28 January 2012


On deck, and the view of the crew's feet starboard of the chopper
I wonder how many aviators come here. I know I get visits, albeit unevidenced by entries in the comments page, but I wonder how many copilots will identify with me when I say I loathe young aircraft captains who bitch scream at me in the cockpit.

Somehow the older ones seem calmer, knowing that you will auto-correct minor excesses such as angle of bank or airspeed. But these younger ones seem to have such a chip on their shoulders made of the extra two bars on their epaulettes.

What a demise of decorum on the part of captaincy it is, no matter what justification is used to prop up such outbursts.What a load of hot air, really. I may be greyed to my untrimmed chest, but I do have attitude still. And that is, that I don't give a crap about juvenile aircraft captains who bitch scream at me in the cockpit. I know how to present my most infuriating, obstinate and asinine side when confronted by what I consider inordinate authority. Just ask my wife.

Now that the priorities of the day have been dealt with, let me speak of what is a rarity.

Refueling of the EC225 on a rig.

Fill 'er up mate!!!
The task for the day was to fly offshore workers to two rigs whose total sequential distance required more fuel than a full tank's range could cover. We started off from the airport with near full fuel, and landed with about two thousand pounds remaining. The remainder of the distance to the following rig and the ride home would need in excess of three thousand pounds including bad weather reserves. Since the first rig we were going to land at had the refueling facility for a helicopter, en route, during the call to the rigs for the returning passenger statement, early warning was provided to the helicopter deck crew so that they could make the necessary preparations such as dragging out the correct number of fuel drums and allowing them to stand long enough to allow any sedimentation to settle before our ETA.

I am a newbie offshore pilot. So the novelty was a tad peturbing. Yeah, I had read the offshore refueling procedures in the operating manual and they seemed pretty much the way it was done in the air force. Yet this was an offshore thing and so presumption was not a good ally. I still would have to learn how it was done.

After landing and shutdown, the passengers were told to get below deck due to the refueling op. The fireman came forward to make the bonding contact so as to dispense static electricity which could arc and ignite the fuel fumes, soon followed by the fuel hose and the water contamination test. I had always wondered why the water contamination capsules were shaped like doughnuts, and now as I watched them, I understood. The centre void was designed to fit onto a syringe, and drawing back the plunger would force the paraffin fuel through the ring of the capsule. Any water in the fuel would turn the capsule blue. The chap perfoming the test perfunctorily showed me the capsule, still sitting on the forward face of the syringe, a pale polar mint yellow. Clean. So on with the refueling.

Shrekkk!!!!!!! I'm looking down!!!! AAaaaarrrgggghhhh!!!!!!!!!
  The wait was long. I was really feeling the need to fertlise the flora. I mean crop duster style. As I tread toward the platform edge where the staircase was, I baulked in aghast as I recognised that the staircase comprised perforated steel plates looking straight down to....the sea!!! A hundred feet down!!! So it was a vision of vertigo and horror for me. But I swallowed hard and held  tight to the handrails as I descended, knowing that I just had to use the facilities and comforts of the restroom.

Once the corridors placed the sea safely at my back, I felt better. And hunting down a restroom showed me that these offshore chaps...they are well housed. Each room, or to use the nautical term, cabin, had its own headroom. There was no common headroom, or so I was led to believe. And the headroom was rather, well, Nordic somehow. Or in the least, the one I used reminded me of the one in Stavanger's simulator centre.

Relief for the heavy laden
Back on deck, the refueling was progressing at a pace to suggest that the guys had to distill petroleum first to extract the paraffin. As I strolled on deck, I yakked with one of the offshore workers who was thrilled to impart his mundane everyday facts to a newbie like me who found them fascinating. Of course I had no idea that drilling went down two thousand feet. Only for him to surge me on by saying other rigs drilled to eight thousand feet!!!! Okay. I rarely even fly at that measure above sea level. And, said he, no refueling had been done on this rig in nine months. Hmmm.

After fifty minutes on deck, the process finally ended and the engines were wound up again for the next rig. It was getting late in the day. The extra early morning start was beginning to take its toll on me. It was meant to be a 0745H take off, but the aircraft went snagged, and another was reassigned at 1115H to us to accomplish  the job after the first wave of birds had returned from their flights.

Thank goodness it was my last day before four days of rest. It would allow that bitch scream I heard on base turn to finals to fade slowly away.

23 January 2012

Sun Come Out

It's beginning to look like the monsoon is passing on its way. My training captain told me that a good sign that the monsoon has abated is that the plankton comes out to play. I was for a pause, flabbergasted.


"Yes," said he in all earnest, raising his eyebrows at me emphatically. "Look down and you can see for yourself."

And there it was, in flamboyant wisps, like sawdust chromatographed on the mood drifts of the waves. Plankton. I had no idea that I could see plankton with the naked eye.

I beg your pardon that the above picture had to be sourced from Google images courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory which allowed the large scale pic download, as I doubt my spartan 3.2 megapixel Nokia would do anything more than render the difference between blue and white, light and shade.

Yet, thanks to the internet affirmation, I can safely say in a eureka moment, "Yes!! That's what plankton looks like!!"

It's a good change to be out in the sun at 3000 feet. When turning to intercept the outbound radials after getting airborne, levelling off brings you face to face with cloud mirrored on a placidity-polished sea all the way out to a hundred and seventy miles away. The portside window allows a view of the coast and the estuary at Kuala Paka. The teh tarik hue demarcates sharply in a paper fan planform from the deep satiny blue of the sea, telling much about the goings on upstream. The departure brief that I provide at embarkation point at the terminal now includes "...weather during this flight will be fine with scattered cloud..."

One of the pilots asked me how I feel having started flying here in the thick of the monsoon and coming out the other end into fair weather and sunny skies. I muse to myself, "Grateful!!" I think this way is a better introduction to offshore flying than to have a rosy start and then be peturbed by being embedded in cloud from 900 feet off the runway till eight miles from the destination rig.

And all this, while being a non-instrument rated pilot no less. The change in weather also brings some cheer that my instrument flying training phase may commence, with the Instrument Rating Test looming 'round the nearer corner. Then alone can I say I am a full-fledged offshore pilot as opposed to the sunshine pilot I am now. It's about time I got over that hurdle and on with this business good and proper.

16 January 2012

Green Day

I understand two icons now. Noah. And Freddy Mercury. I never thought that the day of desperation would come when I would use both names in one paragraph either but as Leonidas would say, "This is KERTEH!!!"

I feel Noah's frustration, his angst in waiting to step out on dry land. In like vein, for four weeks I have been drawing back the curtain only to find that the pelting from the night before persisted wetly into morning, and day break looked no brighter than day's end. Those four weeks and the hunger that the chilly monsoon winds and waters inflict have incurred upon me the girth gain of one Noah's larger hosts showing the results of forty days and forty nights of feeding with no frolicking. Whale would have been a fitter comparison but I doubt they needed the ark during the flood.

The Pilot's Meteorological Indicator Hill
But today was the second day without rain. The dove who returned with the olive branch yesterday hath not come back. The hill in front of the house that serves as my IMC/VMC indicator was clear!! It was a day to lean down the gangplank and stir the crank on my Merida. Holding my lungs in as I zippered up the Briko vest, I was appalled at the sight that glared back at me in horror from the mirror. I was ready for the obgyn to rupture my waterbag really; I should't be carrying that any longer.

Out the front gate, the routine right turn to the main road was traded for a left turn to head towards Kampong Chabang and who knows, p'raps Air Jernih fifteen kilometres further. Yeah, I have that Malaysian trait of heaping more on my plate than I can chew down ere the meal can begin, but I also believe in setting the eyes further than the legs can go so that I can push harder than myopia would offer as an excuse. Only, with a real plate and real food, I waste not what I want not.

It was not long before I was pedalling my giblets out as the backroads provided gradients that bellowed their threats of cardiac arrest to anyone who has lapsed cycling for more than 72 hours. But the sting of sun upon the dermis was irresistible. I needed the sight of green foregrounding the deep azure, and such vistas can wring out a few more kilometres than would be yielded by breathlessness on twilight days. I fiddled with the Shimano triggers as the road climbed ahead of me to pave the bridge over the railway. It was revision that sometimes, a cyclist has no choice but to mash diligently. Again, the hill is not in the way, the hill is the way.

Yes, sir the grass is greener here
As I passed through the heart of Kampung Chabang, I encountered this young handsome bowler-hatted gentleman just short of the dotted line on his unfettered stroll to the other side of the road. I never leave one of these guys halfway to the greenests. One of my first garden finds in Kerteh was one such as he albeit of senior years, and from frequently finding them all over the place intact or struggling to remain so, I deduce that their demographics must be healthy. Perhaps the known scarcity of houses for rent in Kerteh drives for one to always carry one's home on one's back. I took advantage of this road less travelled to pick him up and wormhole him to his intended destination. After tipping my helmet to him in farewell I was not 30 seconds into furious pedalling uphill yet again when I sighted that which neither he nor I knew at the time of our meet-up: two 3-1/4 ton trucks hurtling past me on the opposite lane as if their drivers had graduated from Sepang's Inernational Circuit. I have new appreciation for the phrase not a moment too soon, though the value of what you don't know won't hurt you is completely lost for now. This one very nearly did.
Mist and Shadow, Cloud and Shade
After four weeks of rain, the sun drew out moisture from all living things. The hills were a fresh nature-laundered green, their misty breath hanging low and heavy even at 9 ad merides. Life was emerging to sun itself. Not all ended happily. One musang met with an untimely end as he attempted what my bowler-hatted friend had. This happens a lot in Kerteh, with simians and civet cats alike; this oil and gas town where the majority of hotshots believe in burning off the single offshore treasure faster than the refineries can process it by being speed demons. But damn, really, this was the T129 backroad for bloody goodness' sake. Must someone prove petrol prowess here amongst creatures who have more legitimate ownership to the premises than any conjured constitutional clause can claim for us?

The Beckoning Bicycle

The morning was drawing on. By the time I had made the junction twixt Air Jernih and Kemasik the sun was high. I braved uphill towards Air Jernih, pretentiously and falaciously not wanting to fail my alma mater, the old RMC, and pressed hard till my ribs cautioned me that they would snap out of my sternum unless I pulled over. I was at Kampong Semayor. I stood down at the mosque to sip some water and catch my breath. Okay, so this isn't going to make a 30km 'round trip, but after the month's hiatus, 26km would have to do.

The basis for the tint of G15 lenses

I hope this weather holds. Because I think I like the look of a green day.

15 January 2012

Ode To Gee Eigh

This is what would play in my head when I was a general aviation pilot in Kota Kinabalu. Each day as I drove that short jaunt to the company to check my task for the day, a shiver would go down my spine.


Because the sight of the Crocker Range standing between me and all the intended destinations on the company's operating theatre always surfed my heart to my throat. It's like standing in the calm shallow pool downstream of a breathtaking waterfall, anticipating scaling the precipice, only your'e not Ethan Hunt. That very thing happens with valley winds. They build and eddy over the Crockers. When you're in the cockpit of a small helicopter like the Bell206B, you have to conjure the skills of a waterman, and how to negotiate your way around the rapids without dashing yourself to splinters over the water-polished boulders.

It's the thrill that made me feel completely alive by skirting on the fringes of possible death. Okay, so that is romanticising it, but any pilot would understand what I mean.

The heart rumbles in agreement with the hammering of the twin-bladed rotorbeat from 3 nautical miles away as you approach the crest of the range, the slopes rising to mock your frailty, then it pauses in bated breath to conspire with the eyes as they both gaze at the crest falling in sheer weightlessness under your feet as seen through the chin bubble, to deep menacing valleys passing quickly behind you that would embrace you in the arms of the afterlife should you tresspass where you do not hold sway over their world.

The cockpit of the Bell is often a solitary place when the job is done. All you have is the sight of that blade swishing past the cockpit bubble to tell you to that you're still buoyantly flying. There is no reassuring sound of another human voice in conversation over the intercom. Nobody to share the closing of the day with as the skids touch down on the company tarmac. There is just you, and the rest of the world beneath you. The solitary quiet can be spiritual. No, I have never in my stint flying the Bell dropped off passengers and whistled in the cockpit at two thousand feet and ten minutes later felt the presence of anyone from the Obits Hall Of Fame seated beside me, but honestly, that segment of time can become rather sacred and prayerful.

Yes, on rare occasions other thrills can make their way into a task. I thoroughly enjoyed a 3-day-2-night task in Kundasang ferrying people into and out of Kampong Naradan with Capt Harold. It was the rarified mountain air, the looking forward to hot meals at the end of the day, the coordination with a team mate, the see-and-be-seen of flying through the mountains, seeking out the river bend that conduits the way to the village tucked in the very horn of the valley where the local MP has his electoral activities to run, without colliding into each other in the absence of positive air traffic control.

Here at the end of the working day, there is fodder for conversation over a pint, your senior team mate giving you tips on how the local winds can wreak havoc at a particular saddle, reducing your main rotor thrust, sinking you and your passengers et alia if you know not how to ride the wave through the channel of the valley to the other side where calm prevails. Sleep comes as you tuck under the covers, whispering gently in your ear, "Enough. Enough now." Then a new day, mist over the peak of South East Asia, and more new fun till the sun goes down.

Bad weather springs as another source of unsolicited excitement as a given on any task. When our Premier was running a trip to Kemabong and Sipitang to officiate cultural events departure from KK itself was with cloud base at 1500 feet. But it was a helicopter party with Capt Harold behind me, Capt Ross ahead, my Flight Ops Manager somewhere in the air and the air force in the Nuris and the Blackhawk, so it allowed cross-consultation between aircraft on the weather conditions subject to who was ahead. The GA thing to do was to fly coastal to Beaufort and sniff the way to Kemabong through either Melalap or the Tenom valley Gap. Cloud cover forced me to emerge above cloud top at 5000 feet, but allowed crossing the range into Tenom where a break in the cloud provided a dive to low level and navigating by mist-laden rivers to Kemabong quite safely.

However, the second leg of the trip from Kemabong to Sipitang saw me trapped in pretty nasty weather in the valleys when three seconds of confusion between an erroneous portable GPS display while banking and scanning the limited horizon for recognisable features got the better of me. The downpour and all ridges and valleys choked with cloud saw me circling over and over and finally giving up, landing in a football field to sit out the weather. The curious locals who passed by provided forecasts that were far from encouraging. Three times when the rain abated, I attempted a lift-off but was beat back by a barricaded way ahead by nasty black cloud. Perhaps my passengers were chagrined at not being able to follow the Premier's proceedings, but a first-hand view at what bad weather looks like from the cockpit tamed their potential for complaint. It took to the end of the day for the weather to finally lift sufficiently to allow the non-instrumented Bell to hobble its way home to KK. I trust my face bore the hallmarks of a weather-beaten pilot.

I recall one trip to the Tip Of Borneo, to Simpangan Mengayau for a Brit millionaire who wanted to scout out a piece of land there that he intended to turn into yet another cash cow for his milking. He was waiting with his wife on the jetty at Bunga Raya Resort, on the Western cove of Pulau Gaya. The start of that task was already with trepidation as from start up to landing at the jetty, the aircraft seemed to be overconsuming fuel. A full tank of 95 gallons should have taken us on a round trip comfortably, and overconsuming with no refueling options en route was the start of the thrill on my captaincy. And dealing with millionaires poses its own strain on diplomacy, as some of them can be such petulant brats.

However, the good millionaire Gupta turned out to be a cool chap who accomodated me returning to KK for a quick top-up into the tanks prior seting course to Simpangan Mengayau. There, he met with another Deutsche Caucasian to chinwag over his millions as they downed bottles of Moet while I waited with his tourist guide in the public car park, allowing grown men to first pick up their jaws off the pavement, then mill 'round the Bell with the fascination only seen in toddlers for their Kodak moments. After an hour, watching this loses its novelty, and wandering uphill to the gazebo where the Deutscheman was rummaging in his basket for more Moet, I was suddenly lifted out of my mortal ranks when in the course of smalltalk, it became known that I was a Sea King pilot. Then Gupta confessed with ill-concealed pride his 14 hours as a sunshine pilot in waiting and asked for a more exciting trip back to Bunga Raya.

So, beginning with lift-off, I plunged the Bell over the hill and gunned for the coast such that my passengers were gawking at fir-lined beaches sweeping by their shoulders, parched paddy bunds and buffalo wallows scrolling swiftly past their feet and cars peppering their way back to KK's adorable coastline. Through my Randolphs, I could see Gupta turning his head backward to grin broadly at his wife. I wonder and wager his thoughts were of how his millions could make a pilot give them what few other couples could witness for  amorous thrills on a business trip. Yet, even on such as these, it can be quite exciting just keeping the customers satisfied.

But again, at the end of the day, like on many days, the cockpit is once again empty save for me, and I make my way home to the consoling view of KK's runway and the final stop at the company tarmac at Terminal Two, filling the silence of the thumping helicopter by singing to myself.

Reluctantly, I concede to bid farewell to my GA days.

Shiver me timbers, I'm a sailing away.

10 January 2012

Blue Steak

A five day spell had come upon this sleepy town of stereotypically visible cultures. The preceding week bestowed upon those without a better guess five days of sun, the light of which we had not seen in months. I had forgotten the feel of warmth, of how the world looks under the pure luminescence of sunlight.

The days here keep rolling past, one day into the next in seamless overlap hemmed in by fatigue and the enormity of the facts that I must catch up on by reading manuals that are a sure cure for insomnia. I peruse through the pages, and I feel I get just half the story from the abominable meanderings of a manual translated from French into English. The words of a friend I turned to when at the crossroads between leaving general aviation and plunging into the world of offhsore flying keep ringing in  my head: "This is the learning phase. You must suffer as all of us did."

But frankly, the confluence of his words and my initial struggle in Marseilles congealed to paint a dark and foreboding picture of the offshore flying world.

Now that I have cleared my line check and am released to fly no more with training captains but with any operational captain, the dust has settled somewhat. There is no real "mystery" about flying offshore, as long as self-education remains a skill that has not been lost in the inertia of clocking extensive hours at the controls of the aircraft you are familiar with. Now as I peruse the manuals, I go slowly instead of the hunting and pecking for muddled information like poultry in the feeding trough. I may have  a long way to go yet, but as I see even my training captains reading through their manuals even after three decades in this business, I know that being a hot shot is no ambition to cling to.

Today was my first operational sortie to two rigs more than a hundred nautical miles from Kerteh. I encountered my first emergency, and returned home to discuss it further with my aircraft captain who was also my training captain for most of my line training sorties. It is in times like these that you really learn about your aircraft. You learn to trust it as you prepare to handle it as laid down in its documents and procedures.

I also recall my Flight Operations Manager's words when he tried to talk me out of leaving the previous company: "I don't want you to regret joining offshore flying. It's monotonous." Right. Twist my arm was more like it.

There is sufficient scheming and conniving in the offshore business to keep you on your toes. It is anything but monotonous. While I can with reference to the charts and the navigational instruments determine the oil fields I am flying over, I have not arrived at telling from a mere glance at a rig its identification. I do not yet have the entire operational area sketched in my head. I still have to refer to the manuals to know whether I am heading to an Exxon rig or a Carigali platform.

Planners will at times try and gloss over limitations that you must insist on safeguarding. Passengers will seek the aftmost seats in which to catch forty winks and by that choice offset the centre of gravity of the aircraft, and it is upon your shoulders to clamber into the cabin and usher them forward. There are various summary dealings and oversights, and weather and sea states. If anyone says that offshore flying is monotonous, I trust that either inertia has got the better of him, or its an expiration of hubris as his relevance is relegated to the general aviation world. This is not to lord over my brethern branches of helicopter flying, but really, as yet I cannot see monotony and offshore flying as synonymous.

In any case, this beast is a handsome machine to fly. Her equipment is top-notch and the apex of this learning curve is set far enough ahead to last my remaining years in the company.

In the mean time, I keep looking down through the left cockpit window between radio calls and cruise checks and muse at the vista below, for all appearances to me a marbled prime cut steak in infinite blue. I can get used to this.