intercom, I reminded the crewman not to accept the gas, to the troops' bewilderment.

Ploughing through the resupply sorties began at nigh ten o'clock. That one day saw us clock 6 hours, an hour shy of our daily flying limitation and finishing off Seliku and Saliliran. I showed young Captain Farhan how to look out for the limestone outcrops that led to Seliku. Yes, you use the map, compass and clock, backed up by but not relying on GPS. Over that, you should learn to read your way from one geographical feature to the next. The limestone outcrops were unmistakable, like silent sentinels pointing to and from Seliku. Then, when they sit on your left, turn to a heading of 145 degrees, and you would find Seliku on your right in 8 minutes. For Saliliran, ride on the western shoulder of Gunung Antulai till the minor range has been crossed. Then skip from one hilltop to the next and a village with a suspension bridge will be visible on the left. Hereon, keep the heading at 170 degrees and you will be dead on track for Saliliran in 7 minutes.

Okay, Farhan picked up the tips in theory, but strayed in practice. Expected and hugely forgiveable. And when I caught him dozing off at the controls on our return from Saliliran, I rocked the cyclic and he jumped out of his skin, keeping his gaze forward and eyelids narrowed in shielding off the sunlight and pretentious denial of his narcolepsy.

Someone from Keningau must have tipped the boys in Seliku and Saliliran that I was not carrying gas tanks, because I caught the army boys trying to smuggle the tanks out of the LPs by concealing them in gunny sacks. How recently did they think I had become a pilot? I had served here before, and this was my second tour of Labuan’s operational theatre. I came across these tricks years ago. These desperados…..

The weather in Keningau made for a fine operation in the field. It was hot. It was hazy. But the weather held steady. Good weather raised the confidence level for me, even though I was flying without comms. One less hazard to deal with. Before each take-off, Farhan would call Kinabalu Flight Information Service and relay our expected take-off, landing and Search And Rescue times. If we were not heard from for more than 2 hours, it would be time for Kinabalu to launch SAR to look for us. By this irregular but tolerated for military ops arrangement, we finished four sorties, leaving Long Pasia for the next day. Who says we Nuri pilots don’t undertake risks for our ponggo brethren?

So it was a job well done when we shut down at 1730H. We waited with the ground crew as they carried out some servicing instructions and thereby extended the flyable hours on the aircraft. Dusk was settling on Keningau as the army boys drove us to our hotel rooms in the 3-ton truck. It was tiring, but satisfying. No innuendo intended.

The next day, I expected the usual Keningau classic carpet cloud to delay our take-off to 1100H. But the hills I used as references all had cloud way above their crowns, and the promise of a clear path into Long Pasia bore heavy on my conscience to hasten to the airfield and get airborne. Hasten as I may, though, Sgt Ishak, the army quartermaster insisted that the aircrew be fed, in the usual slow, plodding, herd-grazing way that we all sometimes practice. He waited for us, aircrew and groundcrew, in the Sri Keningau restaurant, and patiently sipped his teh tarik as we chomped down breakfast. Government norms prevailed...sometimes. Inter-service fellowship was a nice thing, especially when weather delayed the take-off. Though the day was bright, we only had two sorties for Long Pasia, which I was sure we could finish by 1200H. No rush there.

At 1000H, Farhan and I were crossing Ulu Tomani at 3500 feet, with buffeting from the thermals and the gradients in the rugged landscape leading to Gunung Rimau, at whose feet lay Long Pasia. Turbulence aside, the visibility was so good that we could see the foothills where Long Pasia lay sprawled in cool, gentle green slopes, 30 miles away. I glanced at the engine instruments, and Capt Farhan quipped, “Sir, No 2 engine oil temperature is at 115 degrees.” Hmmm. Even though the temperature band was from 35 to 121, it was not normal for it to pass 100, and usually hung around 90 degrees. How cool could I behave ? knowing that once past Tomani, it was all mountain, river and ravine below, offering no layby for emergency landing or recovery. Yes, and no radio!

“Okay,” I replied. I thought of the weight of the aircraft, at 18000 pounds and at 4000 feet. “Okay, guys, listen. If the engine temperature passes the red line, we will do as the spelled out in the checklist and reduce No 2 Nf to 98%. We will fly with the torque split and I will call for torque to be matched on finals approach to land. However, if reducing the No 2 Nf does not stop the temperature rise, I will call for No 2 engine shutdown, and we will return to Keningau. We will use the fuel from No 2 engine’s aft fuel tank to feed No 1 engine to extend the endurance while flying at 70 knots. It may happen, it may not. But we must be ready for it.”

“Roger sir!!” came Sgt Dzul’s cheery reply. Farhan reached forward and slowly retarded the No 2 engine’s throttle till the Nf (turbine speed) showed a fluctuating 98%. The No 2 engine oil temperature continued to rise. It was now resting on the red line. I cross checked with Farhan for touchdown time, which was four minutes away. I descended to low level, at 100 feet above ground level and brought the speed back to 70 knots. Long Pasia emerged from the slopes on the right, and I positioned for finals and executed a zero-speed landing on the LP, bringing the Nuri to a gentle touchdown on the concrete pad with minimal collective play, so as to minimise the engine workload and hopefully delay the oil temperature from shooting through the roof. I noticed the temperature fluctuate to 150 degrees and swiftly return to 120 degrees. Thankfully, though, as the troops off-loaded the freight, I watched the needle wane down to 115 degrees. I considered a shutdown at Long Pasia, but decided against it as the temperature had now come under the limits.

Dzul called ready for lift-off and we returned to Keningau airfield and landed at 1130H without further incident except for the temperature stubbornly remaining at 115 degrees Celsius.

Sgt Juliyanti, the groundcrew supervisor and engine expert, checked the engine post-shutdown and found that the oil filter was clogged with non-metallic particulate matter. That explained a lot. Insufficient oil in circulation to function as both lubricant and cooling liquid due to clogging would raise the temp a bit now, wouldn’t it? Well, the good news was that since it wasn’t metallic particles, it meant that the engine wasn’t fragmenting on itself and clogging the filter. The likelihood was that packing and seals had disintegrated and clogged the filter, and the rest, was aeronautical engineering.

Under the afternoon blaze, Juliyanti and her men worked hard at rectifying the fault. Borrowing Sgt Ishak's moped, the filter was taken to Ah Chong’s motorcycle shop and air blasted. All the engine oil was drained and fresh engine oil was filled into the 2.5 US gallon engine oil tank. At 1530H, M2333 was ready for the flight test and we hovered for 30 minutes at 1000 feet above sea level and all was fine. Well, it was a hover at 40 feet above Keningau airfield, seeing that the airfield was more than 960 feet high on the altimeter. We flew around for 15 minutes and saw that the temperature was rock steady at 90 degrees, ten degrees cooler than No 1 engine. Alright!!!! We shutdown at a quarter past four, but closed shop for the day as the interior weather was building up and it was no longer favourable to fly into Long Pasia to finish of the last sortie that evening. We would have one more night in Keningau and finish the job the next morning.

I returned to the hotel room, had a hot shower and went down to the hairdresser-cum-reflexologist to get a good head and shoulder rubdown to wash the image of a redlining engine oil temperature gauge out of my head.

20 June 09. We had breakfast in the customary way with the army boys in Sri Keningau. The weather again proved to be brilliant and clear, so we aimed to be in the airfield by 0900H. The groundcrew dragged the Nuri’s jammies off and set to the pre-flight inspection. All was not well. The main gearbox servicing platform, which functioned like a drawbridge so that the crewman could check the main gearbox for leaks upon engine start, could not be locked as the locking mechanism had broken. I checked the thumb-latch button and saw that it had broken off and rendered the platform handle free to turn and thereby make it quite possible for the platform to open up in flight..

Phone calls on a Saturday morning to the engineering officer took several attempts before I was entertained. I voiced my apprehension over the platform, as a platform coming undone in flight could be fatal. It would be carried by the airstream, hit the main rotor blades, ricochet to the tail rotor blades, and render the entire rotating masses uncontrollable. This was how the Super Puma that was supposed to carry Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from Kangar crashed in Kepala Batas on 31 December 1993, killing her four-member crew when its gearbox cowling detached and struck both the blade systems in flight.

My engineering officer had grim news. The only remaining aircraft was the SAR aircraft. It had some technical problems reported by the day’s SAR crew that made it impossible to rotor engage because of the No 2 engine’s overshooting turbine temperature, and a main rotor head spindle leak which could not be rectified unless declared unserviceable and rectified by the overhaul contractor, AIROD. Good heavens, why didn’t this get done? Because the management did not want to declare the SAR aircraft unserviceable. Hmmm. Familiar isn't it? This was supposed to be the aircraft on national search and rescue!!! And now nobody could fly to Keningau to recover me with a spare platform.

The McGyver team decided to wire-lock the secondary latch in place to prevent the handle from turning under vibration and air turbulence in flight, and permit the aircraft to be airworthy. I shook my head in dismay. I have such good comrades in the squadron. And they now want me to fly to Long Pasia with a wire-locked main gearbox platform, return to Keningau and then fly back under the same conditions to Labuan. Yes, from the engineers’ point of view it should hold, but I was not feeling encouraged to carry out 3 sorties this way. And if the worst happened and we went down, we would not be able to transmit MAYDAY because we had no HF and we had that wall of Tenom's mountain range to attenuate the VHF.

I dealt with the ground troops and asked for the last 500 pounds of freight to Long Pasia to be sent by land route. It would take 6 hours compared to our 40 minutes, but the exposure of the aircraft and the crew to questionable conditions of flight safety would be reduced by 70%. The army quartermaster was less than enchanted, but his staff officer at Brigade Headquarters in Lok Kawi did empathise and allow my suggestion to supercede the requested sortie to Long Pasia in this precarious situation.

All through the flight from Keningau to Labuan, my crewman checked the platform, peering through the cabin windows. Yes, it remained secure and did not pop off in flight, even in the turbulence when passing through Tenom valley’s gap.

Half-past twelve, we touched down at Labuan. I taxied in and shutdown wordlessly except for the shutdown checklist patter. I was exhausted. Not so much from the flying itself, but from one snag following another and another after that. A little defeated, for the op taking a course other than the way I would have had it run. I wondered too, if this was the Nuri trying to say something to me, to hint, to let me in on something I could not see. Would she behave so badly one day that the boss would allow us to snag her on the basis of no comms in the interior? Whatever the argument may have been, I was not at the point of expending any form of energy on these thoughts.

Okay. She wins this one.

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