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 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.