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.
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?
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!