26 April 2012

Adieu Joey

On Monday morning as I was driving down to Kuantan, I noticed that I was being tailgated by a Vanette. At the Meraga traffic lights, I glanced up through my rearview mirror to check out the menace on my tail, but he seemed to be avoiding eye contact by fiddling with his cellphone. Loathing being tailgated, as the lights turned green, I floored the pedal, losing all traffic behind me in apparent warpspeed and was soon alone on the road to Kemaman. Hardly two minutes from the smoking takeoff, my cellphone rang with a number I did not recognise. I switched to speaker phone.

"Encik!! You kah yang mahu jual Toyota SEG tu? I tadi follow belakang encik nak buat call tanya pasal kereta encik. Wah, dia punya pickup laju semacam encik!"

I nearly laughed out loud in the car. I had no idea that the way I drove could turn into a living advertisment for the car.

An A4 prinout with 'FOR SALE' and my telephone number hung on my rear screen and for two days there was silence. Every time I landed from offshore flying I would look through my cellphone for missed calls or texts, but naught was there for my excitement or endeavour. After 72 hours, the printout escaped my mind, just like living next to a railway station makes you forget the sound of passing trains. Or so the story goes. That is, until I got the phone call on my way to Kuantan on a test drive mission  of my next car.

I remember when I first signed my name off to her in 1997. I had looked at a number of fashionable 1992 Toyota Corolla SEGs, with one champagne gold luvly sitting just 3 grand out of my reach being sold by a very stubborn corporal pressing his price, who knew I had fallen in love with it. So there I was seated in the air-conditioned bank, haggling for a loan the officers were not generous enough to give in 4 percent per annum 1997.

Then a chap from Toyota Labuan walks in, recognisable from his corporate track-pit shirt, asking loudly if anyone wanted a Toyota SE for 36 grand, and I lunged at him, drooling like a rabid bulldog. All the loan arrangements were suddenly feasible and at the end of the day I took her home. The polyethelyne wraps were still on  the seats and pillars after 5 years, with 11 000 km on the clock. After a 4 year stint in Labuan as a copilot, I paid up the duties at customs and took her back with me when I got posted to old KL Base as an aircraft Captain in 2001.

This has been one amazing machine. She never quit. The kids have grown up in her, taken long road trips safely year after year to Butterworth, Kuantan and just about everywhere I was stationed for more than two weeks on Search and Rescue standby. In 2003 she started smoking through her rings. I shopped around for an immediate rectification job and chanced upon a 20-valve Silvertop half cut. The swap was well done in Sungai Besi, quickly followed by exhaust kits and legalising the whole thing at the Road Transport Department.

Then she served with exhilarating performance and reliability through my second posting back to Labuan as the Executive Officer of No 5 Squadron. The return of LA 619 to her old home town was a small joke amongst the air force officers, but then they are always looking for a laugh and if it can be in a friend's face, all the better.

I got Brenda the Vios in 2010, June. It was about time that I sought something with reliability and all the safety bells and whistles, as she was the one shuttling to and fro with our precious cargo, while I was the soon-to-be retired ex Major with an unyielding mid-life crisis ever ready to prove my mettle on the road. Then when I started work in Kota Kinabalu, I took the old SE to KK. She drew all my personal effects to the apartment at Waikiki, through blinding rain and twisty bends pasts landslides and what have you, holding steady at whatever the road threw at her.

In that old home town of mine, my old classmates began to see smoking take-offs from traffic lights. Harry never said a word, but Veramani, who drives like an instrument rated pilot on the road, feared for my life and his if I ever were to land a seat in a sports car. Nay, I said, this IS a sports car, with an Uncle's raiment.

She followed me down to Kerteh when I sought employment as an offshore pilot. Here she stood, four months later after my second exile away from my family, to greet them as they arrived in Kuala Terengganu airport from Labuan. The kids shrieked in delight when they saw her old familiar fascia, calling out in endearment to her, "Hello LA car!!!"

She has been a good, good carriage, so much like Joey.

However, with a family whose luggage mass grows geometrically alongside their linear progression in body weight, it has dawned on me that I need a stronger drivetrain. I have found one, and it is with reluctance that I part with my war horse.

She will soon belong to another.

I will miss her.

21 April 2012

The Next Time I Buy 5 Gallons Of Petrol

Oh, for a pint of cider, beef and onion pie and a nice Orwellian book to go with this sight!!
I was mildly excited when I perused the flight detail chit this morning and found that I was due to Belumut Alpha and then onward to East Piatu. Looking at the operational offshore map, I knew that this meant the same thing the last time I was on this very same leg: I was going to refuel offshore. It wasn't a big deal but every little ripple in the monotony was still a welcome ripple. Besides, I could recur what I knew about offshore refuelling procedures. My aircraft captain arrived after I had prepped the paperwork, and asked me if I had refuelled on a rig before to which I answered in the affirmative.

"Good," he said. "Because I haven't."

Helideck hands emptying the baggage before refuelling
Somehow we were assigned to fly only after every other offshore flight had departed. We had just one passenger to East Piatu, with 3 from Belumut and 10 from Piatu respectively returning home to mainland. Somehow it seems like refuelling flights are destined to take off late. This time it happened because the preceding flight encountered an unserviceability and hijacked our aircraft. So we were reassigned to the unserviceable aircraft pending its rectification and being rendered serviceable. Ok, that was not so bad as it allowed my captain and I to gobble lunch. As we both looked under the food warmer lids our enthusiasm was quickly stymied upon finding spiral snails cooked in coconut milk and chilli. These mangrove snails brought back flooding memories of our survival training in the swamps of Pantai Remis where this very same specie boiled in swamp water became the staple diet for our fortnight; my course, his course eight or so years later and every aircrew survival course the RMAF has run. Memories such as these especially vis a vis a meal can be an effective anti-climax.

But we finally mustered the requisite appetite as we knew our flight time would cross the meal schedule and even though we would shut down to refuel, we didn't envisage a casual visit to the galley. As we fed, the helicopter was drawn out at a reluctant tractor-driver's pace from  the hangar and placed upon the dispersal. This ended our meal without much regret at the rush. Start-up and departure was without incident and at long last after an hour's flight at 5000 feet, the twin-platformed rig of Belumut Apha/Ensco 106 floated into view from the horizonless sea.

My Vertical Limit
As the prevailing winds were now from the south-east, it was the captain's approach to land. Shut down was swift, thankfully, as again as I did the last refuelling, I needed the immediate use of the facilities.  I have been on offshore operations for four months now. I must be getting used to the sights on deck. As I went down the same old stairways suspended over the sea, I didn't start quaking at the knees the way Donkey did when crossing the suspension bridge over a boilin' lake of lava. In fact, I took my time to look around, and as I did, I wondered what would go through the minds of these offshore brats living the way they did. Nah, I couldn't feel anything except gratitude that I was getting back to shore. Ok, so that's what they felt when they saw a helicopter coming to pick them up.

Interestingly, this the refuelling process didn't consume as much time as the previous one. Perhaps it was closer between, in about 3 months almost to the date when  I was here for the same purpose and the refuelling before that had lapsed for eight months. The deck crew had their currency, or what these civil world guys called "recency", making them more on the ball this time around.

In fifteen minutes flat, they were done and we were ready to start-up. Kindly, the helideck landing officer asked us if we needed anything courtesy of the Belumut Apha galley. My captain said yes, something light would be nice. Then in a few minutes, after the rotors were running and the passengers were on board, one of the helideck crew handed him a bag of goodies.

My Cup Runneth Over
After lift-off,  a  familiar hollow feeling stirred in our tummies. The captain rummaged in the bag and clicked his tongue in startlement.  He held in his hand a crystalline tumbler. "They gave us cups!!!" he said, his eyes wide with genuine amusement.

Well, I guess there are always free gifts whenever you fill up a full tank at a petrol station.

09 April 2012

Night Cat Whisperer

The weather has changed. Gone the moody monsoonal gloom prevailing over dark of day and black of night. The sun exacts his vengeance on the proceedings of the peoples, making hot the air that they breathe, slower to quench the lungs, too slow to cool in the late hours after he has sailed to the other reaches of the world. The moon hangs over the bejewelled curtains of night, haunting, honeyed and low upon the road that leads home, watching over the pilgrims upon their nocturnal dealings, peering over the hilltops in her dying moments as the sun pursues the limits of her tenure while drawing forth yet another haze-choked day.

There have been days behind me when I doubted my very substance as a breadwinner and an aviator. I presume that this is a common thing amongst pilots. My approaches to the platforms have till a magic moment ago, refused to yield to the descent path I trace in my mind as the flat green shelf creeps into view from whence I fall with very little style onto that shelf, only to end up hovering short of it and then in embarassment and mortification, air taxy like an alien spacecraft to land in the centre of the circle over the 'H' and let the rig workers off. There have been enough portrayals in Hollywood of a tormented bronco buster on a mustang's back being raced to the edge of the corral and then tossed off as the horse yanked its handbrakes at the periphery of the grounds. That's what this doggedly deviant and donkeyed Eurocopter was doing to me. My approaches would begin with academically picturesque precision, till about 200 feet from the deck edge, during the mild flare to arrest slamming into the deck, the Eurocopter would shake off the reins and behave like she had a mind of her own and I would end up wrestling her hard with failing composure to a hasty touchdown. Just like a horse, she seemed to know whom she could bully into a loss of self-worth.
Then one magic moment ago, I could feel her readying to toss me off, when I kept my eye on where I wanted to go and kept her nose down to the spot of my intended hover over the 'H'.

I surmised just in time, that I must always bear in mind that I am not at the controls of a conventional helicopter. This aircraft is ruled by computers. Gone are the hydromechanical lags of the old Sea King, that gentle, ladylike waltzing to slow down upon application of the collective that I was more at home with. The EC225 was virtually instantaneous in reaction to control inputs, and any application of collective on an approach was to be done when needed only, so as not to end up in a premature hover. This, and its abundance of power, gave her the muscle to bully me into defeat. Till that magic moment ago. And since then, my approaches have been consistently good even if I say so myself, because there is no chance that any aircraft captain will.

Perhaps it was just in time that I learned to feel her Gallic nuances, as my 'cat' was upon me. And yes, with it was my 'cat fever'. My head was buried in the manuals, trying hard to trace the logic of French translated into English by a people who hate the language to begin wth, and tying what residual sense all that made to their schematic diagrams and peculiar electronic symbology without a key at the bottom corners of the diagram.

This time, my categorisation, which the civil world calls Base Check, was to be done at night. I was paired with a Thai First Officer whose check was due to expire, and we consulted each other as to how to tackle the Base Check with the newbie examiner. We anticipated that a technical questionairre would be given to us, and so we decided to pore through our Certificate Of Test exam questions to refresh our long neglected ground school knowledge.

This proved to be useful on the night of our Base Check because when the examiner finally turned up, he tossed us a questionairre on the aircraft limitations. Being prepared for this helped set a positive tone for the rest of the night, as it seemed as if we could handle the paper, and so how hard could the flying be?

I am surprised at myself for the way I flew my base check. The examiner will of course differ, but I think I did quite well for a mere 4 months of operational flying on an aircraft we don't really fly hands-on because of all its automation. The civil aviation requirements for a base check do not allow for extensive use of automation. Therefore much of the test is done without upper modes and with hydraulic boosts turned off. If you were flying an older aircraft, with more hands-on flying, this would be pretty much routine. The dilemma of being an EC225 pilot however, is that flying by automation is required by the company and engraved in company policy and operating manuals but base checks are done without these 'upper modes'. Nice isn't it?

But then again, some of my happiest moments in the squadron were during training sorties, working against the aerodynamic loads and feedback by flying with auxiliary servos off. So this night, when my examiner switched off the hydraulic pumps. I listened carefully to the EC225, straining my ears for her whispers. I began overcontrolling a bit and then I stopped all input to correct her. She settled, and much like Bucephalus, required gentle coaxing away from her shadow and not brutal bronco busting to cower her into submission. Right, there she was, and just before she ran away with herself with each control input, I would hold her steady with a whisper of a movement.

I do not get quite enough training hours in the EC225, and that is the case with anyone in a commercial flying unit, but if I did I am certain  could have her eating out of my hand in weeks. Now as I walk out onto the flight line, I no longer see her as a beast or a foe, but as a willing ally, whom I have been dealing with the wrong way. I speak her language now, and though I am not yet her master, this is indeed the beginning of a meaningful relationship. She is a beautiful machine to fly, rumbling through the clouds with nary a complaint. Now that I have set things straight with her, I do not begin the workday with dread. I think I am back.

And it's so good to unclench!!