26 June 2012

On The Road

Looking at my roster, I am supposed to have about ten to twelve days of rest time a month.

Yet, I feel that I haven't caught my breath yet from running around like a beheaded rooster.

The past few weeks, my mind has been away from the flying world even though I have been up in the air with no abatement of frequency. The days slipped  by, up in the morning, landing in the evenings, one-rig sectors, two-rig sectors, three-rigs, were all slowly merging images of days being ticked off the calendar towards sorting out the other aspects of life, which is always reaching forward. Even refuelling stints are now routine for me.

East Piatu is yet another rig with refuelling facilities, and in fact it has a pretty nice fuel pump, and I say that because it is new, which makes for speedy top-ups. We had landed there on a long legged sector, and transmitted that we would need about 550 litres of fuel to be topped up for the remainder of the journey.

Upon landing and shut-down, the team was ready to clip on the bonding wires to dispense the static electricity lest an arc ignited the paraffin fumes. They spoke to the captain, all business-like, as if this were a Shell station along the highway. Except that no, I didn't see anyone with a filthy old rag, baseball cap and chewing gum.
Water Contamination Check In Progress

Two chaps were standing by with a jar at the nozzle end of the fuel hose to check for water contamination. They were both Indian, and after syringing the fuel up through the contamination check pill, they shook their heads at each other. One then said, Thanni illai? which meant no water?To which the other shook his head in concurrence. Watching them closely, I said, Athu serri, or alright. They looked at each other and then started grinning like a pair of truants who had been found out by the prefect. And I too, love the effect I have on the unsuspecting when I throw in a few words of Tamil.

No, I can't really speak the language, but I can get by in a Chettinad restaurant, albeit to the very limits of my cranial capacity. Owing to the fact that I look nothing like what people expect a Tamil chap to look like, the chaps at the restaurant get rather tickled that a Malay man is ordering the most artery-clogging food in their language.

With the water contamination test done, it took only five minutes to fill up the feeder tanks to the required amount, and mopping-up was already taking place before I could return to deck from a visit to the restroom. My two Indian friends were there and the darker, gruffer one said, "Thanks sir. Next time we meet on shore we will have thanni also." I caught his wink, as thanni also means beer in Tamil.

"Yes," I replied with a smile. "But that will be varrai thanni."

But an Oktoberfest will probably have to wait till October with the way things are rushing along for me.

There was also a sortie to Global Sapphire, which once again was not destined to occur because the barge's roll was at 3.4 degrees. We elected, just like the last time, to land instead on Angsi Delta's fixed platform. It was my turn to get out of the cockpit and supervise the passenger exchange. I strolled forward to Angsi's deck edge to take a look at Global Saphhire tossing about, and today she looked a lot moodier than she did before. The buffer buoys at her keel were also flung upon the waves, slamming into her sides. My eyes traced the deck to where her passengers would have climbed up the staircages to board the helideck at Angsi D, and I could see why these structures were called "widow-makers". The horizontal staircase and vertical staircase were virtually scissoring into each other, and anyone using those stairs would be in danger of severing a limb or crushing his skull. 'Tis not an easy life this, making a living from the sea.

On the domestic front, it looks like all my 5-day stand-downs have been used up on the road. First, it was a rush down to KL to retrieve my upgraded license, combined with a recce of potential colleges in which to enroll Ethan. We had so little sleep, and so much driving to do. GPS is a great driving companion but seriously, there is a 15-metre lag between the actual junction and the GPS voice and graphics prompt, which resulted in missed turns and the word from the GPS that makes me curse and cringe: "Recalculating..." I for one, never knew I could drive on just 2 hours' sleep from KL to Kerteh. Well, I used to ride on my old GSX 400f on four hours of sleep on that same leg when I was younger. But riding is different. Once that engine starts and my hands are on the handlebars, I whizz, whirr and wind up like Optimus Prime in metamorphosis. Driving on the other hand, can catch me wandering off, but I use aids...such as Werther's Original coffee swirls. Those pep me up for about 50km at a go.

After the college hunt, my medical check was due, which meant another drive down to KL during my next 4 day stand-down. We vintage ones have a 6 month validity on our medical check, and mine came around sooner than I could prepare myself for, but then a guy's gotta drive when a guy's gotta drive. With trips to KL in suuch rapid succession, I am now getting very used to the sights and landmarks of the East Coast Expressway. It always seems tedious the first few times, and you wonder how weekend husbands and others do this week after week, sometimes travelling as far away as Malacca and back and perhaps even further. After a while, your mind starts turning the towns you pass like pages in a book, and like a well-read one, you know you are making your way to the conclusion at the final leaf that you flip.

A picture snapped by my Thai colleague
when he caught me devouring a black-bean bun
And yesterday, I finally said goodbye to Joey, my war-horse Toyota SE. For the last time, I drove her, still enthralled at her ability to wind up to speedy passes and overtaking with confidence when traffic began to drag along the single-carriageways from Kemaman to Kuantan. She was still a good drive, stable as a boulder and thrilling in corners. She has served the family well. She was the long drives Brenda took on her own with the toddlers when I was on SAR standby in Kuantan, the getaways from the red-eyed hamster-wheel ride of staff work in MINDEF to a breather in Malacca, the second posting to Labuan and the return to Semenanjung as a civilian. She has been handed over to a pleased salesman in Kuantan.

I will see her no more.

At the end of it all, I sometimes puzzle over which part of all this is where I really reside. We tend to think that we live apart from our work lives, that it's merely the means by which we make bread while what we do away from work is where the truth is. We long for our annual leave, public holidays and extended weekends to be with the people we love, to have quality time with them. As for me, I am beginning to believe that there is another, rather askewed view than such poetic simplicity. I think it is possible that it is work that helps me to gain a return to normalcy. The sight of workmates, my colleagues from Thailand who are husbands in exile, the never-ending checks and reviews and aiming to be a better pilot with each sortie, can serve as the draw away from the whirlwind days on the road as the revolutions slow to a manageable pace. After all, guys, sometimes "leave" is another word for "chores".

Yes, I am going to recover from leave at work.

11 June 2012

Cockpit Conversations

Me: Kerteh Tower, Tango Juliet ready on line up runway 16.

Tower: Tango Juliet right turn clear take off.

Me: Clear take off Tango Juliet.

Me: We are clear for lift off sir.

The Captain: Ok. Monitor my take off.

He gently raises the collective, and we hover at ten feet from the asphalt.

Me: Ok sir, you are pulling 83 percent power, Ts and Ps good, Nr at 103.8, FLI good.

The Captain: Ok, controls normal and rotating.

He eases the cyclic forward and the chopper accelerates to a gentle climb. Passing 500 feet, we carry out the after take-off checks, drawing up the landing gear and setting the altimeters and other navigation aids.

20 miles away I make my first range call, as is the procedure. "Kerteh, Tango Juliet 20 DME."

Tower answers acknowledgement, and requires another call at 40 miles. "WILCO, QNH 1007, next call 40 DME Tango Juliet."

There is never a dull moment on the frequencies, whether Kerteh  Tower or Helibase. Someone is always making a range call to update the ops centre or traffic control, or tell all stations flying that he is descending to the destination rig. Some chat on helibase's frequency to keep their fingers on the pulse of their neighbour's flying life, others yet to determine where each other are at any given moment so they can maintain pilots' separation in the ops area.

Suddenly a plaintive voice rings out.

"Tuan-tuan, kita akan mendarat sebentar lagi di pelantar Angsi Delta. Sila pastikan tali pinggang keledar anda diketatkan sehingga selamat mendarat dan pintu pesawat dibuka oleh kru pelantar helikopter. Kami mengucapkan selamat bertugas dan semoga berjumpa lagi di penerbangan akan datang."


"Gentlemen, we will be landing at Angsi Delta platform shortly. Please ensure your seatbelts are securely fastened until the aircraft doors are opened for you by the helideck crew. We wish you a pleasant stay offshore and hope to see you again on the next flight home."

I turned to the captain and said, "Excuse me????" He gestures a gleeful shhhhh to me, waiting for all hell to break loose as he seemed to know it would.

Hardly a second after that peculiar script, all voices hurled in.

"Woi, siapa nyanyok tu????????????" came one aircraft captain's voice over the radio.

"Saya punya dah ketat dah!!!!!!!!!!!!!" my captain joined in."MY belt is tight, my belt is tight!!!!!!!!!!!!"

I laughed hysterically in my seat, quaking like a leaf in a thunderstorm. I knew it had to happen one day. Somebody was going to give the passenger brief over the air instead of inside the cockpit.

Man, I am glad I don't enjoy the distinction of being the pioneer on this one.

04 June 2012

Just Soot Me

It was a routine trip out to a mobile barge named Global Sapphire. Prior to departure especially for mobile barges and FSO ships, the specific weather report containing the pitch and roll limits are scrutinised to determine if the barge is within safe limits for a deck landing. Just think about trying to land a helicopter on let's say....the Black Pearl tossing in the wake strirred by an angry Kraken. This is what we refer to as an exaggeration to depict a point. Pitch and roll limits exceeding 3 degrees would make landing the helicopter on deck hazardous. Global Sapphire's weather report stated the roll at 2.4 degrees. It wouldn't take much for that to swell to 3 or more.

The weather outbound was serene, with a healthy tailwind speeding us onward to the barge. Oh, I could use that, especially when it was my second running sortie after having done the 7 am muster to two rigs, as the sooner we got there, the sooner we would be home. Thankfully I was flying with a most placid aircraft captain. I did not serve with him in the air force, therefore there was no residual history on which to pick in order to show me who the better pilot between us was. 40 miles out and the stable atmosphere manifested in carpet cloud at 2800 feet.
These cumulo-stratus are simply called carpet cloud, with no similarity to a luscious shagpile

The ten-minute prior landing call to check on the current weather at Global Sapphire revealed that the barge had a roll of 2.5 to 3 degrees. As it was colocated with Angsi Delta, we decided to carry out the passenger exchange on deck Angsi Delta instead.

As we descended to the lower atmosphere, it began to get gloomy with haze. Angsi was a pale skeleton against the grey background, and all that stood prominently was her raging erect flare emitting much soot above the plume of flame.
Smoke Gets In Everyone's Eyes

We trailed past the rig to set up for a running in on finals to land. All was going well when at just 300 feet above deck, the radio operator called out, " Tango Juliet, Angsi Delta here we have a stop-work alarm now, deck not clear for landing." I acknowledged the call and the captain executed a baulked landing, depressing the "go-around" button and climbing away from the approach. Just half an orbit later, I called in for an estimate of the delay. The radio operator replied that all was in the clear and we could land on deck.
So who's setting fire to the rain again?

As I was supposed to fly the leg home, the captain got down to supervise the passenger drop-off and pick-up while I stayed in the cockpit to give the passengers their welcome-aboard brief and make the all-stations departure call. I looked towards the right and there she was, miss Global Sapphire, tossing and twisting on what looked like a tempestuous sea. Odd, I thought. We approached to land in virtual nil-wind conditions. Why then was Global Sapphire so unstable? Perhaps because she was no different from any rescue boat, except that a helicopter platform was sewn onto her head, just above the bridge at the bow making her top heavy and with the propensity to behave like The Milkmaid from Aesop's fables.
Global Sapphire tossing like a captured croc

I learned this day, what a 3-degree roll looks like. It was enough to make me dizzy, and I don't see myself even imagining a landing on anything like that.