13 January 2011

Saved By The Bell

Capt Az burst into the pilots' cabin to sign his authorisation sheets.

"Hmmmm...it's my day off, but they called me in. Both Long Rangers are out in the field and one has gone u/s. Battery conked. I must send them a spare, and I would take you along with me but I don't want to waste your time."

I was beginning to salivate. Two weeks with nary a soul to chat with, bored out of my skull at being on the ground and wondering when my ground school would start, this hesitant offer sounded really good. "Sir, time in the air is never a waste. You seriously saying I can get airborne?"

Capt Az looked at me for a minute as he deliberated on whether I would be worthy as ballast. Then he snapped, "Follow me!"

It was about 1400H when we strapped into the Bell206. It belched to a start like an old Volkswagen. The smell of hydraulics and avtur (aviation turbine parrafin) wafted lazily in the heated cabin air to stir many fond memories of the Alouette and the Nuri's odours, making me feel much at home in the seat. In a few minutes we were climbing to a thousand feet down to Sipitang to deliver a spare aircraft battery to the two Bell206 Long Rangers serving Bear Gryll's shoot near the Sabah Forestry waterfall at Malua.

I read out the stormy weather patterns that were brewing in the east, cascading in black billowing clouds down the Crocker's slopes to fall as thick sheets of ebonied rain into the Papar-Beaufort plains. I pointed out also, the tall white cross atop the hills of Papar, to which Capt Az responded as if it were the first time he had seen it in his seventeen years as a Bell operator in this area.

His hands would sweep and point at the instrument panel, as he must have done each time he flew. These familiar air force mantras of cyclical checks in flight were evident in his flying style, and we spent the air time alternating between the checks and chatting away, crowding out the intercom so much the technician in the back seat was hushed till landing time.

I took this chance in the air to watch the engine and flight instruments, the green arcs and the cycle of activities a solo operator pilot would carry out in the Bell. The Air Speed Indicator needle hung at 90, and I thought, okay, that's the Alouette cruise speed as well, so I should survive losing the 110 knots of the Nuri. Then noting the unit measure at the centre of the ASI, I shuddered as it dawned on me that it wasn't knots that the instrument was calibrated to read, but MPH!!!! Now, that's a real bush pilot's airspeed!

Capt Az reminded me that while I was behaving like a copilot in helping him with the lookout, the spotting of clearings and weather predictions for the return leg, I too would be facing all these alone in good time. I would not have a copilot. I traded the fact with him that I had flown with copilots so incompetent that I had to man both engine speed levers through the speed trim switches on the collective during a flight test in Airod Kuching, therefore feeling alone in the cockpit was not exactly going to be novel to me. Capt Az started laughing. "Yes. Been there too."

Closing in on Sipitang, he rolled left and we both started looking out for the two helicopters. Capt Az spotted them down yonder, sitting line astern on a timber trail and a pick up truck in company which carried the technicians for the task. Capt Az selected an approach path and drew down to land next to the pick up truck. Three Bells, on a timber trail! I am going to have a lot to get used to. This spot would not have accomodated one Nuri.

The battery was taken out of the rear passenger cabin. Then we lifted off to slowly and pleasantly cruise out of the hills and point ourselves back to KK.

We landed as the rain started to fall in the muted evening light of a KK day at its burnished 1600H end. Capt Az thanked me for the company, and assured me that my day would come. I thanked him for letting me hop on, and headed home for a cup of Sheridans and Ottmar Liebert.

A Bell! A Bell! My kingdom for a Bell!