02 May 2012

You Don't Know Jack

We're Starting Up A Brand New Day
It was a clear bright morning on the 30th of April, my last day at work for this month. I was on the early morning flight out to Ensco 106, a jack-up rig about an hour and a few minutes out. We were a tad late on departure as the refueling bowser was on our competitor’s dispersal first, filling up her empty aircraft, all four waiting for a busy morning’s launch. Knowing that Ensco 106 was 67 minutes away meant that I didn’t have to knot up and rush through the platform chit and I could contact the rig for its payload after exiting Kerteh’s extended zone boundary at 40 miles waiting twenty minutes after takeoff.
The Mirror Never Lies

My captain looked down at the serene sea, commenting on the nil-wind situation as he could not spot any white caps upon the seascape. I mumbled in agreement, my mind occupied with the hope that the local wind at Enscoe 106 would allow me to execute the approach and further improve my handling of this new-found relationship with mammoiselle EC225. I gazed up at the rearview mirror and watched the blades whirring steadily, enjoying the moment. Then I looked down and spotted the oil slicks, a common sight here.
Oil is lighter than water
We were without TCAS, the traffic collision avoidance system, a set of transponders and radars that would warn us of any aircraft posing a collision threat, and further, if no pilot action was taken within closing collision threat range, would automatically execute altitude changes dependent on the height of the threat aircraft, resuming original altitude once the threat no longer existed. Without TCAS, the old "See And Be Seen" rule would apply.
We Avoid Our Friends

So the captain perused the flight programme and noted that another aircraft would be crossing our flight path in a few minutes. He contacted the crew of the other aircraft and we soon ascertained that they would be crossing us in a few seconds, judging from their distance away from us at 5 miles. They called out visual with us, and there they came chugging, 500 feet above us from the south, crossing our flight path on their inter-rig voyage for the morning. The AB139 is already a petit aircraft. Not as petit as the Bell206, true, but petit enough to not make a formidable silhouette 500 feet above us due air traffic separation. I craned my neck towards the right, my eyes trailing after them as they gradually increased in size, crossing overhead and diminishing towards the north. We don’t always get to see our friends up close and personal in this business where close formation flights are not even on the cards, so this was as good as it was going to get.
A Shower Before Arrival
An hour’s time was up. We called out to all operators that we would be descending to Enscoe 106 and I leaned forward to discern the platform on the left side of the rig. Yes, this would be my approach. There was some rain and a storm cell further left, making the sea beneath it emanate different shades of blue. We got down to 500 feet above the sea, trimmed the airspeed to 80 knots and I stared past my captain’s seat towards the rig to note when it passed my 3 o’clock. Deselecting the heading hold on the upper modes I swung the aircraft to the right to roll out on a finals configuration of 500 feet and 50 knots with the platform’s superstructure on my left. It was all mine now, and the captain could not bail me out if I baulked, because he would not be able to see the superstructure and obstructions from his seat. Happy with what I saw, I disengaged all four axes of stabilization and commenced the approach.
Colours Changing Hue
I drew back on the cyclic to keep the approach speed comfy and to keep the rate of descent progressive. But I knew that soon, closer to the deck, I would have to raise the collective to slow down the speed and sink rate to that of a walking pace. But it would be about that moment that this French horse would screech her hooves and try and throw me off composure. No, I knew what she would do. As soon as I felt her about to dig into the ground, I pushed forward with the cyclic. This was the second phase of the approach that previously would throw me so off centre. No more. I have her eating out of the nose bag now. A bit more and she will eat out of my hand.
The Jagged Jack
Once securely on deck, my good captain, senior to me in the air force, when he was in it, volunteered to get down and monitor the passenger drop-off and pick-up. I sat in to preselect the cruise altitude home, provide the passenger brief and make the all-stations call to announce our lift-off and altitude back to Kerteh. When all was ready, the captain strapped in and allowed me to fly back home, since he flew the outbound leg. En route, I wondered at the Angsi rigs, in particular Angsi Alpha, and how sooty her flare was. In the still morning air, the flare ended in an erect plume of soot, which in combination with the humidity and low temperature this early in the morning converted at its upper end into a miniscule formation of cloud. I had seen such phenomena before during Ops Kemarau, doing Bambi Bucket operations in the raging forest fires of Sabah circa 1999. It was déjà vu on one hand, and curiosity on the other at what kind of gas had they had hit to give off so much soot. If our track back home were further right, I think we could have passed through that sooty plume at 2000 feet. Yes, this is exaggeration to depict a point. It was about 800 to 1000 feet tops. But sooty none the less.
Smoke Rises From Isengard
We eventually landed at Kerteh, and I shot off to flight planning to settle the post-flight paperwork. I checked the flight detail and found that we were on the 1115hrs schedule for Naga3. That too was a jack-up rig. Jack-up rigs are exactly that; rigs towed out to sea, buoyant on the sea at the bottom of their jacks, then at the selected drilling spot, the rig is ‘jacked up’ or relatively, the jacks are geared down till they touch the seabed. The jacking continues till the rig is above the variables of tide and element and drilling for oil can shoot full steam ahead.
Naga3 had her platform on the north-eastern end of the rig, so flying out towards her, we semi-circled in a left-handed arc to point towards the rig. Therefore, on finals, the superstructure was on the left. My approach, my landing.
It’s consistent now, the approaches. While I am not perfectly comfortable with her, she doesn't spook me either. It’s never wise to get too comfortable with an adversary, and complacency thwarts self-improvement. But I know that these are no longer fluke shots. I admit that I took longer than perhaps some fresh-faced youthful pilots who perfect the approach right after having it demonstrated to them by the training captain.
I am slow. But it doesn’t mean I won’t arrive.

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