15 June 2016

Pissmops and Suspenders

I would be hard pressed to meet anyone from across the ages who isn't familiar with The Jungle Book, whether as a Disney remake or the endearing original works by Rudyard Kipling.

Next to JRR Tolkien, he is my favourite author. His letters from the warfront are eloquently moving. I particularly enjoy his Just So Stories, with How The Whale Got His Throat ranking as amongst the top of these tales. There is a line narrated by the 'Stute Fish to the Whale in describing how to find the shipwrecked Mariner, which runs, "you will find, sitting on a raft, in the middle of the sea, with nothing on but a pair of blue canvas breeches, a pair of suspenders (you must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved), and a jack-knife, one ship-wrecked Mariner, who, it is only fair to tell you, is a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.'' I'd say unashamedly that the best rendition of this tale is in the audiobook snippet by Ralph Fiennes. 
 
While I wish I were a man of infinite resource and sagacity, one episode in the offshore world sadly revealed that alas, I am not so, mostly because I did forget the suspenders, and had continued to forget for many a sector offshore. Or so the story goes, in a manner of speaking.

Build me a crude oil terminal worthy of Mordor!!!!
It was indeed a fine sunny morning last month, running an inter-rig sector from Kerteh to Lawit to Jerneh Alpha and back. The start-up and taxi to the pick-up point next to the terminal building was uneventful. Dull might have been a better description.
 
The routine is that once the last passenger has boarded the aircraft and they are all engrossed with strapping in, the non-flying pilot will provide the pre-departure brief. Normally it runs somewhat like this:
 
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Weststar 203, with Captain Jack as the aircraft commander and I am Senior First Officer Jeffrey your co-pilot. We'll be flying you soon at 4500 feet and about an hour's cruise flight time to Lawit Alpha. During this time please ensure that you are comfortably seated with your harness on and get to know your emergency exits with further information on your safety leaflets placed underneath your seats. In the unlikely event of an emergency, take directions from the aircrew. If there is something you wish to bring to our attention, please come forward, tap us on our shoulders and we will respond accordingly. We expect fair weather on this flight so sit back and relax. Another brief will be provided before we land. Thank you." 

Silver linings and rose gold. The shore slips away as we head out for night deck landing
This pre-departure brief is given on the tarmac and on every deck when new passengers get on board the aircraft so that everyone is clear as to what to do and expect at any time, outbound from or inbound to mainland.
 
There are times when the passenger load is light, as was this day with only 7 passengers, leaving little luxury of time for me to provide such a mouthful of a brief before taxying out to line up on the runway became imminent. So after notifying them on the flight duration, I abbreviated the emergency drill to: 
 
"If there is an emergency, we will brief you as to what to do and if not, just sit back and enjoy the flight. Be talking to you before landing, thank you."
 
I always believed it covered the pertinent facts. But back to the flight, climb out to 4500 feet was expediently carried out and soon we were cruising through Kuala Terengganu's control zone and giving the air traffic controller our route details for transit clearance and traffic information. Lawit Alpha was indeed just shy of an hour's flight time away, where we were to drop off four lads and pick up another four back to Kerteh, while three were destined for Jerneh Alpha, a rough 16 minutes from Lawit, with approach time extending the inter-rig proceedings to 20 minutes.

The sun sets on a sleepy offshore world
The Lawit drop off also was uneventful. I got down on deck to oversee the passenger exchange while the captain remained on board to set up the flight management system for the next leg and brief the new passengers. I was already hoping that upon landing at Kerteh, this dull turn of events would eventually read as a split duty, meaning I could head back to Kijal with all the chance of a split for good.
 
Hardly had we settled at a low cruise en route to Jerneh Alpha when we heard voices from the cabin. A Ramli Sarip-ish passenger was beckoning wildly at us as if to pass a message. I gestured to him to write his message down, passing him the only expendible sheet of paper I had on my flight board: the rig weather report. Looking backward to understand the nature of his urgency, I noticed he was crouched over the cabin floor. Soon he was gesturing for more paper. Through vehement waving of arms and other uninhibited gesticulations, I understood that the poor lad had wet himself, and he was using the paper not to write anything down, but to clean up after himself.
 
The aircraft captain was at sixes and sevens over how to handle this. He suggested that the Helicopter Landing Officer at Jerneh Alpha arrange for rags to clean up the aircraft. I pondered this and realised that was not quite right. I considered that rigs were akin to ships dead in water; a maritime op, and more appropriately a swabbing of the deck would be the better an option. My radio call to Jerneh Alpha for that purpose was greeted with affirmative answers from the HLO and we went steadily in for finals approach.
video
 
Once on deck, the guys at Jerneh Alpha were ready to set to work with a drenched mop and to my impressed delight, aerosol Dettol. Our Ramli Sarip Doppelganger helped swab the helicopter cabin floor. He looked ruefully at me and shook his head as he bellowed into my earpiece, "I really couldn't tahan anymore." I nodded. It could happen to any of us. He then rushed below deck to a hurried shower and a change of clothes. We were longer on deck at Jerneh Alpha as we waited for him to return to the aircraft, but everyone, from aircrew to offshore brat, was sympathetic towards him.
 
I wondered aloud to my aircraft captain why the poor chap didn't just come forward and let us know he needed to take a leak instead of springing one. After all, the drill for us aircrew when facing any passenger with a bellyache is to radio the nearest rig and provide the fellow with speedy relief rather than he burst his bowels. I realised that in fact, he may not have known that options were available to him if the brief given to him did not include the part that he could notify us of any urgency mid-flight, if a brief was in fact given at Lawit Alpha. I do know of some pilots who keep mum while passenger disembarkation and embarkation is in progress. I decided then, that I would never again omit the part of the brief where I tell the passengers what to do if any of them were to have something urgent to bring to the pilots' attention.
 
Somewhere on the return leg to Kerteh, I clearly heard Ralph Fiennes saying most personally, "now, you know why you were not to forget the suspenders!"

And the pictures herein are like the plot of Whose Line Is It Anyway? They don't matter and their relevance to the post is utterly made up.
 

02 June 2016

Silence Isn't Always Golden

Sometimes, it is just plain yellow.
 
My mind and heart have had their hands at the plough for the last three months. Three months of fear and worry congealed into night after night of dreamlessness and timelessness, without texture or taste. I have not had the time to look back on my flying life as it took a back seat to Brenda's tussle with the possible Big C, just as I had with my episode with glue ear. In her case, it was a thymoma, and she is still recovering. She is however, a model patient and is progressing better than expected except for pain management. We will know more in three months.
 
And now that life seems to be creeping back to normal, I can finally break this silence.
 
Sunset for the EC225?
The helicopter world, especially those involved in offshore operations would have been shocked by yet another incident involving the EC225 about a moth back, this one being fatal, at Bergen Norway. An EC225 was returning to Bergen and on finals approach, the main rotorhead separated from the fuselage. All 13 persons on board perished. The horror of the tragedy carries with it the second time that the EC225 gets scourged by a media nightmare. Offshore workers' unions have been clamouring for the expungement of the entire Super Puma lineage from offshore operations, Those in the industry would remember the 11 months of grounding the aircraft type underwent in 2012, although the two ditchings were safe with the passengers literally stepping out of the buoyant aircraft directly into the rescue boats.
 
What this means for us across the tarmac is that we have now got to shoulder the vacuum left by our competitor's stop-flight instructions as the offshore flight ban has been applied across the world fleet. I'm not lamenting, as I do enjoy flying two sectors a day and raking up the offshore hours, especially since I haven't had profitable hours recently. The local oil and gas industry has reduced the intensity of flight scheduling in keeping with the global slowdown, keeping parallel with the world crude oil freefall. Even though the price of Brent crude has clawed up to 50 USD a barrel, the slowdown has not converted into an upswing yet. I do wish for enough time to cycle regularly though. With my annual aircrew medical coming up, I will have to cram in some miles on the Apollo Exceed even at the risk of heatstroke because sweltering evenings are all I have left, if I get evenings at all.
 
I can't imagine the offshore world without this workhorse
In fact I feel bad for my friends in what is now my rival company. I have been exactly where they are now, facing uncertainty. I was a pilot in their fleet back then. I remember the insanity of month after month of waiting for a lift to the grounding, the frustration at how our authorities played the waiting game, watching for who across the globe would set foot offshore first before letting us off the hook. I recall disillusionment, hopelessness and loitering at the company simply because I couldn't bear being inside the walls of home. I pray that they can remain calm and patient in this most trying of times. With any luck, this will not be an extended wait, since the industry rumour is that the investigation board has wound up their findings and concluded that it is not a design fault that led to this catastrophic rotorhead failure.
 
These doldrums are not unusual in the flying profession. It happened to Dreamliner pilots circa the same period the EC225 was facing problems in 2012 to 2013. Pilots faced loss of currency, loss of license and joblessness, with no marketability as their aircraft type was not flyable. These same sentiments were expressed by my old stablemates as they saw the almighty unions in the North Sea succeeding in their push to extinguish the Super Puma from the aviation world.
 
Let's hope that non-aviators do not prevail in determining what flies and what does not.