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.

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