Up at 0545 hours, off to airport and plane ready for departure by 0830 hours; huge group of media from TV radio and newspapers there to capture the moment; also Julian Winter and his great staff also out in force, along with Professor Muhaya- great send-off!
I for some reason missed fact of big media circus; very, very tired, trying to remember how to make my face smile, and trying to understand what people saying to me; nearly asleep on feet, trying to look sharp, alert, vital, like electrically-charged blind adventurer- not sure I ever succeed in that area, but I sure was trying this morning!
The bank staff have done magnificently, getting so much media coverage, not just for Seeing Is Believing, but inadvertently also raising profile of the Bank that cares enough to do something about it! Top marks to all!
Planned to refuel at K.L. then fly on to Singapore; got hit by big, big storm right across our front; initially flying at 5,000 feet, weaving our way fairly successfully between rain clouds scattered across our front, but becoming bigger, darker, higher…
Forced down by lowering cloud base into valley with both sides containing hills higher than cloud base; finally forced down to only 200 feet above ground, with ferocious, driving tropical downpour like almost solid wall of torrential rain; hitting Richard and I like massive hail-storm, roaring and bouncing off our helmets, visors and flying suits; strange bellowing sound from propeller behind me; realised it must be the sheer volume of water it was having to thrash through; also part of protective material on propeller leading edge started coming away, due to massive forces of water hitting it at high speed.
Richard unable to see anything ahead through low wind-screen; having to lean way out either side, trying to see ground or anything ahead; visibility down to perhaps thirty metres; not far, when flying at about 100 feet per second.
My guidance system suddenly turned itself off, leaving me with no idea any more of our altitude or direction; realised my switch box velcroed to my thigh totally immersed in water, with water seeping into connecting plug; felt very vulnerable and "blind" when all senses/information urgently needed. Tore it off my leg, protected by flying suit, and tried re-booting; still able to hear and communicate with Richard via our headphone comms, but massive roaring of rain hitting us, mixed with bellowing engine behind made comms. not easy.
Richard now moving quickly from side to side, leaning right out and down, trying to see ahead, then looking directly down, looking for ground; altimeters limited value here when out of sight of ground, as they give height above sea level, and not height of ground at that point; Richard's GPS rolling map setting off continual alarms, warning of proximity of terrain in immediate region; reassuring yell from Richard; "I think I can se the ground- let's just keep on going; bound to ease up soon; can't carry on like this for long!" Then Richard swearing, followed by huge bang nearby- huge lightening strike just ahead of us; no alternative, but to do sharp, low-level 180 degrees turn back; can't afford to get a strike; probably kill our sophisticated ignition system on engine; possibly burn hole in wing above us if it hits our upright connecting us to the wing.
Now flying back way we came, stuck in valley, cloud base still almost on the deck; Richard hunting for coast and the sea; will be OK then he says; we can turn back again towards Kuala Lumpur following coast line; no hills or buildings at sea; so will be safe.Finally reach coast, still in absolute deluge, almost dark as coming night; turned right along coast; Richard initially getting altitude fix from yellow beach sand; we fly out few hundred metres, but Richard yells he cannot see the surface of the sea; rainfall so extremely heavy surface of sea covered in haze and spray bouncing up; impossible to predict where surface of sea is; absolutely no sign of anything further than 30 metres away; start creeping back towards the coast, looking for yellow sand on beach and contrast; found it, and begin following.
Meantime I manage to re-boot my navigational system, but it shuts down again; try protecting and drying it more, try again; keep it on this time; set my altimeter to QNH standard pressure setting for sea level, but can only guess humidity setting in such rain; better than nothing; safe now, low, very low, just 50 feet or so above sea, but Richard able to see coastline; just keep going; must get better soon.Both of us totally soaked through water-resistant flying suits; water running into my boots, down my neck, still loud roaring of hail-like rain hammering our helmets, visors and bodies, engine still bellowing unnaturally, with hissing, whistling thrumming sound from protective material on propeller blades leading edge becoming dislodged… Suddenly Richard yells, swears and makes sharp banking turn out to sea; rocky headland suddenly replaced golden sands of beach, blocking our way completely up several hundred feet; another sharp bank towards seashore immediately afterwards so we don't lose beach in grey world around us; same swerving a second time ten minutes later; another headland!
Just gradual easing of tension; slight lightening of area ahead of us; rain begins to ease slightly, cloud base begins to rise, the sea becomes visible as darker mass below us, Richard begins to increase altitude again gingerly, gratefully…
No experience of fear, but just very focussed mind; where is my life-jacket emergency pull in case needed; feeling behind my seat to ensure emergency release for life raft within reach; go through procedure in mind if we end up in the sea; keep seat belt fastened until stop moving; disconnect headphones and my nav. kit leads, unstrap helmet, throw away; get away from aircraft before inflating life-jacket; ensure Richard OK; ensure set off emergency beacon, inflate life raft.
Nothing unusual about above thoughts; just practical way to think all the time, whether mountaineering, scuba-diving, looking for landing places as we fly (Richard continually does this as a routine he says). People who survive in extreme conditions are those who do not panic, but continually assess changing situations and go through in their mind the procedures they will go through if necessary.
Finally back at 5,000 feet, with the skyline of Kuala Lumpur in the distance; still wet through, but very happy for some reason.
Landed at Sebong Airport at K.L; met by Karun and his colleagues from the bank; they had been alerted to stand by, should they be able to help us; talk about going the second mile for us- thank you so much, SCB!
We weren't expecting anybody, as just planning to refuel and get going again; great service; fuel immediately ready; Richard concerned about black sky ahead between us and Singapore; Met. Office confirmed bad storms in area- we decided it's better to be on the ground, wishing we were in the air, than in the air, wishing we were on the ground!
Karun and his colleagues helped us find overnight hangarage for the plane, then took us to a wonderful hotel just nearby.
For some reason, Richard and I just felt like sitting on the little veranda attached to my room, at 3pm in the afternoon, and had a couple of beers each, and crunched our way through some peanuts and crisps, just savouring sitting there…
I half-heartedly told Richard I needed to go and catch up with my Blogs, but he suggested we have an evening off; something quite unthinkable, as not done before on this trip. Suddenly a little light lit up deep inside me, growing brighter and winking at me, with a little voice alongside saying "I think you have earned a break, don't you think so?!"
For some reason it made a lot of sense to me, so we got up, and headed off to the main bar area near the swimming pool, with the rain still pouring down outside, and us, not caring, with a bit of a jaunty spring in our step!
It actually took us about 15 minutes to find the bar, as the local staff kept on directing us to the SPA, not the bar, involving us passing a huge avery full of parrots in their iridescent tropical plumage calling to us, and me trying to imitate them with my own whistle. Just a little interlude, but somehow so full of satisfaction and meaning, being able to stand on Terra Firma, surrounded by beautiful bird calls, and the gentle patter of rain around us; like all my senses were once again-awakened to the beauty of life and just being alive.. a little magic moment just flooding back to me as I write this, with Richard's chuckle echoing in my memory each time we again ended up at the spa centre and avery from another direction.
It reminds me of another hotel in India, with us, both exhausted and hungry after a long flight, and me asking if they served steak (I love pepper-corn steak), only to be told they did not serve snake in their restaurant, with Richard immediately guffawing into his beard!
We finally found the bar, propped ourselves in comfortable bar-stools, and fell into a conversation with Rod, an Australian university professor from Charles Sturt University, due to do some lectures the next day, and proceeded to put the world to right from politics to family values and a few jokes thrown in, accompanied by a somewhat confusing number of Blue Lagoon cocktails for myself, and Richard and Rod keeping the beer sales up.
We ended the evening with an excellent peppercorn steak (what else?!) in the restaurant, and, to our surprise, were approached by an English nurse from Yorkshire who had just flown in, and recognised us from a news bulletin on CNN somewhere else in the world- it reminded us that this is a truly global project that has captured the imagination of people right around the world- let's trust it has an enduring legacy to change people's attitude towards the needs of less fortunate people in their own world- we went to bed feeling very fortunate and blessed ourselves, with me only having a slight conscience that I had not used the time to catch up with my Blogs- sorry everybody!
"Life is not measured by the number of breaths that we take, but by those moments that take our breath away".