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."