16 December 2011

You Know You're A Newbie Offshore Helicopter Pilot When...

1.  Your sortie cannot be written off in the authorisation sheets as "Cancelled Due To Weather".

2. You are expected to track navigational aids' radials outbound to your destination rather than look for a bridge or a valley or a limestone bluff that leads the way there.

3.  The popular question, "What's the name of that village down there at three o'clock low??" has been replaced by "What's the name of that rig?"

4.  You've stopped worrying about See-Fit or Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT). In other words, you're not so worried about slamming into the side of a hill when encountering poor visibility.

5.  You've forgotten what the world looks like when  the horizon cuts your windscreen at a 45-degree angle of bank or the joy of skimming at treetop height over a hundred knots.





6.  On base leg to land in a violent crosswind you cannot overbank past 25 degrees to intercept the extended runway centreline for the sake of the passengers' comfort, so you overshoot said centreline and offer them the scenic landing of the runway to either the right or left of the aircraft.

7.  Your safety consciousness says the pilot who buries his head in the cockpit may one day be buried in the cockpit, BUT...you still have to bury your head in the cockpit sometimes as you do the paperwork for the passengers and payload for each destination platform.

8.  Ninety percent of the time, you're flying straight in the dead centre of a cumulus instead of doglegging randomly to get around it and you're not sure how much it bothers you...or not.

9.  You call out V1 and VToss and Vy instead of counter flapback and inflow roll, translational lift and above critical speed in a take-off run.

10.  The best brandname you have is a BHPC GMT, while your passengers unanimously wear Oakley, Tissot, Deuter and Red Wing.
11.  You meet your passengers off duty at the same restaurant where you slurp down kuey teow soup while they buy themselves a lobster...each.

12.  Pilot and passengers alike have congregated at the row of urinals in the mens' room 5 minutes before rotor engagement.

26 November 2011

Would Jennifer Love HUET?

Here is a face that even I, as a mother, cannot love. Perhaps some Jennifer out there could, but to me, it is the ghastly face of the penultimate torture chamber, the horror that awaits me now every three years in recurrence. This is the face of the HUET simulator.

I don't know how young I was when my pre teen uncle took me to a disused kampong pool where he and his friends met for a unauthorised swim. I stayed on the banks, but in these vague memories, I remember him persuading me to ride piggy back on him into the waters where without warning, he dislodged me and I drowned, for an interminable replay of horror before he decided to toss me back on the banks.

From that moment, I have had a morbid fear of the water. I remember that ever since that age, during which I must have been three or four, I was terrified of washing my hair, and I would scream whenever I was given a bath. At the time I didn't know why I did that. It took me many years to understand, let alone get past that fear.

This phanthom followed in my footsteps all my life. Then in 1984 came the Royal Millitary College, and the complimentary two years of lowering the level of the olympic sized pool by ingesting the chlorinated water into my lungs and belly. My Regimental Sergeant Major, WO Thazali Che Lah, named me the parade commander of the swimming pool, for if I was in it, my voice could be heard throughout the college grounds, all the way up to Boys' Wing. The dumbkopf didn't see that I would have joined the blooming navy if I had better affinity for water. When the jungle warfare training phased into watermanship and river crossing, I was lucky that I was coincidentally paired with a swimmer and he reassured me throughout the exercise that I was going to be okay. I am still grateful for all his reassurances amidst the jeering of instructors and cadets alike, which quelled to reverent but disappointed silence when I calmly made it across without summoning the entire population of Hulu Langat to my rescue, making for less of  a show than they had anticipated.

Then I deluded myself into believing that all was well after being comissioned into the Royal Malaysian Air Force. I would be up in the air now wouldn't I? My only claim to being comrades with my white-uniformed brethren from the seafaring sister service was that I too was a Navel Officer seeing that I would never venture into water deeper than the level of my belly button. No, nobody in the wardrooms ever understood that either.

But then in the 90s, after a horrific Nuri crash off Mukah Head where only two survived from a crew of seven, air force helicopter crew bred kinship with their offshore fraternity when the Helicopter Underwater Escape Training was made compulsory for operational pilots and crewmen, a requirement that followed on to transport and maritime squadrons as well. My first taste of this devilry was in 1998 when I served as a copilot in Labuan.

The course was to be held in Tutong if I remember correctly, at Lee Safety Technology, an offshore safety and training centre. We arrived at Muara Besar at noon and were entertained at night by the course coordinator at Jerudong Park, but I kept a stiff upper lip throughout the festivities, not wanting to give away that I was already enduring nightmares about having my head under so much as even an inch of water.

Amidst it all, I was able to muster self control, kept myself single-minded and did all my escapes sucessfully, even the one with the smoked goggles to simulate ditching in darkness. I had to 're-sit' one escape as I had egressed through the wrong door, totalling 11 escapes altogether. Then on graduation day, the euphoria of not having died trailed me all the way back home to Labuan.

However, my demons were not exorcised. I had no idea that this was bloody recurrent training for aircrew. The truth hit me when I was in No 10 Squadron, in 2004 and I was nominated alongside crew from Butterworth. This time it was to be held in the Terengganu Safety And Training Centre, and the contractor had us housed in the Awana Kijal resort. Oh I knew this drill too well. We were so mollycoddled in Brunei too, but it was all the fattening of the calf ere the butcher's blade, I mused. Then I wondered, do the swimmers have a better time of it all anyway? Anyhow, that was that and again, I returned to KL Base feeling relief that it was for the time being, over.

My final stint was in 2008 under Megamas, again, in Brunei. It was a load easier than the preceding courses, as being the only pilot around, I just had to do one escape. To my immense relief and renewed religious faith, the instructors thought it better worth their while to concentrate on the crewmen who, for the first time ever, had the addditional task of extracting a casualty in the form of a dummy from the cabin during their escape. Phew!!!! Now I know why I am a mere pilot, and have only the side door through which to egress.

But final it was not. Whilst I was flying for the better portion of this year in Sabah HUET was not on the radar in the general aviation world. Less life threatening stuff was on recurrent training, like Dangerous Goods Regulations and First Aid. Then as I grew to be disconcerted with the general aviation's frequent flying in the Dead Man's Curve, I realised that venturing into offshore flying would mean I would have to contend with HUET once again.

So when I left Sabah for the current job, I floundered under the yoke of my nightmares coming back to snuff my lights out. I couldn't even fully yield to my flight training, my limbs frozen stiff from half my mind seeing all the drowning scenes from all the movies I had ever watched looping ceaselessly as I without success wrested control of this most recalcitrant helicopter. No, it wasn't her really. It was I. She is just...French.

I faced my demons two weeks ago, coming full circle, standing with bated breath at the edge of the pool once again at the Terengganu Safety And Training Centre, seemingly seeing the end of my days pendulously awaiting my acquiesence, all blue fibreglass and dripping from the pervious batch's escape training.

And we understand each other now. My demons may visit me once in three years. We shall duel. And then they shall depart after having made sport of me till the next triennial visit.

I was okay underwater once I yielded to being there. Save for one minor panic attack during which I took down a caboodle of water in the second escape, I managed every egress, and clung fast to the simulator once I had surfaced. It is a mere three seconds from unbuckling to surfacing, and as Brenda says, this is what may save my life in this job scene so I may as well embrace it.

No, my demons have not been exorcised. I still hate the water. I even hate it when people say, why not learn to swim?? Yeah why don't you go ahead and sleep in Joe's Apartment 24/7 for a fortnight then? And of course, this gem: Wot?? You can't swim?? I thought ALL pilots can swim. While it is true that there is no accounting for dumbkopfness, I have also lost count of those who can't tell airmen from seamen, and that I tell you is a serious dilemma when the sacred and the profane appear one and the same. Besides, tell me how much enjoyment to expect while being strapped into this claustrophobia-inducing capsule and the simulator operator does this:
In consolation, I would like to thank a certain Captain Micheal, an ex-Royal Navy pilot now serving in an offshore helicopter company, who with regard to HUET comfortingly put my age old question from paragraph 9 to rest  by saying, "Nobody ever gets used to it."

Yes, and thanks to Megamas and Youtube for allowing the media to be downloadable.

31 October 2011

Even The Lowly

Certificate Of Test: a generous force-fed serving of Humble Pie which recurs on the basis of its unpalatability.

That's how I view my certificate of test. I am apalled at my dystrophic handling of the EC225 today. I wrestled with her, fought, grunted and struggled. But this bucking bronco would not be busted. I know I stayed up till 0200H this morning going through drills and memorising emergencies. I feel as though I have fallen. Indeed I have fallen. Fair it is then to take note that a hard fall accrues not just to the high and mighty, but can be at unsought for times, the staple of the lowly.

Okay, I am really trying to salvage my self worth. But as I recall my examiner's adjectives, the echo of words like mess, horrible and awful keep coming back.

But I passed. In 6 months I will face this same Sea Of Tea.

Hmmm. Okay that's done. I must stop mourning and move on as the pace is not about to let up.

Ahead of me I have a few sorties of Instrument Flying. Already the crew room is filled with the haggling voices of many aircraft captains with as many interpretations of the minima for departure under instrument meteorologocal conditions. The monsoon seems to have stirred a resurgence in the debate over when pilots may say no to a departure under weather conditions that are not altogether felicitous.

Now, the sight of a cumulonimbus can quail me. My one experience as an aircraft captain, of being trapped in bad weather and the subsequent isolation in the cockpit as my copilot petrified himself remains hardwired in my mind like the instant replay of a drowning incident. In other words, I would avoid bad weather at all costs. I love terra firma in comparison to the azure especially when I already know how things look, cockpit view, in thick black precipitation, with the prospect of the mountain crests gouging out your underbelly as you descend below cloud to avoid the thickest storms. Utterly unsettling.

Twice this week I have been in the jump seat, on operational flights to the barges and platforms, consuming about 3 hours each, and I am supposed to pick up 30 jump seat hours before I am considered qualified to progress to line training. The jump seat is a perch between the two pilots. It provides for a voyeuristic means of learning the inflight procedures for offshore flying so that by the time one is due for line training, he/she would have garnered enough knowledge on the procedures as to carry out copilot duties with minimal error and prompting. The reason why it is called a jump seat is because no sooner than one has strapped into it, the very fetal position it demands encourages the occupant to jump out. No, I really don't know the origins of the term. This is my personal rationalisation of an irrational posture to adopt whist in the process of learning and does not reflect the policy or viewpoint of the organisation.

Anyhow, I am getting used to the idea of being over the deep blue sea for hours on end, considering how I hate the water. I have watched without overwhelming fear as the EC225 consistently pulled passenger and crew alike through towering Cbs, emerging on the sunny side with better composure than a 737 doing the same barging through stormclouds. Yes, finally a helicopter that flies itself  right?

Now that has really got to be uber cool.

26 October 2011

Still More Readjustment Blues

The mounds of hay in the compound stand in alternating states of dry and wet in harmony with the fluctuating weather. I keep struggling with this new aircraft that persists in baffling me to bits, like the sophisticated new girlfriend with tantrums encouraging the return to the former familiar girlfriend who would be much easier to navigate around. Yes, even with such a beauty as the EC225, I pine for my Sea King.

There are six weeks that stand between the emptiness that echoes through the house and the shrieks of arguments and insults that I hope will nullify this void I endure daily when the family arrives to end the agreed to exile we have been living for nigh a year now. Nothing changes much when you live apart from the people you can miss when you drop them off at school or when you open a lunch box and see the love that they put in it.

The bougainvillea has bloomed. Monkeys sip water from the roadside puddles and hold their conferences on the rim of garbage dumpsters, courting death at every convention. The village people find the carcasses as easily disposable as a toss straight into the garbage dumpster. A few days ago, I saw a herd of wildboar cross the road in waves of earthen grey just above the shrubline along the road to the airport. Sights such as these tell me that life may still be livable in this sleepy hollow where the moss gathers to watch the grass grow.

I have had my second sortie in the new bird. I will concede that she is beautiful, and lovely to fly. She is after all, not  8 months old yet in the livery of the company. But she takes forever to wind through in the system checks and start ups, making me wonder if this is the manner of courtships of all French ladies. Though having been to France and bits of Europe, Oz, Scandinavia and Blighty, I have no overwhelming fascination or movie star appeal toward the caucasian woman, if you will pardon my French.

Tomorrow is my Certificate Of Test. The moment my examiner asks me as he has said he will, "Are you ready for your C of T?", I do not know how much honesty I can muster in reply. Yes, I should have more faith in myself. Some of the guys ahead of me really should be an inspiration, even if what I know of them isn't...so I guess I am going to be waving back when I come out the other end.

Anyway, life has to go on and it has. After many weeks of having to make do with streetside warongs selling overfried fish, chicken smelling and tasting like the scariest substances you read about from internet spam and the crippling inability to tell nasi goreng kampong from nasi goreng kangkong, I finally found my favourite food tucked away in a tiny stall with no signboard run by a husband and wife team, simply known by word of mouth as 'Sundrams'. I have also befriended a copilot from China who recently teamed up in the company who is as crazy about rice and curry as I am so it's no winning awards for anyone who guesses who snapped this uncomplimentary picture of me straining at the bit to plough through the leaf.

Also, while skirting around Awana Kijal looking for him, I discovered not one but two Chinese 'no serve pork' restaurants less than two hundred metres from the lobby. So, Jin Hao and I alternate twixt Sundrams' and these two for our daily meals. Poor Jin Hao can't drink beer as he wants to obviate spiking his uric acid level, and he does not see himself cycling, but he confesses to loving the swimming pool. Yes. Right. Well, no friendship is porfiq.

Yes, and I did fall in love at a junction for about five minutes. This is the sweetest face I have seen in Kerteh to date, so should you harbour any armorous intent on visiting here for a beach romp, be warned that this is about as good as it gets. The face of a confused cow, staring at me, unable to deduce whether I was a life threatening entity or one worth goring with stubby horns, so we played at the out-staring game for the duration of the snapshot. The low rumble of a 20-valve Levin always tempts other means of transport beside me to show me their dust, so I do not blame her for such posturing at all. I grinned broadly at her before I drove slowly to the house, still seeing her indecisive face and soft dark eyes in my mind as my front gate loomed ahead of me.

But tomorrow I contend with mammoiselle. Sacrebleu!


15 September 2011

Parles Vous Anglais?

You can imagine being whisked through 5 days of ground school, then returning to KK and packing up to organise your move back to the peninsula, and then before you can do much else, shoot off to France for simulator training on an aircraft you have not so much as sat in yet. It's rather forbidding isn't it? It makes me want to scream merde rather than Sacre bleu.

But here I am now in the middle of the week of simulator training in the ancient city of Marseilles. I am getting better at the EC225, though not as fast as I wish I could. My friends keep telling me that this is the "learning curve", and thus I must suffer as they all did. I am grateful for little satirical consolations such as these which they offer me. The EC225 in simulator mode is a bronco to bust, and I am once again wondering if I am worthy of my wings. But it should come to me before the end of my career, so that should not be so bad. With that in mind, I shall refrain from saying too much about my thorny path towards the left hand seat in the EC225.

Instead, let me speak of the corner of Marseilles I am living in. I am housed in the Adagio aparthotel and I glean from the signboards that this is in the Cote D'Azur, which sounds like 'the blue coast' to me. Fair enough, Marseilles Provence is a sparkling seaside city with an extensive port and marina, with ships the like of which I have never seen before. These vessels are so gargantuan I can imagine the entire population of KK on the deck of even one of them. Then too, the entire population of KK would in fact prefer the ship because the residences don't look all ultra modern and sparkling the way the port impressed me. People here live in little apartments posing as the Gallic equivalent of our own Pekeliling Flats in the middle of dingy Kuala Lumpur. The apartments astride the Adagio look post apocalyptic even, swarming with immigrants and numerous homeless people, lending an overall Book Of Eli feel to the locale.

Down the street, a right turn and 80 yards away is a pizza-kebab-salad canteen, run by an Egyptian named Mohammed. It's the closest point of sustanence for me, and so far I have been shuttling meals between Mohammed's cheeseburgers and kebabs in pita bread on the one hand, and jambon crudite sandwiches from a vending machine at Helisim on the other. I swear, the minute I am on board the mas flight back to KL from Charles De Gaulle on Tuesday, I am going to beg the stewardess for a nasi lemak, be it on the menu or no. I thought myself a true omnivore with Brenda's pastas, breads and pies but my real craving now is for a platter of biriyani rice, chicken varruval and sagh. Yes, sagh, not any other spelling variant of that word. Or maybe...hold that thought...

I have not faced too many problems with language, and the French's reputation for utter disdain towards the English-speaking has not made itself apparent yet. Perhaps it is the Helisim's mixed patronage of Americans, Australians and other international customers. Perhaps it is the presence of the many immigrants. Perhaps Marseilles is far from the fanatical Parisienne hub. My inappropriate bonjour and merci and misplaced sil vous plais are best dispensed with before the locals declare me barbaric. Kevin Kline and Depardieu have been no help whatsoever. On the subject of losses in  translation, while the French can communicate in English and indeed, do so when dealing with international clients, the results of their exercise of the language can be hilariously misinterpreted. I don't  think this notice over the vending machine needs elaboration to those with so much as a mild imagination.

The days have suddenly taken a welcome turn for the colder, nippier feel in the air. I am no closer to feeling prouder of myself than when I first attended ground school in Paka as I can't get a feel for the EC225 in sim. Everyone here is reasuring me that I am just suffering from simulatoritis. Yes, there actually is such as thing, and I can remember doing quite clumsily in the Sea King simulator in Bournemouth and Stavanger for at least the first 4 out of 12 hours. Okay, so there may be hope for me yet.

I am wearied, too, as this has been the third 3 am morning start for me, and my internal clock is really in  a shambles. I sleep at odd times, get hungry at odd times and I feed that hunger at times not of its calling. Anyone can tell you, that this is just so typical of a simulator course!

But then  again, the mid-point has been reached. Thankfully, my instructors are Malaysian, not Gallic. Some of them are former air force veterans. This makes things a bit smoother not merely because of the language or culture but also the date-time-group. They are in as bad shape as I am contending with jet lag, and this makes for better empathy towards this zero-offshore houred pilot.

Eventually, this nightmare in Marseilles will draw to a close. Then will come the type technical exam, followed by the C of T. Man, am I steady inbound for a party or what?

28 August 2011

Being Dapple Grey

In about 6 days, I will be leaving Kota Kinabalu for the second time in my life. The first was when I was being handed over to yet another auntie for guardianship at the age of 16. This time, though, the election is self-motivated.

Though My Heart Quiver was penned after many weeks of restlessness, my sleeping hours pursued by a ghostly presence, of what I wasn't sure. It was only when I was flying back from Sandakan after my week-long detachment there that it began to form a discernible picture. I realised that as I kept flying with my heart in my mouth each time I encountered enroute weather and used my airmanship to cross the ranges as judiciously as I could, that this was not the way to fly.

I should enjoy going up in the air. I wasn't feeling that here. I kept getting the creepy feeling that at anytime this aircraft was going to take me to my death. I had flown the Nuri for a good 15 years now, and with all the derogatory names the media and civilian public had for her, I always felt safe flying her. I may not have always been in safe situations, but I knew that whatever happenned, by handling her correctly, I could overcome the hazards and remain in control.

Flying for the filming crew of Gerimis Mengundang drove the fact home that in general aviation, I would keep getting placed in situations that run against my aviator's better sense whilst satisfying the dictates of the clients' hire.

But God has been kind enough to me to have dragged me through 15 years in service life in gaining a marketable trade, and therefore I had choices when faced with this discomfort. I have been called by all the Malaysian offshore companies and I have settled for one, since they said yes to me immediately, that also because they were the first company I called.

I attended the ground school two weeks ago. I have tied up all loose ends in the current company and completed my clearance. My digital satellite receiver connection has been suspended till I reconnect in Kerteh. The phone and internet line will be terminated shortly. My personal effects were packed and taken away by the forwarders on Friday. I now sit in an empty apartment waiting for the prearranged dates to hand over the car to Transmile so that it can be flown to Subang, reducing the waiting time to a few days insted of a minimum of three weeks were I to send it via the forwarders, and the flight that will take me away from here for good.

Life's certainty of changes is about to take another pendulous swing in mine, and the lives of the ones who are dependant on me. The uncertainty of what those changes will bring is the source of a second round of restlessness, though I know that by all discernible means, this should be a change for the better. I will be flying one of the world's finest medium lift helicopters. I will learn to fly in poor weather with reference to my instruments and trusting to surrender the controls to the autopilot.  I won't even be dressing up in the traditional airline pilots uniforms as the company issues nomex flying suits to the aircrew.


 
So if all is as good as it heralds itself to be, what is it that has me second guessing myself? It's the perennial fear that I may have yarned myself a rope up out of the frying pan only to slide into the fire. But whatever comes I must face it as I have already signed 5 years of my life away during the ground school phase. It's too late to back out and I don't want to go back to the general aviation world.

Sigh.

Let's see what happens as I cross each bridge ahead and I pray that they are not suspended over a boiling lake of lava.

04 August 2011

NHT

Here are some comments left by knowledgeable readers of Malaysia Today in response to " Singapore Armed Forces Conducts Readiness Exercise":

(a) A War is not always about the HIGH TECH gears.... Its about the Heart and True Patriotism. If the Polis only attack armless citizen, and SHOT people carrying a walking stick.... Multiply to a Solider at war, will start flee when The real Bullet storm....
See the Sargent of our Army force---- to the ----- so called Generals.......... all are way over weight.... How to fight?

(b) And the Government readily threatens to use army etc against the rakyat just because the rakyat wants free and fair elections. Weird

(c) WHAT!!! No Submarine? How to win???

OMG!!! I pray most fervently that this isn't a reflection of Malaysian intelligence, for if it is, we are doomed.

Then we have these in response to "Mindef says RM493.3m additional budget necessary to ‘maintain’ Scorpene subs":

(a) Heck, nowadays when we buy a car, we get maintenance free for 3 years. Now we just got hold of our 2 submarines and we forgot to ask for maintenance free. So let the taxpayers foot another RM500 million. Something is wrong somewhere folks. We can lose a jet engine. Wouldn't surprise me if we lose one submarine or two. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Really? I bought my Vios brand new, and it's still under hire purchase. All the calendar maintenance is charged separately. Where's the 'free' bit? Now I don't know if I should laugh or weep.

(b) JUST SELL IT LA... go and MAKE YOUR RM100m commission la.
WIn WIn for u and Rakyat.
The sub cannot sink anyway... in case of wars, I'm 200% sure that Malaysian Army will surrender within days.

The common denominator running through these and many more of the comments responding to the articles is the bloody vein of disdain the writers have for the Malaysian Armed Forces.

The Malaysian Armed Forces is apolitical by function. They serve the people under orders from the Supreme Commander which is our King.

First and foremost, I love reading MT. Having served the government for more than half my life, I see in MT's revelations a reflection of the cheating and fabrication I have witnessed as an airborne taxi driver for our Executive. And the comments under the MT posts reek of people who are dying to take a swipe at the government for the repetitive acts of ineptitude it has exhibited. I will not blame these guys, because this is the only avenue they have for self expression.

But let's get over the submarine that can't sink already okay? It was just ONE incident when the ballast tank pumps were unserviceable and it inadvertantly found its way into the news. It then became the new "missing fighter jet engines" joke for the Malaysian public. The navy made the decisive smart move to declare the sub unserviceable, for better not to submerge than for that same pump failure be unable to empty the ballast tanks and the submarine fail to rise, thereby poisoning all hands underwater.

Get past it. Keeping on with that stale issue is like being an old nagging spouse who will NOT let go if his/her partner's transgressions. Does this help the relationship? That the submarine sailed underwater from France to Malaysia seems absent.

Please read: http://securemalaysia.blogspot.com/2011/03/so-if-you-say-it-still-cannot-dive.html

I tried to register on MT so I could speak my piece but it was a long winded pay-first-before-registration, and through PayPal too. Defeated, all I have is the futility of my blog to rant in.

Now hear this:

The Malaysian Armed Forces is apolitical by function.

We have never engaged against civillians except during the May 13 riots when the police could no longer preserve public order, and yielded control to the army to disperse rioteers. Just once. For the hold over public order is a grip that the police do not want to yield ever again. That is why they kept it tight during the Reformasi days.

But sigh...in this country where the war was fought secretly while the rest of you slept in your beds, you have not learned to tell a soldier from a cop.

The striking new wisdom post Bersih 2 is, that while we can look upon you free peoples who braved chemically laced water cannons and tear gas and the truncheons as our heroes, the inverse seems impossible.

Interesting thought, isn't it?

We are in demand by the UN as peacekeepers as we have always conducted ourselves professionally in armed service. We have never been afraid to face the enemy whether those who terrorised our people from the jungles as commies or in foreign lands where lives of innocent civillians were under threat . We have lost men overseas in keeping our assigned watch over people not equipped for the job. For those who watch run after re run of Blackhawk Down on astro, please do not think for a second that the actual story of the ambush in Baqarra Market was what was being depicted. The true story is that nobody wanted to rescue the ambushed American soldiers because it was too risky. Only the Malaysian soldiers would go on to a ferocious gun and bayonette battle to successfully extricate the Americans after a dusk to dawn combat engagement.


We performed, in Congo, in Cambodia, Bosnia and Acheh. We were called upon to serve in the Ivory Coast a few years ago but we had to turn it down because we needed the Nuris here to serve the nation's needs. We still serve to guard against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

The point is this: that our soldiers have died for the people, preserving peace, so that you can go about your business, even if it is to tar us with the same brush used against politicians.


We need the right hardware so we can do our work. Often in the past, matters were much worse in that we were told to accept stuff we didn't want just because a deal had been inked by the powers that be. And flying these machines, our boys have died. We are just asking for the right stuff. What shadiness takes place outside of our hands, is just that. Outside of our hands.

You may have a tiff with the boss, who in all possibility is an arse. Your differences with him is no fault of the guy who watches the gates in the interest of the company. It doesn't make you a better man if you spit on him as you exit the premises.

Please do not scorn the soldiers who have died, and who may die for you without you even knowing it.

I wish these armchair military analysts would pick up a rifle and stand sentry along the extensive hostile borders of this nation and know what it is to really serve your country; yes, a country that will most determinably forget that you stood to give your life for many.

17 July 2011

The Sandakan Week


The Waterfront, Sandakan Swiss Inn
I love the Swiss Inn at Harbour Square.
I first stayed there in 2009 when I was flying General Burns to survey the surface radar sites donated by the Americans for the anti-piracy watch on the Sabahan east coast.

This time around, and as an employee, the resident pilot at the Sandakan branch of the company had some personal admin to take care of and I was sent to the branch to take over his assigned tasks.

I had 4 VIP ministerial flights, one forestry department aerial survey and one return to base ferry flight for the aircraft.

My previous record of stay at the Swiss Inn was still retrievable, making my arrangements much easier. There was food everywhere along the waterfront up to the naval station at KD Sri Sandakan. But I chose to stick to the kitchen ware, as it looked cleaner than the streetside vendors' churnings as they worked at shaving a living off tourists from  the adjacent B & B spots.

It was also the BERSIH week.

Which made the ministerial flights awkward. And difficult to be witness to.

I would hear how the populace of our intended village stopover were all staunch supporters of the party. I would be used in their speeches as a punchline on how they were telling "their pilot" of the villagers' unwavering votes in their favour. I could hardly feign applause. So I would use my gloves as hands, slapping them against my knee. I could do no more even though they placed me at the VIP circle of benches. I smiled less from concurrence than in amusement, hoping it wouldn't betray my "bah!!humbug!!" thoughts. It is awkward to fly them back when they occupy the front seat and I can't muster a slap on the back remark. These are the most ravaged people in the country, and the development programmes in their wetlands will pollute the rivers, water ways and coastlines from whence they scrape a survival rather than a livelihood. The best I could do was the hold a straight face and spew generic remarks about the en route weather and turbulence at our cruise height.

A sample of the wares at the Traditional Food Contest at Kuala Sapi

I liked the MP whom I was flying around in his constituency. He kept me as a guest in his circle of aides and always checked how I felt after each meal. Which was just as well since I was looking at stuff I had never seen before. River prawns stewed in tapioca, fern shoots in mango, various types of hermit crab, horseshoe crab and lots more whose names I remember not. He was the first MP I have flown who always referred to me on the expected duration of the weather. But seeing how he had to execute damage control for the very chap who screwed this region, I knew I didn't want his job.



Klagan Sandakan
I don't want mine either.
I flew the aircraft back to KK on Friday morning, pushing off early before the strength of the sun could raise the carpet clouds above the mountain peaks. As the Bell is not an instrumented aircaft, I dove under the covers at Klagan Sandakan and flew at treetop till the weather became definitely better approaching Sungai Sungai. Climbing to clear the terrain, I was on the NorthEastern side of Mount Kinabalu, and I sighed as I looked at her distinctive silhouette against a hazed background sky.


From Sungai Sungai I crossed the final vein of the eastern Crocker range and descended to Tandek, caught sight of Kota Marudu and gunned straight for the Kampong Empatbelas valley. I sought clearence from Kinabalu to track along the coast at low level till abeam of Tuaran so that I could clear the Kota Belud RMAF air to ground firing range. I checked my watch and noted that it was 0830, with 0900 as the range activation time.  Low along the beach I flew, the wind to my back as the rhues curled away from the sea breezes which sped me along towards Tuaran. Kinabalu airfield was just a few minutes off, and I was soon crossing the active runway to land at the company hangar. The ground crew came rushing out to tow the aircraft in, and I was told to join the other chaps in the ops room for a pre-shooting brief.



Approaching Sungai Sungai

Ahmad Idham was shooting his latest movie, Gerimis Mengundang, a collaboration with some Indonesian actress where the scenario was of a helicopter pilot who crashes in the mountain range and dies. Right, a likely story as ever. My job was to fly the part of the ill-fated aircraft, hovering in the dead man's curve and simulating a crash into the jungle while Capt H flew circles around me with the camera crew to harrass me with their insane demands.


It was a hot afternoon. Climbing into the Kiulu valley was a turbulent affair as a gathering storm over the Crockers was moving sinisterly towards the west. It took a complete 70 foot reel of film and then some to finish the shoot by which time I was exhausted from the having been on the job from 6 in the morning. I met up with Harry at Coffee Friends and had yakked about my week in Sandakan, my events and misgivings and went home for a good bath and much pondering.

I would not ordinarily fly the dead man's curve unless it was to save someone's life, as I did with the then Major Fajim Juffa when he ejected and went missing in November 2004.  But here I was, doing this because I am being paid by a client to do what runs against my aviator's better sense. I slept restlessly that night.

I woke up with a lump in my throat and stared  at my cellphone. I spoke to a few friends, and soon I was feeling much better. I lazed my weekend away, just bent on unwinding from weeks of a creeping, unsettled feeling of disquiet over the way I made a living.

I am in transition again. This time the vibes I get are much better than those I had when I was edging out of the air force. Yes, I get to meet up with an old archenemy in my new workplace, but that old sod has been described by my future workmates as of insignificant stature now.

Come October, a new life commences. Okay, Capt Jeffrey. Shed those ranks. You're going to be a copilot soon.


11 July 2011

But It Is Not This Day

I was sent to Sandakan to fly a few sorties on the fateful day of 9-7-11.

I was probably crossing the Crocker Range at the time the march began.

I was hoping against hopelessness that the ruling government would stand down and seize a legitimate moment of glory for itself. But later in the day I was to discover both in pride and sorrow that it failed to be the bigger guy and yield. Pride that Malaysians are now willing to fight for a better country and return us to being the Golden Chersonese. Sorrow that the country's leadership refused to budge from the role of abusive parenting.

I am a civilian now.

This day I would not have wanted to be in uniform. Not when the government would have exercised emergency laws to harm its own citizens. The authorities tried to use the military during the days of the Reformasi. Thank God we had an Armed Forces Chief who had the appendage to tell the authorities that we would not mobilise against civilians we signed up to fight for, and that the cops could do their dirty work for them.

I wouldn't ordinarily trust a cop further than I could throw him, having known of their inimitable modus operandii through work experience, but at the same time I have had some good experiences with them too.  We worked together in Acheh and also when I was in MINDEF in processing the approval of military aircraft to ferry goods and personnel that air charters would not.

Thus, I can sympathise with a few of them.

For as time draws on I am witness to more and more erosion of common sense and the decompostion of good governance. Were I in uniform now, I would worry that the idiot at the helm of my ministry would issue a command to open fire upon people I had many times risked my life to draw away from harm.

Cops come under the Home Ministry. Lucky for me I was in the military requiring the King to issue the order. Yet as we have all witnessed, the King has been sidelined. So now even soldiers may be forced into what they really never ever want to do.

In all my years of serving and flying in the air force I was used to the idea that each time I took to the air could be my last moment alive.

I am afraid of dying but I didn't fear death in serving my countrymen.

What I did fear was the nitwit behind the signing of orders to kill.

24 June 2011

Though My Heart Quiver

The spine of the mountains is clear against the sky
I shall sail in my vessel but I shall not ride too high
Should the needles fall to zero beneath the midday sun
Into the embrace of mother earth shall I make my final run
The wind can lift me safely if she favours me today
And upon the palm of her hand I slowly meander my way
May the mists rise to show me the valleys below
And draw me away from the cols fraught with turbulent flow
There are days when I feel like the sky is surely mine
Skirting at treetops in a wingdance as the river winds
The beauty of God's tapestries in greenstretch beneath my feet
My hat be nimbus, the cirrus, cumulus and stratus sheets
I see the Brahminy sweep along my shoulder in pairs
The swallows and swifts ignore me as if I weren't there
I thank the heavens for the graciousness of CAVOK
Till the skids kiss the grass let good weather hold its sway
Each time I fly my life is a suppliant offering
As I look down  at the mountains like ceaseless carnivorous rings
Will that tropical rain forest be my bridge to the the life hereafter
Or will I be consumed by ebony clouds that cloak the way yonder
What can we seek refuge in, be they the written or unforeseen
When all knowledge is overshadowed by the frailty of being
My only way back is the pavement of many whispered prayers
As the rotorbeat pulls me homeward bound through the air
Where does my mind run to when the sun has hidden his face
Back to my dear woman and the lovely ones she has raised
Though my heart quiver my hand steadies the cyclic stick
Raise the collective and ease forward and clear that rugged peak
Now the backbone of the mountains gazes at me from on high
There is no whisper of a storm lurking in the bright open sky
To my Shepherd I commend the means by which I make my bread
And through each quiver of my heart, He shall steady my way

06 June 2011

BO Flights

Oh, BO in this case does not mean the Bolkow 105 helicopter. How I wish.

Thursday, 02 June.

My flying for the month began with ferrying an MP and his 7-man party from Penampang town to a kampong called Kalangaan, 9 nautical miles Southeast of the town. It seemed simple enough, and 9 miles didn't imply that a night stop kit was really needed, as surely I could make it back on a 9 mile-leg!

I was to fly them in at a quarter to seven and draw them out at 1400H. The Garmin was clamped onto the glare shield, and the climb to a thousand feet showed me Penampang town in the shimmering distance along the heading and mileage away as indicated by the Garmin. The ground crew had already reached the district council field by road. I was in radio contact with them and I was informed that a shutdown would not be necessary as the passengers were ready on ground. I was glad for this, as it meant that the task would be expeditious: swiftly in, swiftly out, in 2 shuttles and then back to base to wait till the aftenoon extraction bit.

My first load was made of normal passengers, and we shot towards Kalangaan at 1500 feet. I was pointed straight into the mountain range, and I kept looking down for Kalangaan, as the Google Earth shot I had perused the night before showed a riverbank village. However, after noting that Kalangaan was supposed to be 0.2 miles to go, I was puzzled as all I could see ahead of me was the foreboding rise of the mountain wall. I circled a few times just in case I missed something, and I could not see any village in 0.2 miles' distance, and certainly no river either. My instincts told me that by the shape of the terrain, Kalangaan was likely to be behind the mountain, even though the Garmin GPS indicated dead ahead on an evidently unlikely to be inhabited mountain wall. Besides, it was not in keeping with the Google Earth picture I had looked at in reference to the GPS coordinates.

Feeling very unprofessional and crimsonly defeated, I pointed the Bell's nose back to Penampang and got onto the company's frequency. "Sabah Air, 9MAWC, unable to loacate Kampong Kalangaan. I am heading to Penampang and will call ops to reconfirm the lat and long." Roger, Whiskey Charlie, we will check the coordinates again, came the reply from ops.

Then Penampang Ground, also our ops boys, came up with a brain wave through the company's radio, "Captain, maybe you can ask one of the passengers." It seemed like someone was in fact listening over the headsets, because I heard an unfamiliar voice say, "Okay Captain, I have the coordinates." It was one of the MP's staff, George.

Seeing that we were overhead Penampang already, I approached for a landing and made him swap seats with the front passenger. I had  a look at his coordinates for Kalangaan, punched them into the Garmin and got airborne once more.  I flew the route while reading the terrain and sure enough, the spot was behind the mountain. What I had received from ops was off by a few seconds both in Northing and Easting, but a few seconds in this kind of terrain can make all the difference between make or break in a mission. I  discovered after sending MP Datuk Phil in on the second shuttle, that instead of heading back to Kinabalu to wait for the noon extraction, another load was waiting for me. Here I once again learned how different Bell operations are from the Nuri.

On the Nuri we have a flight deck. The "cockpit" so to speak. It is somewhat separated from the cabin. There are no doors or bulkeads partitioning the flight deck from the cabin, but even without partitioning, an open design with a designated flight deck is effective enough in delaying the travel of unwelcome fumes into the pilots' nasal cavities. I realised this when the last two passengers boarded for a one time flight into Kalangaan. I say this without prejudice: they had body odour to infringe the defintion of bilogical and chemical warfare, and there was no tempering of the effect as in the Bell, the passenger sits next to you just as close as a passenger in a car would.

Then after dropping them off in Kalangaan, I flew direct to Kinabalu and shut down the aircraft. I advised the ground crew that I would need the Bell fuelled to 60 gallons and ready by 1345H. Then I marched off smugly to gobble down lunch at the company canteen.

When 1345H arrived, I started up perfunctorily and transitted to Penampang at 500 feet. It was the view from 500 feet that altered my mood for the evening. Penampang looked like it was about to be inundated with storm clouds. The flight path to Kalangaan looked worse. I had to land in Penampang to off load one tech boy who would assist me with passenger handling while I carried an ops boy into Kalangaan for the same purpose.

Even the ops boy could see that the weather was rapidly deteriorating. He kept his eyes on the route appraisingly. "Ni tak baik lah Cap. Kalau hujan lagi teruk nanti saya tidur dalam sini pula Cap. Tapi rasa rasa boleh lah nak habiskan bawa keluar semua." I optimistically agreed with him, that the weather would hold till we had withdrawn everyone out. As I skirted 'round the storm cell crowning the mountain, turning left to ride the valley to Kalangaan, I felt instead that this was not going to be as simple as anticipated. The rain had begun to fill the valley, blurring the outline of the slopes. A touch of sun from my back cast some shadow which helped me see the slopes on the left, and I navigated my way to Kalangaan by them. I picked up the initial four heavyweights, all the heavier for the alcohol they were reeking  of and turned 180 degrees to climb out of the valley. The valley ahead was coal grey. Gone the sun, and I was ready to kick the tail back to Kalangaan if the valley ahead was indeed walled in. As I gradually picked up to 80mph, there was a small backlit spot to my ten o'clock. I chased towards it and safely exited the valley, flying through obscurring rain back to Penampang.

The second attempt was not fruitful. Even at 1000 feet, the valley into Kalangaan was solid grey, impervious to my need to accomplish my mission. I circled the valley and descended to 500 feet, hoping to read the valleys' outlines from a lower altitude and sniff my way in, but it was a no from mother nature. I had seen this before, many times. I was past the point of arguing with her. You can ask her only so many times. If she still says no, no it is.

I headed back to Penampang, and the tech boy came running to the aircraft. He donned the headset and listened to my brief. The valley is blocked. I will shut down here and wait. If by four o'clock it's still bad, we will have to abort and try again tomorrow. Now I will just reposition the Bell at the corner of the field as the schoolkids are having their games. He nodded acknowledgement, and jumped in as I was going to use him as my "crewman", to look at the  tail and advise me of the clearance as I "re parked" at the corner.

I shutdown and did my post flight checks under the rain. Then I took shelter at the nearby Tun Fuad Stephens Hall and watched time creep slowly by with no improvement to the weather. To make matters worse, one of the passengers I had brought out of Kalangaan was Datuk Phil's aide, who had gotten separated from his leader in the argument as to whom would leave first on the chopper, and he, fully sloshed, decided graciously to improve my 18 years of flying acumen with his personalised lecture on aviation sciences. I entertained him for pity's sake till my better sense told me that the weather was not getting better even by waiting in Penampang. I walked over to the Bell with the aide chasing after me, telling me that it would be good to land at Kalangaan. Ignoring him, I beckoned to my tech boy and we got into the aircraft, wound up and flew back to Kinabalu.

After shutting down at the company dispersal, I advised the ground crew that I would need the aircraft fuelled again to 60 gallons, as  I would reattempt the extraction at 1700. But it was not meant to be. Although the rain subsided, even from the airfield it was clear that fog began rising thick from the troughs and valleys. I was there with the start-up crew, staring at the distance. The tech boy who was with me earlier shook his head, saying exactly the same thing about the rising fog. Prior checks on the meteorological websites also showed the area was choked with scattered precipitation. Hmmm. I couldn't be the only one thinking I could succeed. These boys have had far more time on the job than I did in this area, and their intimacy with local weather had to be respected. Plus, I realised I was trying to push it. Now, that is never the attitude with which to get airborne. I relented. I headed home feeling dejected. Frozen fish curry from Brenda's kitchen back in Labuan was reheated for my comfort, and I slept restlessly from about 2 in the morning till six.

When Lauren Wood's Fallen buzzed over my cellphone alarm, my first step was to head for the balcony. The fir trees in the distance were brazen with the rising sun, and I was sure this day would end better than the one before. I had my breakfast enthusiastically and went to the company hangar for pre-flight prep.

Before I walked out for start-up, Andy from ops informed me that the ops boy in Kalangaan had managed to contact him from a hilltop near Kalangaan's LP. The information was that everyone was on the hill, and there was an LP of sufficient size to take a Bell. Hmmm. There were no coordinates...so I guess I would have to wing it. 

As I reached Kalangaan, I contacted the ops boy on the company frequency. He clock-coded me to the LP and I went up and down the valley as I gauged the approach to the LP. Somehow the breadth of the valley didn't seem enough for me, whilst flying the length of the valley only enabled me to see the LP when abeam its position. Discomfort began to set in and I appealed that the passengers walk down to the original LP, the field at the riverbank. The agreement was reached, and I landed, with two veteran mongrels comprising my welcoming committee. Dogs can be anywhere, city or glen, and always have soft eyes sparkling with loyalty.

As I exited the aircraft, out of nowhere a hobbit-sized lady with a toddler papoosed on her back walked up and started yakking with me, and I squinted to read her lips because I couldn't make out what she was saying through the lump of tobacco tucked into her upper lip. Here, lip reading was pretty much commensurate with the sounds emanating from her mouth. I got something about Datuk spending the night uphill, and the clearest thing was, "MABUKbah Datuk semalam!!!!" I chuckled. So it wasn't all suffering in the jungle was it? And hey, this tiny and obviously fit woman was the grandmother to the toddler. Mmmm Hmmm.

Meanwhile, two youngsters came out of the thickets and chatted with me. They were cheerful, and spoke of a night of inebriation. They reminded me of my younger days in the base, when we had a functional bar life. Yes, even they called me Cap!! Cap dulu tentera ka? Boleh nampakbah yang Cap dulu pilot tentera dulu. Cap pusing helikopter macam lain, banyak yang masuk keluar sini tidak pernah pusing macam Cap. I was speechless. I didn't know these young lads could tell so much. So my air force background showed in my handling huh? Or was I like Donkey, wearing it all on my sleeve? Hey...my ops boy spent the night here. Did he give away too much under the influence?

When Datuk Phil finally arrived, I apologised to him for both the inability to take him out the day before and the baulked approach to the hilltop LP. He said neither was my fault, and he appreciated the call to exercise early in the morning. We made small talk, and he described how by its very location and inaccessibility, Kalangaan was sure to never be void of its crystal clear babbling brook. It would remain as it has always. It was heartening to hear this. It seemed that the quality of this MP was to preserve, not to change in the name of progress or mileage. Soon after, George conjured a photo op, and then we clambered into the Bell to expedite the start-up and completion of the task. It was almost nil wind conditions cruising out of the valley, and it was minutes shortly after when we landed in the district council field.

Datuk Phil shook his head and slapped his thighs in  glee. "Mmmm!! Smooth, smooth, smooth!!!! Thank you Captain!!" He gave me a broad grin and shook my hand vigorously before getting down. Right. Now for another two shuttles.

 On the second shuttle, I had George with me. He bagan looking out into the Penampang valley and pointed out his house to me. "Okay George," I said. "Get your camera out, because I am going to circle your home from a hundred feet above it." I made a rapid descent, George snapped his pictures, and we headed happily to the district council field where the four-by-fours were waiting for the remnant passengers. A third shuttle brought my ops boy out and I retrieved the tech chap from Penampang before turning towards Kinabalu.

It was indeed as it turned out, a better end this time around, as promised by the sunrise. I gazed out on the sprawling town I now lived in, remembered Kalangaan and its  idyllic huts and hills and softly hummed Seminole Wind before reporting to Kinabalu Tower that I was east of the airfield.

I guess that some days are diamonds, and some days are stone.

27 May 2011

That'll Do

I believe that children are our future. Teach them, well....

For most times, I think I like kids though my own wife and kids say I have a face to scare children into hiding.

Unflattering as that thought may be, I sometimes wish that such an affliction of the countenance could be called to bear upon children who draw out the exterminator in me.

It was a cloudy Saturday morning at ten when I had to fly Tan Sri, his son and bodyguard into Sinua, a hill-locked hamlet where Tan Sri had some political business to see to.

I could not cross the range into Tambunan, nor at Papar as the cloud base sat below the crests of the Crockers, so the reliable route through the Melalap gap was employed. I overflew Keningau and went on to Sinua, keeping Tan Sri briefed on every election of route and diversion thereof, till Sinua lay sprawled beneath our feet. A sweep over the village allowed me to select the best approach into the village football field where the crowd stood upon the grandstand waiting for his arrival.

As Tan Sri and company disembarked from the Bell, I sat in to plod through the shutdown. The sight of kids glaring at me in swarms at the edge of the field began to petrify me. Again, I missed my old Nuri, her sheer size and noise signature intimidating even soldiers, while the Bell, I feared, could do little scarier than to court enamoured dragonflies into a mating dance.

Post shut down, I clambered off the skids slowly, securing all the doors one by one. There was a sweet old grandma who came up to shake my hand. I reckon she couldn't tell the politician from his pilot. The grandstand was now void of the entourage which had proceeded to the community hall yonder behind the headman's house. All that remained were alarmingly numerous children and one lone and clueless looking school security guard, his face a showcase of all steely courage as was on Beni Gabor's in The Mummy.

At first I thought my fears were unfounded, as crowds of waist-high children trailed in chatters after me like a gaggle as I walked towards the grandstand to begin the interminable wait for my passengers to finish their function at the hall. I was both touched and flustered, as kids, both boys and girls, runny noses and red-eyed, coal-toothed and flea-bitten, pocked skin and raggedy clothed, jostled and squeezed to sit next to me.

Then the teenagers began what I have seen grown men shamelessly do: pose for photographs with the Bell. Oh, I am fine with that. I am so used to these photo op sessions, girls imitating Kirsten Dunst's moves as Mary Jane posing for Peter Parker. Then came the moment the money shot involved leaning on the pitot tube. I stepped off the grandstand to tell them never to lean on any protrusion. Yes, and to tick off a cool dude wannabe for smoking near the aircraft. I turned back to the grandstand to see the kids' jaws dropped at the display of stern words. For just five seconds. Then they too began swarming the aircraft like it was the Bastille.

And so began 3 hours of prising off these children who converged on the Bell like wave after wave of scurrying roaches, and no amount of impassioned pleading that for their own good, not to touch antennae for fear of decaying radio emissions, grab for the HF antenna they did. One simian was hanging from the tail rotor guard!! Yelling at him just made him turn his back on me in cold dead silence, making me wonder if he had some mental disability, as he responded neither to me nor to the caution-filled yells of his schoolmates.  To add pressure to my already dreadful day, cows began to amble into the field, and storm clouds were gathering in the hillslopes that crowned the village. Did Tan Sri have a window in the balairaya through which to observe the encroaching weather?

I was getting wearied as I watched cows grazing idyllically around the Bell, leaving their cellulose signatures here and there. The guard who had been assigned to take care of the Bell had long disappeared as Beni would have in the face of a million scarabs. How life does indeed imitate art. I surrendered the Bell to its history of having served in these hamlets under the rule of The Lord Of The Flies and yet lived to tell the tale. I turned my attention to the packed rations in the baggage compartment and consoled myself with lunch. At long last even the number of children imparting unwarranted physical contact with the Bell subsided.

Late in the afternoon it was when my passengers finally arrived at the field. The Tan Sri's son called out to me with a sky ward glance, "Okay kah Cap?"

I nodded vehemently to release pent up rage, "Yes, Arthur, we can push through weather like this." I must have sounded reassuring as taking note of my weather assessement, all my passengers headed for the bushes for the obvious before getting on board.

I did a quickstart, the cows scattering as I pushed the Bell past transition into forward flight. As I climbed to 3000 feet, I looked in the direction of Tenom, noting that the gap still looked clear. I advised Tan Sri that I would do a running refuelling at Keningau where I knew my groundcrew were standing by, and push thereafter for the Tenom gap to clear the range before weather sealed us in the Keningau valley.

At Keningau I radioed the groundcrew to alert them for a running refuelling. I called for 70 gallons to cater to diversion, as I was anticipating bad weather. The top up took about ten minutes, and I was soon airborne for Tenom. Hardly two minutes out, the groundcrew radioed me, saying that Capt Haji, who had been flying around the area a spell earlier, advised that only the Melalap gap remained available for crossing the range. Hmmmm?? I thought, that's peculiar. I see differently from here...

However, as I approached the Melalap gap, I found every trough filled with stormcloud. I tried every valley the ridge had to offer but it was shut. I turned for Tenom and provided the feedback to the company ops room, asking them to hold the groundcrew at Keningau till I had crossed the Tenom gap. I then advised Tan Sri accordingly of my intentions. He was listening to the radio chatter and asked, "What about the Melalap route?"

"Well, Tan Sri, that's what we turned away from just ten seconds ago. The way is shut. Semua pintu dia sudah tutup."

The view of Tenom from 3000 feet showed stormclouds cascading over her crests too with only the narrow gap backlit from  the other side. I watched the torque meter and noted I was slowly creeping above 85%. That was tension. I forcibly lowered the collective to 70% and kept the speed at 90mph. The tension was accumulating over weather, and also because of the gap's venturi effect which could accelerate wind speed within the narrow crevice. I lowered the collective further to 60%, sank to 1700 feet to clear the stretch of high tension cables across the gap and slowed to 70mph, hoping it would allow for turbulence penetration. The buffets began to slap the Bell left and right, the rotor beat audible above the windrush. Still, she teetered through till the gap was cleared. Looking right to Beaufort, the normal path of least high ground, I saw the sky ebonied and ashened to the ground. I pushed forward for Weston instead and resumed normal cruise speed before altering heading for Kinabalu.

The worry was over. I radioed Kinabalu and provided my ETA. Then I advised the company that I was safely through the gap.

I turned to Tan Sri and told him, "We are okay now. We are clear from bad weather."

He nodded, looking past me to the right, where the range was featurelessly smothered in black thundercloud. "You're right Captain. All those gates are tutup."

We flew through some spots of rain to land without further incident at the company dispersal. As the rotor wound down idly, Tan Sri reached out to shake my hand. "Thank you, Captain." I smiled and nodded at him. After shut down and postflight inspection, I patted the nose of the Bell.

"That'll do, Donkey. That'll do."