15 March 2020

Zero Dark 45


Angsi Alpha at 0045H
Night Standby. That is a rostered MEDEVAC standby duty that many a pilot here would volunteer to be placed on. Over the years from 2014 when I joined the company till this very night, there were about ten MEDEVACs (medical evacuations). Probabilities being on the low, with the Scrooge fisted reluctance on the part of clients which preferred their infected offshore boys hitch a ride on an existing flight under the IDOM (infectious disease, offshore management) rather than declare a dedicated MEDEVAC at a premium, normally meant that a pilot on night standby from 2200H till 0800H the next morning,  has a pseudo off day, not having to come in to work and instead binge watch Netflix with one ear open for an ominous phone call in the wee hours of the morning.

I have never volunteered for night standby. And on the night of 27 February 2020, on the stroke of 2200H, I set my ringtone to loud and began tossing about in bed in anticipation of the customary early morning flight of 0715H following an uneventful night standby. My mind had just wandered off enough to court slumber when the phone rang. Seeing the Flight Operations Officer's caller identification, I went into scramble mode. Apparently some chap on Angsi Alpha had developed an alarmingly rapid pulse rate and warranted a night MEDEVAC to Kuala Terengganu hospital.

The call had come in at 2225H. I jumped into my prepared flying suit and grabbed my headset and flight bag. I jiffied down 5 floors of the apartment and was soon at breakneck speed to the Planners' room at the terminal building, arriving at 2305H. Not bad, considering that the ketum-swigging motorists I encountered on the road refused to be outdone by an Elantra-driving MEDEVAC pilot trying to get airborne ASAP in order to save a life.

My aircraft captain turned up at 2315H (I smirk). The aircraft was fuelled up and the starting crew ready at the terminal at 2330H, and about ten minutes after that, the tower air traffic controller turned up and had fired up the radio comms. We were in business!!

Seeing that the prevailing winds favoured the copilot's approach to Angsi Alpha, after start-up, the controls were handed over to me for the outbound leg. I took the aircraft out to the runway, brought the good girl into a hover and carried out the take-off. Passing 1500 feet, a left hand turn and we were on course to the rig.

I love night flights. The weather enroute was a notch cloudy, and the night time vista is always somewhat calmer, less frenetic than daytime flights. You're not jousting with other helicopters to and from the rigs for airspace, altitudes, traffic separation or getting a word in edgewise on the radio for range calls amidst the flurry of company gossip crowding the company chatter channel.

This being my approach to the rig, I advised the captain that I would opt for an airborne radar approach (ARA). This is where a procedural step down and distance markers to the finals approach would be used with the weather radar returns providing the positive marking of said distances, up to  an abort point if deck visibility were to fall below 1 mile to the helideck. However, seven miles before Angsi, I could see the rig glimmering like a jewel in the distance, and continued visually to complete the night deck landing without incident. It was 0045H at touchdown.

The aircraft captain left me at the controls, rotors running, to use the mens' room below the deck. I stayed in communication with the helideck radio operator and enquired into the status of the patient. The RO asked me how many minutes I could spare till fuel became critically low. I looked at the gauges and said "Ten minutes." Well, we had much more than that, but I hadn't the liberty to use the men's room with my captain below deck who seemingly had no intention of resurfacing even after 30 minutes had passed. I had to reserve bladder capcity, so the earlier we lifted off the earlier I could seek relief. The RO checked in with me on the fuel state at regular intervals and ten minutes was my just as regular answer.

Half an hour had passed. I asked the RO if the captain was anywhere nearby because I wanted to relay the fuel state to him, but the RO did not have him in sight. I guess he was having a coffee. Forty minutes passed. The RO checked in with me again,  and I told him that the critical fuel level would be reached in five to seven minutes idling time. I understood the constraints: heart case patients had to stabilised before being put through the rigours of a flight. The RO bemoaned the fact that this was taking longer because just before being lifted up in the stretcher, the patient began gesticulating that he didn't want to leave and have his friends shoulder his workload. I don't know if it was the medication or comradeship, but it was getting ridiculous.

But, thankfully, on the dot of 7 minutes later, i saw stirrings at the staircase folding gates, and led by the captain, the medical attendant and the stretchered patient made their ambling way to the aircraft. After ensuring that the patient was secure in the aircraft stretcher with the medical attendant reassuringly beside him, the captain then came into the cockpit, assumed control and we lifted off into the night on our merry way to Kuala Terengganu. While he flew this leg, I handled all the communications with the air traffic controller at Kuala Terengganu and coordinated the rendesvous point for the ambulance.  The captain carried out the approach and landing and we taxied our way through unlit taxiways to the flying club apron where stood the awaiting ambulance. After application of brakes and idling the engines, I got off to coordinate the ambulance to a safe distance outside the rotor disc. And this is where the word "expeditious" vapourises into the night air. The ambulance staff cleverly stopped outside the periphery of the running rotors as per my hand signals. But they expected me to direct them as to how to handle the patient. Equally clueless, the medical attendant kept looking at me for instructions on how to off-load the patient. Lads, this is where you step in and perform your functions. Were this a military operation, yes, the aircrew steer the entire mission. But on civvy street, a pilot is just that: an operator of an aircraft. He is not to interfere with or assume control over another specialist's function.

In the end, the medical attendant, after running short of ideas, yanked the oxygen mask off the patient, unbuckled his restraints and made him clamber over the on-board stretcher and hop onto the ambulance's gurney. The ambulance staff were still standing agape as if this MEDEVAC were a spectator sport. Once they were all clear from  the aircraft, I strapped in, called for taxi and take-off clearance, and I set back to Kerteh at 4000 feet for an instrument approach from overhead Kerteh's VOR station to a safe landing at our home airfield.

It was 0300H at touchdown on the tarmac at Kerteh. After submission of the paperwork at flight ops office, I did the unthinkable and drove to the landmark pride and joy of Kerteh, depending on whether or not some comedic boycott is in session: McDonald's. A cup of salted caramel and my first sampling of nasi lemak McDonalds concluded the proceedings of the morning, and I spent the rest of the morning being an unregistered zombie.

And I still never will volunteer for night standby.

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