Monday, July 19, 2010

Recovery Of A Nuri At Maligan - Phase 2

Continuation from here...

Maj GK Khoo on my right at Sgts' Mess during PANGUD's visit 

Preparing For Phase 2 --- Concept, Innovation and Testing of Rectangular “Metal Arch”

Back in RMAF Base Labuan, while picturing in my mind of lorries zooming on Federal Highway under the concrete arch demarcating Kuala Lumpur from Petaling Jaya, an idea was formed that perhaps I could quickly improvise a rectangular metal arch high enough for the up-righted helicopter to be pushed under it to enable the Main Rotor Head and Main Gearbox to be removed by a hoist attached to the metal cross-beam. Based on that simple idea, the following were obtained to be temporarily improvised into a rectangular ‘metal arch’ (instead of a concrete/marble arch) :
a)        An ‘I’ –beam (normally used in building structures and overhead gantries).                         ---  I was fortunate to be able to borrow an overhead gantry ‘I’ –beam with the right length from ‘Sabah Shipyard company’ of  Labuan for free.
b)        Some spare aerial masts which were once used for installation of aerials at the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower area in the Air Base for radio transmissions.
---  I planned  to assemble the masts at the crash site in Maligan village into two (2) sets of legs to support the ‘I’-beam.  
c)         A thick metal plate each (prepared by Warrant Officer Ahmad of the Base workshop) to be fitted to the top of each leg assembly to support the ‘I’ beam. There was also a simple safety device to lock the ‘I’-beam into its position on the plate.
d)         A big and thick metal plate (prepared by Warrant Officer Ahmad and his men) to be ‘worn’ as a shoe by each of the 2 sets of aerial-legs at the crash site so as to provide stability for the legs.
e)         Additional cables and ropes to lift the whole system by the 2 sets of improvised wooden winches and also to stabilize the system so as to prevent the ‘I’ beam and the 2 legs from toppling-over.
f)           A set of lifting devices (inclusive pulley, hoist, cable and a crank) were temporarily cannibalized from a mobile gantry which was normally used for lifting heavy DHC-4 aircraft (Caribou) Pratt & Whitney engines. The hoist of the set was to hang from the ‘I’ beam in order to lift the Main Gearbox of the helicopter, and the crank was fitted to one of the ‘legs’.

Due to space limitations, it was planned to under-slung the aerial masts and the ‘I’- beam as one bundle tied by cables. Air-tests were than organized by Maj Nor Ibrahim to ensue safety as an under-slung load during flying. All the above components and parts were collected and prepared in one day inclusive the Air-tests. The next day, they were successfully flown to the Malingan crash site by a Nuri helicopter piloted  by Maj Nor Ibrahim.  We were then ready to commence Phase 2 of recovering the Nuri helicopter.

Phase 2 of Recovering The Crashed Helicopter – Erecting The ‘Maligan Metal Arch’

            To start this Phase 2, I brought only a few of my men from RMAF Base Labuan which included Lt Stewart Thomas (engineering officer), Sgt Lopez (Engine technician), Cpl Louis (expert on Main Rotor Head and Main Gearbox changes), and Cpl Rama (Instrument Technician). The plan was to use the friendly manpower help from the Muruts of Maligan village and to ask them to re-position their improvised wooden winches which were used successfully in  Phase 1 together with the Airod (RMAF) personnel.      
 The first step was to assemble the complete system ‘flat’ on the ground, with the ‘I’-beam connecting the two aerial legs, and putting on the ‘shoes’ on  the 2 aerial legs. Except that each ‘shoe’ protruded in 2 opposing directions as compared to our normal shoe of protruding only one direction.  Ropes were tied to the 4 corners of the ‘I’ beam to control and pull up the ‘I’-beam. The layout is like two (2) persons wearing shoes and lying on their front with their hands connected in a straight line (representing the ‘I’-beam).  The erection plan was similar to simultaneously pulling each man up with a rope around his chest.
The 2 sets of wooden winches and 2 sets of ‘goal posts’ which were used in Phase 1 were then re-positioned  so as to lift the assembled improvised overhead  gantry assembly by the top of each leg. Since the ‘I’-beam was very heavy, wooden poles were also used by the Muruts to help push up the ‘I’ beam. To ensure well coordinated actions, there was only one source of command during the erection process – and that was from me.   So, step-by-step the combined teamwork efforts of RMAF personnel and Murut villagers successfully erected the ‘Maligan Metal Arch’. We tested the stability of the system by lifting tyres and people and using them as a ‘swing’, and having simple fun.
The next day, the team of RMAF personnel and Murut villagers managed to push and pull the up-righted crashed Nuri helicopter to roll it  into position under the cross-beam / gantry. During the process, the work became lighter by placing plywood on the ground or on ‘PSP’ (a metal grate /meshing) where the ground was soft, to enable the tyres to roll easily.
This was followed by the successful removal of the Main Rotor Head after making sure that the helicopter was accurately vertical to the ground so that the effort of  lifting the Main Rotor Head became much smoother and  much less temporary bending of the ‘I’-beam. Since it was an improvised system and the site was uneven ground, I had to take full control of each step of the lifting operation even though Cpl Louis was on the Nuri helicopter at the Main Rotor Head area to ascertain correct alignment. There was a loud shout of happiness when the Main Rotor Head finally separated from the helicopter with ease. This was successfully followed by the Main Gearbox.  
The next day (15th Aug 1983) Maj (Air) Nor Ibrahim flew in with his Nuri Helicopter with a serviceable Main Gearbox on underslung for our use. The rest of the rectification work became normal and I could then leave my handful of men to carry out the remaining rectification work successfully. As this point it is nice to also reflect back on moments of ‘fun & danger’ in between serious work to recover the crashed Nuri helicopter.

Fun and Dangers

The completion of the Phase1 was celebrated with some Airod (RMAF) personnel joining the Murut villages in a friendly football game which helped to produce greater bond with the Murut villages to support us in the 2nd Phase of work.
  It was also fun to work together with my team of men from RMAF Base Labuan (Lt Stewart Thomas and a group of RMAF technicians) to recover the helicopter to flying condition. Everyone there was motivated by the change of environment --- working in the open on a hill top surrounded by higher ranges of hills. There was an Army post at the village. One day, one soldier at the Army post asked one of my men whether our men had any officer with them. The answer to the soldier was: yes, a Major and a Lieutenant working in the sun with the men! It was a shock to the soldier to watch the scene of teamwork (officers and men working together) --- he therefore commented that he expected the Major to be in the tent instead. However, in view of the urgency of the work and quickly changing situation during various stages of the recovery work, I found that it was necessary for that special situation to be with my men most of the time in the sun. The observation by the soldier was related to me by one of my men and we had a good laugh to know that there were differences in expectations between the soldier and the RMAF technicians.  We continued to work happily together as a closely-knitted team, and found a short break to cool ourselves in a nearby river of crystal-clear waters to celebrate our success for the 2nd Phase. It was very refreshing dipping ourselves in the cold clean water of the nearby river.
One late morning, just a day after we had successfully replaced the heavy Main Rotor Head and the Main Gearbox, the whole team was walking towards the helicopter after a short coffee break when suddenly one of my men shouted loudly and firmly --- “DOWN”!  All of us dropped down instantly to the ground, and hardly a second later, we heard a loud buzzing sound  and  saw a very big swarm of bees heading away as if in a  big rush! We were fortunate that one of our men noticed the bees were heading in our direction as we were walking! We had a good laugh that we escaped just-in-time from possible attack by the swarm of bees!
To show our appreciation to the Murut villagers for helping us to achieve success in the Phase 2 work, I asked our Christian members, Lt Stewart Thomas and another technician, to join the villagers in their Sunday Church Service. I could not join them because being a Buddhist then, I was not sure what the villagers normally did in their Sunday Church Service.    
 One morning, I noticed our normally jovial Sgt Lopez was not his normal self of creating jokes. I asked him what happened, and he replied that he had some stomach ache with a slight fever. Knowing that he was normally a very fit person, I suspected that the problem he faced could be much worse than he what he said. Somehow, I worried that he might be having an inflamed appendicitis. Based on what I had previously learned from some friends, I asked him to put his hands on his right hips with his fingers across his belly, slanting down at 45 degree angle, then to slowly raise his right legs. At a certain point he felt a sharp pain. The procedure was repeated and the sharp pain persisted. At once I told him, “this is the first time I am giving a direct order to you to stop working, and to follow me back to RMAF Base Labuan to see the Base doctor.  Upon arrival at RMAF Base Labuan, he was confirmed as having inflamed appendicitis and had to be admitted to the Labuan General Hospital. There, he was immediately admitted for surgery and the surgeon commented that if he had been late by about one or two hours, he would have been ‘too late’. Thinking back, it was the working culture in an RMAF operational Base that gave a person a greater sense of urgency and seriousness in doing work. This was the likely reason that the support given to me when requesting for a medivac Alouette helicopter was responded within half hour from my request although Maligan village is in a remote area of the interior of  Sabah close to Brunei and Sarawak. We were happy and encouraged that our jovial Sgt Lopez survived the surgery to remove his inflamed appendicitis.

As engineers and technicians giving good support to our pilots to enable them to carry out their missions successfully, both the aircraft recovery teams of Airod (RMAF) and  RMAF Base Labuan were pleasantly surprised that the Maligan incident became the ‘story to hear and tell’ in the RMAF for some time. The ‘incident’ proved engineering innovativeness in the RMAF  and the opportunity for engineers/technicians to also proved their ability to make friends with people of less developed areas to achieve the RMAF interests and objectives.
It was also an opportunity to work together with people of different religions and cultures who came from different regions/states (Peninsula and Sabah). It was also an opportunity of different intellectual levels (technicians and villages) coming together as a team in an urgent situation, and finding a cost effective method of overcoming a seemingly insurmountable problem/hurdle that was perceived at the early stages.
It also showed that the public gave their all to support the RMAF during the helicopter recovery efforts --- not only by the Murut villagers, but also by Sabah Shipyard of Labuan which loaned us for free the ‘I’ beam.
It was also an opportunity for RMAF technical personnel (who normally work in an Air Base) to experience working in the open in a remote hill top with little facilities.
It was also an opportunity for many RMAF pilots to see for themselves the engineering /technical work and innovations in the field and appreciate the efforts of  engineers and technicians who quietly work behind the scene to ensure timely availability of safe aircraft for pilots to carry out their missions/operations.
Most important, on behalf of the other engineers and technicians who helped recover the aircraft at Maligan and those in RMAF Base Labuan who gave their support without going there, I feel honoured to be given this opportunity to write the story of the follow-up engineering /technical work  to recover the helicopter to a serviceable flying condition as a result of the  ‘Maligan Helicopter Accident’ and the Credit goes especially to Major (Rtd) Nor Ibrahim for remembering the great contributions of  RMAF engineers and technicians who normally work in the back-ground. At this point, I just remember that 27 year have gone by since the ‘Malingan Incident’ as compared to the 26years I spent in the RMAF when I left to help build up SME Aerospace Sdn Bhd at end of year 1991! My apologies to anyone who may find some inaccuracies in the above story because it is challenging to dig from my memory what happened 27 years ago! However, I enjoy this opportunity to help me walk down the memory lane. My special thanks to En. Karim Hassan (ex-Warrant Officer/ Sgt karim Hassan), the present GM of SME Aerospace Sdn Bhd who recently helped to jolt my memory of some of the events that took place.  

Lt Col (Rtd) Khoo Goh Keat, RMAF
(SEngO RMAF Labuan in year 1983)

24th June 2010
Kota Damansara,
Selangor Darul Ehsan.

Lt Col Khoo Goh Keat TUDM (R)...Thank you.

No comments: