Saturday, April 3, 2010

Adler Tag

TA-4SU Super Skyhawks perform a flypast over WSAT from south to north for the last time on 31 March 2005. The 90 cents newspaper story that appeared on 1 April 2005 prompted some readers and netizens to ask if it was an April Fools' joke. Photo by Mike Yeo

Singaporean aircraft enthusiasts shed blood to get you the pictures of the last flight of the Super Skyhawk warplanes - but we savoured every minute watching history unfold.

Hours spent feeding mosquitoes in a graveyard outside the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) main fighter aircraft base, Tengah Airbase, rewarded my friends and I with a sight we'll remember for a long time.

Though the 1 April 2005 article published by the 90 cents newspaper credited only Albert Lee (the photographer) and your's truly for the work, truth be told, it was an integrated information-gathering effort.

I thank all of you who were involved. The same network won me another scoop years later when I wrote about the shutdown of Singapore's airspace due to the Cessna floatplane intrusion.

The passion for plane spotting, meticulous record keeping and eye for detail has made some of you walking directories of the RSAF's order of battle. You folks are an asset I valued greatly during my career as a journalist. We didn't always get it right, but our AARs sought to improve our processes and we have indeed come a long way.

Those of you who were with me will recall the restless moments hours before the takeoff, when we debated whether or not our morning in the graveyard was a fruitless outing.

We deployed ourselves so we could catch flight activity on an west-east axis (Albert Lee and his bazooka lens) and a south-north flight path (militarynuts). We also had someone in Tuas eyeball the flight, calling feet dry when the warplane formation turned due north towards TAB.

After hours listening to crickets mating, we finally heard a fast jet engine spool up from the direction of TAB.

We all stood up, like prairie dogs, looking longingly towards the airbase.

From engine idle, the powerplant screeched to life and we had a mental picture of a (then unknown) RSAF warplane taxiing to the runway. Full military power, brake release and a thunderous roar rocked the TAB neighbourhood. It was a twin-seat F-16D, Osprey, taking off on full reheat. She was the photo ship for the TA-4SU Super Skyhawk standdown.

We did not have long to wait before the distinctive high-pitched whine of General-Electric F404-100D turbofans warming up got our adrenaline pumping even further. We hear the massed takeoff went off schedule as it took awhile to strap in one of the bigger VIPs *chuckles*. But wild horses couldn't drag us away from our vantage points.

The F404 engines that powered the Super Skyhawks are not known to be friendly to anyone's ears. And when 12 Super Skyhawks raced off WSAT in quick succession, the sight and sound of Scooters on full military power is something to behold.

One after another, the Super Skyhawks lofted themselves into the humid tropical air, their distinctive delta wings mere tiny triangles as the pilots banked hard left and traced the live-firing area on the western coast of Singapore, flying south towards Tuas. There, our spotter watched them close up in diamond formation.

The Super Skyhawks were grouped into three flights each named after an RSAF Super Skyhawk squadron. These were Gryphon (142 SQN), Phoenix (143 SQN) and Hornet (145 SQN) flights.

There's a good reason why Singapore kept so many of her twin-seat Super Skyhawks active till 31 March 2005. Including the 10 we have in Cazaux, France, for advanced jet training, the RSAF had no less than 22 flight worthy twin-seat Super Skyhawks on the day the Lion City retired her Skyhawks in Singapore.

That's because they served as more than trainers and had a little-publicised combat role - I'll just leave it at that. To all the Skyhawk pilots, armourers and groundcrew who trained hard for this mission, thank you for keeping our skies safe. To the RSAF air warfare planners and Singaporean defence engineers who gave the TA-4SUs an unprecedented ability to reach out and touch the enemy, thank you. Today, an even more lethal warbird has filled that role - the F-16D/D+.

Now back to the formation. The Scooters looked like little tiny sunbirds darting in the distance, skimming the green hills over Pasir Laba - three quartets on an west-east heading as they executed the first of two flybys over WSAT.

We waited hours since dawn for that flyby, the first of which took less than 30 seconds for the flight to cross our field of view. Camera settings had to be adjusted way beforehand. There was no time to change lenses. Hands had to be kept steady as powerful zoom lenses tracked the warplanes crossing our hill top position from left to right.

Even for seasoned plane spotters, there's always that nagging feeling that the images would be ruined by a wrong lens selection, botched camera setting or shaky hands. Aperture setting? What speed? Is the camera on single frame or cyclic?

On that day, we had a second chance. We tracked the Super Skyhawks fly south to north and watched them soar over WSAT for the final time before peeling off for their landing pattern.

I remember plane spotter Mike Yeo saying "Well, this is it" as the last TA-4SU lined up for her landing, stalky undercarriage deployed, flaps down and landing light on.

It was a sight never to be repeated over Singapore's skies. We savoured the moment watching the TA-4SU on short finals before she finally disappeared behind the fenceline.

Last flights are key markers in the RSAF's short yet exciting history.

As Singapore's airpower sharpens its claws, there's another historical milestone coming very, very soon.

This time, a "first": Adler Tag.


FIVE-TWO said...

this piece should be in the 90c for the benefit of a wide audience.

Area-51 said...

A very nice write up...totaly enjoy it. : )

Mike Y said...

I'm actually amazed you still remembered my comment after all these years as the last Skyhawk landed David. I didn't...until today that is.

Thanks for jogging my failing memory, and reminding me of the sadness I felt, knowing that the Skyhawk would never be seen flying over Singapore after that day.

David Boey said...

I was noting the a/c landing times and was hoping to use one of the milnuts quotes as the kicker to the "April Fool" story.

But there was nothing grandiose like "Now passes a great moment in Singapore's aviation history..." you know, the kind of quote 90C likes to publish. That's how I recalled your reax. :)

Thinking back, I believe we were split between making a run for the short finals area or watching the final touchdown from where we were. In the end, we stayed put and nearly signalled "convoy scatter" when the FDS V-200s appeared. LOL

Before the massed takeoff, non-plane spotter Albert (90C) almost chewed my arse off for an aimless morning feeding mozzies at his OP.

RX said...

That was truly a memorable morning, one that will remain etched in memory for a long time to come. The massed takeoff, as you said then, was like an 'Alpha Strike'.

RX said...

That was truly a memorable morning, one that will remain etched in memory for a long time to come. Th massed takeoff, as you mentioned then, was like an 'Alpha Strike'.

goat89 said...

Man... I still remember when the skyhawks retired... these old birds protected us for so long... good write up Mr Boey!

Ben Choong said...

Sigh, makes me feel sad reading that article...A4SUs regularly took off from PLAB as well so the sight of one was very familiar to me...

I wonder if something similar can be arranged for the return of the Skyhawk's replacement? :P

Anonymous said...

Great read. i was at the RSAF museum the other day and had a peak inside the cockpit next to the shop. It's really narrow and cramped. Poor VIP:)

Btw, is Adler Tag referring to... a date? ;)


FIVE-TWO said...

goat, indeed the Skyhawk has been with us a long time. when I was a boy at an airshow at the old Changi Airbase, the audience were seated on a slope facing the runway. they deceptively distract the audience by flying the BAE down the runway and then suddenly an A4 will scream pass overhead at low level, from behind the audience and making everyone jump ;)

sadly with all the safety concerns these days, these sort of stunts will never be experienced again.

David Boey said...

re: VIP. An SAF general beloved by his troops, some of whom say he has a passing resemblance to Dear Leader. :)

Adler Tag is German for Eagle Day.

Anonymous said...

Putsch here, Putsch there, write more articles!!!!

FIVE-TWO said...

VIP. with big moustache?

David Boey said...

The VIP was the ex, ex-CDF, so I'm told.

Femora_SG said...

I served in one of the a4su squadrons with lots of two seaters. Nice story, and nice Easter egg.

Anonymous said...

I first worked on the A4S back in 1976 when they were in Changi. SAMCO were retrofitting them then. 30 mm ADEN guns were not good to work on but the MK 12 were even worse.