Talking about flying in bad weather......scary! But first, let's see what the Nuri SOP has to say on 'minimal weather condition':
- Forward visibility of 1 nm
- Cloud base of not less than 300 ft above tree top level
- Insight of land or water
Preamble first. For the benefit of those pilots who are unaware of their squadrons' background, here is a short account of history. Before the establishment of the current 'composite' squadrons, No 3 Sqn and No 5 Sqn were solely Allouette 3 helicopter squadrons. Whereas, No 7 Sqn and No 10 Sqn were Nuri S61A-4 helicopter squadrons. I think it was some time in the later part of 1976 or early 1977 when the current composite squadrons were established. Aircrew and aircraft were then reshuffled; I was posted to No 3 Sqn from No 10 Sqn .
During the precomposite squadrons, No 10 Sqn covered the whole of Peninsular and No 7Sqn covered Sarawak and Sabah. No 10 Sqn occasionally had one nuri on a weekly detachment at RMAF Butterworth - depending on the operational requirements. Since my wife was not staying with me then, I volunteered to go for the detachment most of the time. That was how I could accumulate so many hours.
Why the above preamble? The reasons are simple, firstly, to enlighten the readers on why nuri pilots fly low level most of the time whenever they see clouds in front of them. We, the nuri pilots, were/are IFR pilots - I Follow Road/River. And secondly, you will understand why we had to fly all over Peninsular Malaysia.
The adventures I'm about to tell took place during my tour at No 10 Sqn before the establishment of the composite squadrons.
Episode 1 - 22 September, 1974
The Ops Ukor task at the Perlis/Thai border was completed. You know, the CTs didn't restrict killing members of security forces only....they even killed those surveyors too! My captain who was also the Flight Commander (FC) wanted to fly back to Kuantan after a 3-day night stop at Butterworth Base. We were at Bt Keteri, Perlis then. It was a bit late and as a co-pilot, I told him that we would cross Brinchang at about 1930 hr. Well, he insisted to fly back. Co-pilot and the AQM had no say....yes sir.
From Ipoh, we could see the silhouette of Brinchang and flew over it at the estimated time and maintained 6,000 ft. The night was getting pitch black. Then, suddenly I realised we were flying in the clouds and heavy rain. The captain was concentrating on flying the nuri. Being an experienced captain, he didn't descend and at that height, we were clear of all the highest peaks along the route. There was a total silence except for my 'Ops Normal' call to Kuantan Base. After about 40 minutes, we saw the lighted runway and he ordered for 'landing check'. I called Kuantan Tower for landing instructions. We were on the final for landing when we realised that the 'runway' was the lighted road of Gambang. He executed an overshoot and climbed to 3,000 ft and requested radar vector.
We landed safely at about 2040 hr and it was still raining. There was a reception party waiting for us. Guess who? ...The Boss himself - OC Sqn. He directed the AQM and I to go home and the FC to see him in his office, now....!
Episode 2 - 14 July, 1976
Today was my first long flight as a 'D' 'cat' captain (something like 'P' driving licence) - no passengers except maintenance crew or as authorised. I got my cat on 8 July, 1976. The flight was a recovery sortie to Ipoh to recover an unserviceable nuri there. Departed Kuantan at about 1530 hr and should cross Brinchang at about 1630 hr. I saw thick clouds covering Brinchang.
In compliance with the SOP, automatically I started to descend to maintain visibility of the ground when I heard the AQM shouted to execute a spiral climb. I was actually disoriented and I saw the ground rushing towards me......! Immediately I executed a spiral climb to 6,000 ft and still in the clouds. Told the co-pilot to tune Ipoh radio and to request for 8,000 ft. Still in the clouds and Ipoh Tower kept on asking ETA Ipoh since the given ETA had lapsed. At 8,000 ft, I took a westerly heading and I knew I would be clear of the highest peak. After about 10 min at 8,000 ft ....those limestone hills of Ipoh were ...a beauty to behold!
I had to night stop in Ipoh and parked the nuri at the Ranger Camp, Jalan Tambun.
Episode 3 - 15 December, 1976
I got my 'C' cat captaincy on 10 December, 1976. Now, I'm a full fledged captain of the nuri....wow! My first operational task - Gading 252. A 3-day tasking of troops/freight lifts for 8 Bde; night stop at Pengkalan Chepa. The pick-up point was Batu Melintang (BM), Kelantan.
Today was the second day. The first few sorties to the LPs were uneventful. Then there was a resupply to one LP somewhere near Dabong. The weather was okay then. Once took off from BM, I saw thick clouds on my route. As you can expect, I descended into a valley with River Pergau flowing to Dabong - IFR (I follow river). The trouble was....I was caught in the rain and the visibility was extremely bad.
Oh...oh...not again! No way of turning back in that narrow valley or to execute a spiral climb due to poor visibility! My choice? Reduced speed to almost taxiing speed and directed the co-pilot to look for obstructions on the port side, I on the starboard and the AQM to look infront and monitor the 'Ts & Ps'. I was flying in that condition for about 10 minutes when I saw Dabong. For once in my flying career, the AQM suggested to me to stop at Dabong for a coffee break, which I obliged. Of course, I didn't ask why. After a cup of coffee at the stall, up..up and away...The task was completed successfully.
Dedicated to the late F/SGT HUA TEE BOON.
Readers, the current nuri pilots are highly trained when they pass out from Air Force College. They fly in IFR categorized trainers and flying in clouds is no big deal. But once they are converted to nuri flying....they become cloud phobia. The main culprit is .......the SOP itself. I Follow Road/River flying is embedded in their minds!
RMAF, food for thought. Don't you think it's high time to review the SOP?