PETALING JAYA: In his 32 years with the Malaysian armed forces, air force pilot Abdul Rahim Abdul Rahman lived through many harrowing moments, but none so nerve-wracking as two rescue missions for wounded soldiers while under fire from communist insurgents.
Rahim, formerly with the Royal Ranger Regiment, became a helicopter pilot with the air force, and earned two gallantry awards for his exploits, the only air force officer to have done so.
He and his colleague, Sergeant Arokiasamy Augustine, were awarded the Pingat Gagah Berani, the second-highest armed forces award for bravery, for their actions during a rescue mission in Baling, Kedah.
Rahim was also awarded the Pingat Tentera Udara (PTU), the top medal awarded by the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
Every June 1, which is celebrated as Air Force Day, brings back nostalgic memories for Rahim, who retired from the air force with the rank of brigadier-general.
On this day, he often recalls the challenging moments in his flying career, and the sound of his whirring Nuri helicopter amid gunfire from communist terrorists below still rings vividly in his ears, especially an operation in Baling, Kedah, in 1974.
On Dec 22 that year, as a 26-year-old flight lieutenant, Rahim was in command of a Nuri (Sikorsky) helicopter sent to winch up wounded soldiers from the jungle. He was entrusted to carry out two casevac (casualty evacuation) tasks.
Winching up the wounded
It was about 5.30pm and getting dark, so Rahim knew he had to get the injured soldiers out as soon as possible. He reached the location and had to hover 150ft above the ground, to allow his air quartermaster, Augustine, to winch down the hoist.
“Not only were the failing lights and severe gusty winds working against me, the electrical system of the winch suddenly failed. So Augustine had to operate the winch manually.”
Rahim said the manual winching took them “forever” to bring the casualties up and despite the malfunction, he advised Air Operations Centre (AOC) that they would proceed to the second location to pick up more casualties.
AOC advised him to fly back, in accordance with standard procedures, but they agreed to proceed, with caution, after he explained the circumstances of the injured soldiers.
“My heart was with the soldiers,” he said. “I had been an infantry officer in the Royal Ranger Regiment and had fought in the jungles before joining the air force. I knew how much we soldiers waited for the RMAF choppers to fly in with rations and do casevac operations.
“As the last of the injured Rangers was being winched up, there were bursts of gunfire from down. The belly of the helicopter was hit.
“I had to make a quick decision as the injured soldier was only half way up. If I had decided to fly away, the soldier would hit the trees and probably die.
“I decided to continue hovering. Then another burst of gunfire started coming from the front and damaged some of my instruments in the cockpit, with shrapnel hitting my right leg.
The longest 15 minutes
“The moment the soldier reached the door, I flew away. Those 15 minutes were the longest in my life,” he recalled.
The next 30 minutes of the flight to the Rangers’ tactical headquarters in Baling were tense, emotional and yet fulfilling moments.
The thought of having saved the lives of three soldiers fighting for the country filled him with a joy that he can’t describe in words.
“I kept thanking God for being with us. It was a great feeling, saving lives and discharging our duties, honourably. It was not for glory or medals. For us on rescue missions, failure was not an option,” he said.
For this feat, he was bestowed the PGB.
When the gearbox overheated
Just eight months before, Rahim had undergone a similar experience when his gearbox started heating up midway through a casevac for the army’s Operation Gonzales against communist guerillas in the Perak jungles.
Overheating in gearboxes happens when the Nuri hovers for a long time, he said.
“As it was getting dark and with my gearbox overheating, I was told to return to base as required by the SOPs but I decided to go ahead with the rescue mission.
“I pulled up and circled for about 15 minutes to cool the gearbox before returning to the site. I could not leave the injured behind, because they would have to wait for another 12 hours or so before the next rescue attempt. Anything could have happened,” he said.
As visibility was poor, he had to switch on the flood and hover light which made them a sitting duck. Again, his Nuri was fired at but with tactical manoeuvring, he successfully flew out of the hotspot after rescuing the badly injured commandos at about 7.15pm.
For this, Rahim was awarded the PTU.
Teamwork from the ground crew
“I may have won a medal but I must pay tribute to the fantastic teamwork that saw us through the challenges. My co-pilots and air quartermasters played vital roles in all our operations. I must also salute the ground crew who kept our choppers in flying condition. They are the backbone of the air force,” he said.
The commanding officer of the Malaysian Special Services Regiment, Colonel Borhan Ahmad, who went on to become the Armed Forces chief with the rank of general in the 1990s, was in the thick of Op Gonzales.
In a book about the battles against the communist insurgency, the former chief of the Malaysian commandos had this to say about Rahim:
“Capt Abdul Rahim through sheer bravery and skill undertook the evacuation mission. Defying SOPs, he flew the helicopter with very little visibility, winching a medical officer down and winching up the wounded commandos. All this was done with the battle raging down below.
“The action of the crew on board must be recorded in the annals of the Malaysian Armed Forces history for their daring feat. Thankfully for these courageous acts and skill, he was awarded the nation’s gallantry award, and not being court-martialled for not following the SOPs!”
Rahim said he stopped flying after he retired but still involves himself in “flights”, playing golf.
He is currently the senior executive adviser at the National Aerospace & Defence Industries, a company that deals with international aviation supplies and services.
The father of four said none of his children became pilots or joined the armed forces.
“Perhaps it must have been the anxiety they went through waiting for their father to come back home after flying, and being frequently away from home,” he said.
“But for me it was worth it, and if I have to do it all over again, this will be my choice.”