Sunday, April 23, 2017

Flight of the intruder: Q&A with pilot who beat Singapore's RSAF air defence network in April 1975

If you were to choose an aircraft to penetrate Singapore's air defence network, a lumbering C-130 Hercules would probably not top that list.

But 42 years ago this month, a C-130 from South Vietnam (serial HCF 460) did just that.

Then Defence Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee told MINDEF and HQ RSAF that this would not happen again. It led to a review of CONOPS for air surveillance and interceptions. The incident also seeded awareness of the need to detect aerial intruders as early as possible to give RSAF the early warning required to scramble fighters.

At the time of the intrusion, the subsonic Hawker Hunter was the main RSAF interceptor. It wasn't till 1979 that the RSAF could fly supersonic. This followed the delivery of the first F-5s acquired under Project Peace O.

Incidentally, the C-130 intrusion took place just two days after the RSAF was formed. From a public relations standpoint, the incident was not good for the RSAF's image. The unfortunate timing is an example of how von Moltke's advice, No plan survives first contact with the enemy, applies to info ops.

Here is Senang Diri's interview with former Vietnam Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Pham Quang Khiem. He described the flight that beat our air defence system. We hope you find the Q&A interesting.

1. How many passengers did you have aboard? How many were military personnel?
There were 56 total on board. All the civilians were family. Six of us were in the air force consisting of four crew members and my two brothers who were VNAF officers.  Two were Army Officers.

2. Describe the flight profile en route to Singapore.
From the time we took off from Long-Thanh Airfield , we kept at our low level for about two hours. We then climbed to 15 thousand feet until we got to Singapore. 

The altitude we maintained was extremely low - only about 5 to 10 feet above sea level (ground effect).  It was so low that the passenger compartment had fog so thick that my family members told me they couldn’t see each other. 

I plotted the chart to Singapore using onboard radar doppler. Our speed was around 250 knots.

3. What model of C-130 was 460? What happened to the aircraft in Singapore?It was C-130A Model. The US Embassy at Singapore claimed it. The aircraft then flew to Korea for service with US Air Force for a while then flew back to US for service with the National Guard. In 1987 this aircraft was selected by Smithsonian in Washington DC to be put on display at the Smithsonian Air Museum. The aircraft now is in storage there. It’s future is unknown.  I am hoping that it gets moved to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Museum here in Dayton, OH (where I am at) however the cost of transporting it is too much.

4. Did you have weapons onboard?
 Yes we did carry our personal revolver as part of our uniform when on duty.  Total revolvers were 4.

5. Why didn't you try landing in Kuantan, Malaysia, or Butterworth, near Penang? Did you make up your mind on destination Singapore before you took off?
I did make up my mind for Singapore well before we took off.  For me, there was no other alternative. I heard Singapore was in need of pilots and thought they may need to use us.

6. What was your approach to Singapore like?We had an approach chart to Singapore. We flew directly southeast from Vietnam, to the south west of the airport was runway 02. 

We were at 15 thousand feet when we contacted Singapore.

Approaching from about 80 Miles out I called Singapore. However, the radio had a lot of static so I skipped approach control and directly contacted the Singapore Tower. It was never a thought of mine that I may be intercepted by Singapore Air Force.

7. What happened after you landed at Paya Lebar Airport?
We arrived in Singapore around 7 PM. It was dark and raining when I called Approach Control for instructions. I couldn't understand their reply, so I just changed to Tower Frequency, and called, "Singapore Tower, Herky 460. Request landing instruction." They replied, "Herky 460, cleared to land Runway 02.” They gave me the wind and altimeter setting, but didn't ask, "Who are you?" or "What the hell are you doing here?" So we just went in and landed on 02!

This was the civilian international airport and I thought that they would get excited when a military aircraft landed there. But when we parked on the ramp, the ground personnel came and hooked up an auxiliary power cart when the engines were shut down, then left. I told my people that they were now in a free country, but that no one was allowed to leave the aircraft until we had surrendered to the proper authorities.

My friend, my brother and I all changed into our civilian clothes, got off the airplane, and headed for the terminal building. It took us a half hour to find the airport office. When I explained to the guard on duty that we were a group of Vietnamese who had just gotten out of the country, and that we wanted to talk to his boss, he said, "Well, the airport office closes at 5 PM. Why don't you guys come back at eight tomorrow morning?" We finally convinced him that we had entered his country illegally, and that he had to do something about it. Well, he couldn't find his boss, who was out partying somewhere. We wandered around the airport until midnight, then went back out to the airplane. I found that my people were well taken care of. Some of the ground crew from the airlines had become curious, and had come over to our airplane. When they found 56 refugees from the war, they brought food and drink from the airline service area.

Finally, at about 1 AM, twenty trucks filled with police surrounded our airplane, and we surrendered to the Chief of Police. We explained that we would like political asylum in Singapore, but that if they could not take us, we would like the gas to get to Australia or New Zealand. They called the Vietnamese counsel, and he came down to the airport. We told him that we did not want to go back to Vietnam, and that we wanted asylum. He left without commenting, and we never heard from him again. The local officials could not make up their minds what to do with us. It was obvious that we had created a problem that they did not want to deal with. (It was a problem they had not had before.) 

As I first stepped off the aircraft onto Singapore land, I warned them to stay on the aircraft since we were entering Singapore illegally.  We were all full of mix emotions since we had no idea what would happen next.  As you well know, we are safe and happy we found freedom.

8. Describe your family please. How old were your children or siblings when you did your escape?

The oldest member was the mother in law of my oldest sister who was 86.  My son was the youngest at five months.  My son now has three kids and my daughter, who was two when we left, has two children.  In 1976, we had another daughter born in Dayton, OH. She now is also married with one child. Our family has been very blessed. Our perseverance, strength and trust in the Lord made us strong. (All onboard were Christian protestant)


Unknown said...

If I remembered correctly, Singapore have 2 squadron of A4 Skyhawk at that time.

in-tell-fro said...

Singapore brought Leo II, AVLB, ACE and upgrade it their too brought Leo II, AVLB, ACE and upgraded it too abt the same class. Singapore brought IMI UAV, their TNI too brought the same IMI UAV. Now their even brought 8 AH-64E Apache and a number of M3 and are going for CH-47 Chinook. This tell us whatever Singapore Military is doing they just copy and follow suit. Singapore Defence have been to kind of letting them to getting too much of tech. Time for Singapore Defence to think or to re-think and take a hard look near and far around us.

Unknown said...

Great story! Thank you!