31 August 2012

Not Levin La Vida Loca

This is the first day in a fortnight when I actually feel like it's my day off. Normally, the main reference for working days is the printed roster in the flight planning room copied from the Chief Pilot's desk. The haphazard scheduling was induced when I asked for two days off to run down to the city for an old batchmate's son's wedding, an invitation I could not say no to. This rendered the roster as no longer the main reference as unpublished amendments were in force. From then, together with the Raya hols, I have been plugged into the company's mailroom to watch for the latest e mails on flight schedules, but it appears that the e mail has been compromised somehow as I no longer receive any notifications from it. The back-up notification is the en masse text messages, which only pop up at night and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, so a true vigil it has been.
Over the past three months, ever since my workmates found out that I am purchasing a Hyundai Elantra, they started calling me K-Pop. My puzzled reaction to this garnered their superficial but wholly self-convinced explanation that since I was buying a Korean car, I now belonged to the K-Pop group. Though I didn't buy a word of their thinly disguised insult, I secretly hoped that being tagged as K-Pop had the emphasis on K and not on pop, which is treacherously close to gramps.
I have driven her through two months now, and the trip down to KL was to be my honeymoon with her and to see what she was made of. At Brenda's sagacious behest, I agreed to impoverish myself down to the margins of affordability and buy the 1.8 litre full-spec GLS.
I have since grown to love autocruise. Yes, I love all the bells and whistles on the Elantra. Maybe I could use a periscope or external cam on the front fender to facilitate the hypnosis-inducing climb and descent on the spiral ramps adjoining carparks. The old Levin would wind herself up and down like a top without batting an eyelid, almost in 2Fast 2Furious style. Other than for that, and the lack of auto-lock doors, the vehicle delivers on its word.

Brenda and I on a ride to Kuala Selangor circa 1990
The GLS has 148 horses on tap, which isn't a mighty lot compared to my workmates' Audis and Mercs. It overtakes with confidence, albeit without that eye-searing, blistering haul of the Levin's 165 horsepower with an 11500 rpm redline. Neigh (sic) this dame pulls steadily with her exhaust note whinnying sweetly up to her 6700 redline without getting guttural. One reviewer complained about this, but whither the fanfare when the goods are delivered? It reminded me of my old Suzuki GSX400f, and how she would race ahead with a wail instead of the turbine roar of the Kawasakis. Sweet, reliable delivery.
Down the basement of SFX church, a few days after I bought this baby
The suspension is good even when employing basic torsion bars for the rear, and the full load of five passengers does not faze her. Everybody is comfortable, and ploughing through a thunderstorm shows what traction control does for as long as we do not encroach too much into aquaplaning speed. The rain sensor may be a tad late on realising that the drizzle has broken into a menagerial thunderstorm, but it speeds up to a frantic rythm faithfully once it has paced out of the intermittent stage.
When you have been up and down from daybreak till dusk suggests a good dinner as you walk towards the car that takes you home, you don't want to get into one that has an iffy airconditioner, or that wallows when you corner aggresively to avoid the simians that are rioting after your windscreen hoping to scavenge food from you as they have been trained to by other drivers. There are days when you just want to be cradled home, and these Nappa leather seats, speedy dual zone air conditioning and great music wash off the labours of the day and deliver you to the best faces any man who toils can hope to see at day's end.
My days with the Levin are past. I do not regret them.
This is one you can buy with confidence.

27 August 2012

Basic Instinct

It was an evening sortie, long-haul, to FSO Perintis and thence to Angsi A. The haze clung insistently to the restless sea, and the winds could not beat back the unwholesome air that hung over all, airman and sea man alike.
The Captain wanted to fly out, so I contended with the flight log, recording the range calls and fuel consumption as we left the shoreline receding behind us. The first 40 miles out to sea were uneventful, the writing and radio calls all being boringly regular. Within those 40 miles the navigational reference was the radio beacon radials from Kerteh, and the autopilot flew us accurately away headed out towards FSO Perintis. The miles increased predictably till we reached the 40-mile Kerteh Zone Boundary limit, from whence we would be reporting solely to Heli Base Kerteh, and navigational data would be by reference to GPS.

I made my radio calls, whilst the Captain switched the aircraft autopilot to track the GPS path to Perintis. Monitoring the navigation displays, I saw that all was in predictable order, even with strong winds from our 7 o'clock. To depict this, first of all, the glass cockpit displays would normally show the straightline GPS track heading to the destination, and normally the track line would coincide with the heading marker positioned on the 12 o'clock spot on the compass rose, from which we pilots reassure ourselves that we are on the correct heading to the destination. With some wind from either left or right, there are times when the track line would appear drifted but the heading marker would stay at 12 o'clock, telling us that the autopilot has corrected and compensated for the wind drift and that the current heading would allow the wind to drift us over the remaining distance to make good our arrival overhead the destination. In other words, while the wind may be blowing us downwind, the autopilot is flying us further into wind so we eventually end up right over the destination.

At the 40-mile mark, I noticed that the GPS prompt said GPS NAV 1 LOST. Yeah, okay, that happens quite often on GPS NAV 2. Not being able to rely on the coordinates I selected on Leg 1 as the GPS was no longer resolving that leg, I thought to select the same coordinates on the Leg 2 instead. And then as fate would have it, hardly a minute after confirming Leg 2 coordinates as the autopilot reference, the annunciator prompted us that GPS NAV 2 LOST. Then we both saw something unexpected on the navigation display. The entire track line jumped about five miles left, the way an image jumps on astro transmissions in the middle of a menagerial thunderstorm. This led to the autopilot making a severe bank to the left to regain track correction and minimise the track error within wind drift limits. This was because the GPS was now working in memory and dead reckoning mode, and the autopilot was merely obeying the command to stay true to the now guessing-game mode on the GPS. We noticed that the GPS location diamond for Perintis did not coincide with what we perceived as the weather radar echo blimp painting her position.

Not wanting to have a bad Hollywood moment with the passengers over an easily remediable situation with a repeat of sudden autopilot inputs, GPS autopilot coupling was disengaged and the autopilot was coupled to the selected magnetic heading of the aircraft instead.

On any clear day, this would have been peanuts. But on a haze-choked day, with poor visibility, identifying the destination ship became a bit more insistent on basic navigational practise as was done before the days of GPS. This meant that we would have to return to tracking towards the destination by homing devices, such as the ship's non-directional radio beacon.

Many a time, rigs and ships have not switched on their beacons over many reasons, none of which I have plumbed, although it remains an operational requirement on the part of the destination rig or ship to switch on the beacon when an aircraft is bound its way. With the acclimatisation to sophistication and automation, the reliance on GPS autopilot coupling has turned out to be the order of the day. Simply put, we can easily take secondary navigational devices for granted when we are used to the friendliness of GPS autopilot coupling. The software glitch that occured this interesting evening of the 25th of August was valuable in showing us how no matter the impression made by the level of sophistication on an aircraft, basics will always be what makes us aviators first and systems managers second.

Safe on the deck of FSO Perintis

And so, the Captain and I spoke with the radio operator of FSO Perintis to keep the beacon on. An NDB test was done to ensure that the instrument needle was actually tracking the beacon, while the Captain dead reckoned the general direction of Perintis by interpolation when we overflew Sotong Collector. It was interesting to see, though, that in haze and the featureless sea, dead reckoned navigation did not inspire confidence, as every single degree of inaccuracy would cost us fuel, and would require a decision should the destination not be found in time. In the haze, many things could appear as an FSO as size and distance judgement suffered.
The captain banking on to an approach to Angsi Alpha

It was with this thought that we placed our reliance on the beacon, especially seeing that the GPS diamond on the display indicated that Perintis was 15 degrees left, or about 7 miles displaced to the left. This was beginning to be a distraction, so we dismissed the GPS image, and fixed our eyes on the Automatic Direction Finder needle. And there, almost thumbing its nose at us in the murky haze, was FSO Perintis right on track as indicated by the needle. It was relieving, and as Perintis was constantly a copilot's approach, I celebrated coming out of the dark by executing the landing and relaxing in the airconditioned cockpit while the Captain stretched his legs on deck.
The captain on deck Angsi-A with Angsi B in the background

So for any general aviation buff who says offshore flying is monotonous, all I can say is, I haven't died of boredom yet.

09 August 2012

Hi Ate Us

So the days have slipped by, cycles of five and four and five. It has been a tussle between flying and cycling and restless nights, with the first casualty of war being the cycling due to the frequent flat tyres I have been sustaining. My cycle shop chap, Sharil, asked with genuine curiosity, "Where are you cycling that you keep picking up these tiny wires all the time?" He then suggested alternate routes, but I believe that you can sustain a flat anywhere. However, I realise that all of us fall off this fitness programme wagon, and the only thing to do is to get right back on again. It is much like a bad debt: you can't recover it to pre-debt status, but closing shop is not the way forward when there is so much at hand to do yet.
Stratocumulus mirrored on the sea, with "God's Rays"

The haze has been unrelenting, while the wind has remained stubbornly south-westerly, disallowing me even the most minor enjoyment of conducting a stabilised approach to the majority of the rigs as the wind direction placed the obstructions on the captain's side and hence, making them all his approach. I understand that it is not much longer that I will have to wait for the winds to turn around with the return of the north-east monsoon. However, the couple between the haze and the winds make for varied weather and visbility. Some days the haze wins, and as the air conditioning is a deferred defect on a number of aircraft, when you slide open the hatch to let some air in, the opaque air outside carries a distinctive insecticide-like odour. Then some days the winds beat the ashen skies back and rolls open the heavens to stable-atmosphere cloud formations of stratocumulus for miles on end.
FSO Abu, courtesy of Wikipedia

The occasional chance I do get for approaches with the prevailing winds as they blow now, are over the Floating Storages Offshore (FSOs), such as FSO Abu, FSO Putri Dulang and the occasional barge oriented transverse to the mother rig, as the FSOs, being refurbished ships, normally weathervane into the prevailing wind, allowing me a shot at sharpening my approaches. Some ships such as FSO Perintis have the platform cantilevered on the starboard side, so no matter what, it's mine own to execute the approach.
A platform cantilevered to starboard of an FSO

While the winds have blown stronger, making approaches easier, this hasn't always translated into rougher seas. The consistently pitchy Global Sapphire, a barge co-located at Angsi-D, exhibited a pitch-and-roll of 2 degrees, allowing me a landing this week, and providing a view of its "widow-maker" from deck-level instead of looking down from Angsi-D's platform. In a 2-degree toss, the widow-maker still looked formidable to me. However, the offshore boys were walking up and down the gangways nonchalantly, sure-footed as mountain goats, pausing briefly as the gap narrowed to a step's breadth  before they crossed to the lower gangplank. Other rigs have seriously menacing widow-makers, with mercy flights in the past for fatalities, but it has been many a month since I have flown to the likes of Rowan Gorilla 2.
The mini widow-maker on Global Sapphire

I confess that I am less than inspired to blog because the images I capture on my point-and-shoot 3.2 megapixel Nokia are supremely disappointing. They do not even begin to reflect what my mind's eye sees, and therefore the emotions and thoughts belonging to that time-space do not come forth upon seeing them reproduced on my laptop. I tried for a sortie or two, using a digital camera which by all lines of reason would be purpose-built for shutterbugging, but they are more finicky than dating a twenty-something. The results of my hamfistedness with or without flying gloves rendered images that looked like they were shot from inside an aquarium that had not had its keeper clean it out in a fortnight leastways. Fiddling with a camera while reading out the finals checklist does seem a tad indulgent and definitely deviant to my role as co-pilot first and always, hence a surreptitiously operated cellphone camera will remain the means by which to attain this end. Without a proper capturing device, I fear a hiatus is nigh.

But as an adult on the verge of packing the first of his three offspring away to college, running off to snatch up a Samsung Galaxy SIII is not as casual an idea as popping over to Mesra Mall for a packet of Twinnings teabags. I am new on the job, a mere First Officer, and the paycheque of an aircraft captain has not even surfaced on the distant horizon yet. Till a few things are known for certain, for instance, if a full-scale scholarship frees up some breathing space for me to fumble in my pockets for loose change, I cannot set a short-term date for the SII even, let alone the ultimate SIII.

It is in that spirit that I have come up with a whole new and more eloquent defense strategy than the ill-heard "no" against pushy credit-card agents, some of whom have taken to infesting the departure hall at the airport.

One accosted me most earnestly yesterday and flashed me a glossy brochure. I said no before he could start. But he was persistent and said "Brother, you sign now and I give you the card now, with a free coffee-maker!! Come, let me show you."

"I have my own coffee machine at home, mate."

He pursued me further. "Brother, I give you good credit limit one lor. Just spend me five minutes of your time."

I spun on my heel and faced him squarely as he towered over me. That near everybody towers over me is irrelevant in this instance.

"Mate, unless you have a Samsung Galaxy SIII to tempt me with, this conversation is over."

It took all of three seconds for it to sink in, and realising that he had no counter-argument to that, he stood there laughing out loudly to himself as I walked away from him, pursued no more.