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When The Propellers Stop.LOGO16.jpg (27554 bytes)It was almost midnight when I engaged the park brake for my last flight before setting course to pursue graduate education. The sound of the turboprop engines whirling down still playing in my ears. It was a night sortie, pattering my co-pilot student for his conversion, in September 2002. On the second last landing, I helped him pulled the power lever quickly into reverse and almost standing on brakes to stop within the shortest distance. Subang Airfield runway 15 is long enough, more than 12000 ft.

Once the aircraft stopped, I took over control, firmly pushing the power lever, monitoring the auto ignition lights went off once passing 400 ft-lb torque (which we refered to as ‘4Tq’), auto feather lights ‘on’ once passing 90 percent N1 and propeller governing at 2000 rpm, planning to take-off from the remaining distance. Thereafter I released the brakes feeling a bit of acceleration, tapping on the rudder to maintain centerline.

The aircraft reaching 110 knots around 3000 feet before threshold 33 and I rotated the aircraft slowly holding 70 climb attitude. “Positive rate, altimeter increasing, gears up!” The sound of landing gears retracting back into their bay quite reassuring. I adjusted the climb angle to 100 allowing the airspeed accelerated towards 140 knots. “Above 200 feet, above 126 knots, flaps up”. Thereafter almost by reflex the attitude was adjusted and trimmed for 140 knots. I retarded the power lever slightly back and on my command ‘climb power’, my copilot dutifully retarding the propeller lever to 1900rpm, and at the same time adjusting for synchronization. “After Take-off Checks!” The copilot did his part again. “Landing gears up, lights off. Flaps up, indicating up. Yaw damper on. Climb power set. Engine instrument check. Prop sync on. AutoFeather off. Taxi and landing lights Off.After Take-Off Checklist is complete.” At the upwind leg, flying was done on instrument to avoid succumbing to the Somatogravic illusion.

        On passing 1000 feet, a turn into crosswind was initiated and I cross-referenced between instrument and visual anticipating for downwind leg and leveling off at 1500 feet. Bank angle was maintained constantly around 25 degrees. Gently I lowered the attitude to maintain 1500ft, retarding the power lever to around 10Tq and called “Cruise power!”. Again the copilot will adjust the propeller lever to 1700rpm so that I could easily trimmed the aircraft for 160 knots on level cruise.

Turning into downwind the runway lights were barely visible in the floods of surroundings lightings. The downwind drill was fairly standard. Height, Heading, Speed, Spacing (HHSS). I needed to maintain 1500 feet, 329 degrees on heading, 160 knots with the Air force insignia visually flying on the runway centerline so that a constant parallel track with the runway is flown over the ground. (It was an easy flying at night since the convection turbulence was not interested to disturb you. They ceased their jobs once the ground started cooling down. Losing energy, they felt sleepy and will resume their job once sun shining again tomorrow.) The way I remember circuit training is that it teaches me precision flying. I have to maintain the prescribed height, the selected heading (either cocking into wind or flying parallel to the runway), the precise airspeed and the designed spacing as published in the standard operating procedure (SOP).

Once abeam the threshold, the drill will be “Time (where I will start the stopwatch for 30 seconds), below 200, Flaps 40 percent, below 181 Gears down! Before Landing Checklist!” The aircraft had to be retrimmed for 1500 ft, normally in a way by pushing the nose down a little bit to cater for ballooning effect of extending flaps and retrimming the elevator back once landing gears were firmly deployed. Airspeed will reduce to 140 knots by the 30 seconds and I simultaneously reduce the power to 8 Tq, lowering the attitude to around 3 degrees nose down and initiating around 15 degrees bank angle turning into baseleg, adjusting for 700 ft/min rate of decent. Base technique came into play: Power control rate of descent, attitude control airspeed. Anticipating for turning final, my copilot dutifully called, “Sintar 05, Turning finals, 3 greens to land fullstop”. There was a sense of delight in the controller voice, “Sintar 05 clear to land, wind is calm”. 45 degrees inwards, I started to look for the threshold lights, saying out aloud “3 greens I have, Clearance granted, runway is clear and aiming for a good approach”.

Today, more than a year after that final landing, taking a break from writing my paper and pondering on what to write for Chapter 4 of  my thesis, in the middle of the night I flip through my logbook trying to grasp again with the feeling of handling the aircraft boring holes through the skies, days and nights. In the Air Force, I logged 3162.7 hours total flying time where 528.3 hours were at nights. Command time was 2289.4 hours. I remember most of those nights flying were the night operations conducted from forward operating base (FOB) where I was positioned for ten to twelve days in rotation with other crews. Our 007 missions were to conduct night operations over the waters that were littered with fishing boats, merchant vessels, navy patrol crafts plus islands and reefs. We flew various sortie profiles.

On one of the profile, we took off at 2200 hours, planned to land again at distant airfield to refuel after flying for four hours and subsequently took off for another sortie. Basically we would fly until dawn. I remember talking to my crew that we never dreamt of doing this job when we were at the school. Is there any kids out there who can imagine that one day he will fly in the middle of the night, low over the sea, at the farthest eastern boundary of his country trying to figure out what the ship down there is doing on the murky water. On those countless of flight we exchange a lot of story telling about our personal experience before joining the Air Force. At those hours, we need to keep talking; otherwise our eyes will win the battle to sleep.

On the outbound we flew at FL180 transiting to the operation area that was about forty minutes at 240 knots TAS. Approaching the area we requested the descent clearance for 3000 feet and below operating under special VFR for “special military operation”. Familiarized with the surrounding area after having flown countless of times, I continued down to 1500 feet and below, calling “feet wet!” Normally I was comfortable at 1000 feet over the water, at night. In the meantime we did the various checks that we were supposed to do at our own stations: pilot, co-pilot, nav and observer. By the time we established in the area, it was closed to the midnight.

The blackness of the night surrounding our perceptions. The glare of cockpit lights shot through our eyes and our minds were divided between the thought of distant family and figuring out the outputs displayed by the instruments. I programmed the track, height and airspeed on the autopilot and settled down to managerial duty. Suddenly the navigator barked in our headsets: “Contact one o’clock ten miles.” I strained my eyes trying to look for the contact visually while the copilot played with the stabiscope trying to figure out the target. The nav had all the wonderful gadgets at his disposal and sometimes called the contact while munching his fried chicken.

With experience, we knew that the vessels with the brightest light were the boats catching squids: “bot sotong”. We figure out the MLA of merchant ships by its navigation lights and the far distance lights of the oil-rig can be misinterpreted as a helicopter’s light. Naval vessel had distinct visual cues. Under moonlit condition we maneuvered our position to identify the contact by its silhouette. Minimizing climb and descent movement was the prudence action to be taken since it will avoid spatial disorientation. Consequently when the area was full of contacts, I would preferred to stay at 500 feet, checking the contact one after the other. Sometimes we practice down to 300 feet with heightened alertness.

Each individual pilot practices his own tactics in achieving the task. Some prefer to stay high and rely on the million-dollar gadgets. Some prefer to stay low, pumping the adrenalin at high rate. The unpublished rule was “whatever you do, make sure you come back in one piece”. The most important thing that I stressed to the new aircraft commander was, “make sure you are thoroughly familiarize with the area: where was the 2000 ft Gaya Island with respect to your track? Three nautical miles to the left on northward track? If it had been a while that you did not flying in the area, make sure your first flight is at daylight, figuring out all the ground features and store in your harddisk…..”

You felt satisfied and proud when the aircraft commanders that you trained accomplished the task, flew safely and passed the knowledge to others.  But when a slack happened you found yourself faced the board of inquiry. O.K. They asked you nicely. How do you find the pilot. Your remarks in his training record will be scrutinized. AlhamdulilLah (Praise be to Allah), the pilot and the crew were safe. Aircraft damaged because it swerved out from the runway on landing under the condition of heavy rain and gusty wind at 0300 o’clock in the darkness of the morning, with the fatigueness flying back from the area. I did a standard check on the pilot several weeks before. It was at our homebase (homeplate) airfield.  No mental stress since we could go home after flight. And the night was calm, no rain and was still early. I could not simulate the heavy rain, the gusty wind, and the wet runway. Those residents who bought their home close to the runway were not very happy if you pen down your training take off time and landing time around three o’clock in the morning. They just can’t equate the sound of turboprop engine with sentimental music. I pity them. On the part of the pilot, I liked his confidence, his firmness in decision-making and smooth handling. So my comments on him went accordingly. Unforeseen circumstance do happened, and it is part of our lives. Life moves on. Even when the propellers finally stop.


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