07 July 2010

Operation Deerhunter

There are those who will reminisce on their glory days in the air force and speak of times when they got up to all manner of mischief, shake their heads and say, "Those were the days."

Yes, all of us from the military background will remember near-death episodes and adventures of a roguish quality. Some of these do not carry consequence further than the acceleration of the pulse rate or raising the hairs on the back of one's neck. Yet, there are others that are far-reaching, that while thumbing one's nose foolishly at death, still one may not be made to pay for such foolhardiness. Yet, it is the glorified tales and encouragement to other flying mates to emulate such derring-do that may unjustly take their lives instead of the life of the braggart and in this, does life appear to be grotesquely unfair. Let us consider one such incident where no dates are mentioned, for the dates and the individuals involved are irrelevant compared to the value of how some boundaries should not be crossed, and if crossed should never be crossed in defiant repetition.

Once upon a time there was a squadron commander who believed that it would do no harm to use the Nuri to hunt down payau, or local deer. When he assumed command of the squadron, he revived the old practise, gathering unto himself those whom he trusted to carry out the deed by showing how it was done. This was such a potentially risky manouvre, where no procedures had been drafted and thereby, no safety measures under practise and none could be published as it was entirely illegal to use His Majesty's aircraft for bloodsport.

At first, it seemed like nothing would come of it. But soon, as base functions and barbequeues were made savoury by the aroma of sizzling payau venison in steaks and chops, the word payau became the stuff of jokes of goodwill, because everybody loved a generous provider even if they loathed him otherwise. The source of the venison was never questioned, as payau was actually sold in markets in Tawau and so forth. The absence of immediate repercussion and reprimand legitimised the feasting. Then the hunts became a routine matter. This was indeed a worrying trend. The aircrew were aircraft commanders and copilots, each with a role to play in the safe conduct of helicopter operations. I had told them what I would not do, hinting that they find their inner compass and steer away from Operation Deerhunter as gently as they could. Unfortunately, everyone sought to be on the hunting bandwagon. I knew well that I was alone in this disobedience. 

However, operation Deerhunter soon turned out to be rampant. When the kampong folk began asking the aircrew who shut down in Kuala Penyu if the Nuri they flew was the same as the ones shooting at payau, no alarm bells had rung with them. With any ordinary person, such remarks should have caused one to cower down and halt all proceedings till the coast cleared. It was the third year of Operation Deerhunter and the successes of the parties and barbies gave no hint that getting away with it did not mean that any of this was right. Emboldened and encouraged by getting away with it, the hunts became a monthly affair, then weekly, then a few times a week. The beneficiaries were many. All this was obviously not restrained, and as a result, was heading towards disaster from the day it began.

One fine day, just after a hunt, there was an inadvertant discharge inside the Nuri en route home. Just when we presume that all is well, something can go horribly wrong, and yet karma is still kind in that none of this ended up with a crash or wounded aircrew given that it happenned inside the aircraft. The bullet instead went through the belly of the beast, leaving a hole in the fuel tank bladder cells which was discovered by the groundcrew upon post flight inspection. The gunshot wound on the Nuri this time around was the surreptitious kiss that gave the game away. It was a caustic scandal on the face of the air force and a souring of the already precarious public relations image of the military. The repercussions snowballed into the boss being relieved of all his functions while the aircrew involved were suspended from flying duties.

I am sympathetic towards those who feel that their only means of survival is to curry favour with perpetrators of offenses. But I also believe that a point arrives where you have to say no. Do as he says if you must, knowing his character, but just say that it's wrong. Especially when the safety of the aircraft and the crew gets so severely compromised. In peacetime, none of this risk is warranted, so voicing your misgivings is still an option.

There is no way that such misuse of the aircraft could have persisted without the knowledge and the blessings of the squadron commander. The burden of responsibility is parcelled with being answerable when the dung hits the fan. And whilst we never wish for the ultimate humiliation upon anyone, there are times when one has to pay for the damages one has incurred. This runs beyond the simplistic surmising of right and wrong. More significant than that, is that those who cast flowers and palms where your feet pass today can and will crucify you tomorrow when you no longer serve their purpose.

The young aircrew in my old squadron will one day serve as her commanding officers. By being direct witnesses to these events, they should draw to the obvious though cliched conclusion that being in power is not tantamount to being privileged with its abuse. I would not have desired this end for my mates, but in hindsight, the carthasis was overdue for the three years since Operation Deerhunter was reinstated. I only hope this is an end to such dark practises and it doesn't become another tool in the hands of an ambitious boss in the future.