Helicopters still the fastest link to interior
by Edwin Chandra. Posted on July 29, 2012, Sunday
HELICOPTERS are still the fastest mode of transport into the interior of Sarawak with its diverse terrains and scattered human population.
Many may dread flying over meandering rivers or hovering above dense virgin rainforests but helicopters are still the best option for many state elected representatives to touch base with their far-flung constituencies.
“Flying in a helicopter is not a luxury but a necessity and time-saver. We have to conquer our fears,” Welfare, Women and Family Development Minister Datuk Fatimah Abdullah said, alluding to why most YBs prefer travelling by helicopter to service their areas.
“Somehow, I fear the most when the helicopter is flying over Sebuyau area. I normally close my eyes and say a silent prayer,” she admitted.
Fatimah had experienced forced landing at an oil palm plantation and is no stranger to detours (due to bad weather) during her many visits to the interior by helicopter.
“There are areas in my constituency, especially Nanga Baoh, Baoh Burak and Baoh, not served by roads.
River transport is still main mode of transport — and helicopter service from Sibu comes in handy.
“Because air connectivity is poor, a lot of times I have to use helicopter service to visit my constituency and then fly direct back to Kuching, taking about an hour,” she explained.
History of crashes
According to State Police Commissioner, ACP Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani, there have been 11 helicopter crashes in Sarawak since 2002, killing 26 people.
The latest incident involved a privately owned Eurocopter EC120 helicopter which crashed at the Sungai Lingga estuary in the Sri Aman Division on July 20.
Acryl Sani said the authorities were investigating the cause with bad weather cited as an alleged factor behind the tragedy which claimed the lives quantity surveyor Siti Khuzaimah Anwar, 27, engineer Peter
Ato Mayau, 53, and architect Henry Loh, 42.
The pilot Rico Steiger was the sole survivor. The 35-year-old German national swam for about four hours
in the sea before reaching safety at Kampung Tebelu, Sebuyau.
Siti Khuzaimah was due to get married in November this year, and according to her friends, had already made plans for the big day.
Coincidentally on the same day, a similar accident occurred in neighbouring Brunei where 12 military lives were lost when an Brunei Air Force Bell 212 crashed while ferrying the soldiers home after jungle training.
The crash, described as the worst in the history of Brunei’s defence, took place at Ulu Belait. The helicopter was carrying 14 people, including the pilot. Two cadets survived.
On the afternoon of April 11 last year, a helicopter belonging to Subang-based Sabah Air crashed shortly after taking off at Sibu Square near Wisma Sanyan.
Captain Sahimi Ghazali, the pilot, who suffered serious rib injuries, died at the Sibu Hospital at about 8.30pm the same day.
According to Sibu police chief, ACP Shafie Ismail, the chopper was taking off to the airport nearby when it fell back from 10 feet above the ground.
The passengers, including Hafiz Abdul Halim, an aide to the Deputy Prime Minister had disembarked moments earlier.
Hafiz was walking towards the RH Hotel, less than 100m from the square, when the crash occurred.
In 2010, an American pilot was killed when his Sikorsky S-64 helicopter ferrying logs crashed in a dense jungle.
Many will always remember the crash of the Bell 206 Long Ranger helicopter on July 12, 2004, at the foot of Mount Murud.
Among the casualties were Assistant Minister in the Chief Minister’s Office, Dr Judson Sakai Tagal, Padawan Municipal Council chairman, Lawrence Th’ng, Sarawak Electricity Supply Corporation (Sesco) chief executive officer, Roger Wong, well-known businessman, Datuk Marcus Raja, Sesco engineers, Jason Eng and Ling Tian Ho as well as the pilot, captain Samsuddin Hashim.
Contrary to common belief, more people are likely to be killed in road accidents than in helicopter crashes.
Studies in the US and the UK have shown more people actually perished on the highways on daily basis due to human factors as compared to those involved in air crashes.
In Malaysia — even Sarawak — fatal road accidents are one of the major causes of deaths other than crimes, accidental drownings, diseases or natural causes.
Even though the survival rate of an air crash is virtually zero, there are many cases where passengers do survive, perhaps through divine intervention or lady luck smiling on them.
For the record, the EC120 helicopter is one of the popular models in the world because it is mostly built of composite materials and has a fenestron tail rotor, making it particularly quiet. It is also certified to FAR 27 standards.
According to Wikipedia, about 550 EC120s are sold worldwide. This helicopter has one of best safety features such as crash-resistant seats and a crash-resistant fuel system.
Since 2008, only two EC120 helicopters in the world had reportedly crashed, including the recent one in Sarawak.
The causes of helicopter accidents are difficult to ascertain but it can be grouped into three major areas — operational error, mechanical malfunction, and electrical malfunction.
Within these broad categories, there are also multiple underlying factors which require indepth investigation by the relevant authorities.
But then again, the health and safety of the passengers together with their able pilot are paramount to the operators of the helicopter services.
In good hands
People may wonder whether our state assemblymen who frequently travel by helicopters have any fallback plans if their intended trips are affected by impending factors.
“Through observation, I have learnt from YAB Chief Minister that even though he is (CM), when it comes to flying, he leaves it to pilot to decide,” Fatimah said on how the rule of thumb applies.
“The pilots are professionally trained and they know better. We always have a plan A and plan B,” she added.
Echoing the same sentiment, Tourism Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg recently said the best person to make a “life and death” decision” in any given situation is the helicopter pilot.
Although helicopter travel service in Sarawak has been shaken by the recent Sungai Lingga incident, it still remains the best and quickest way to access the communities in the interior of the state.