Saturday, November 3, 2018

Honour and sacrifice in the Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF A-4 Skyhawk Crisis

11 March 2023 update: Books Kinokuniya in Singapore has stocked Pukul Habis. Please visit its main store in Ngee Ann City or Bugis Junction, or check the Kinokuniya online store here. The title should be available via Kinokuniya Malaysia soon. Please enquire with the KL store.
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1 December 2022 update: My first novel, Pukul Habis: Total Wipeout, a fictional story of war in Malaysia and Singapore, was released on Amazon in November 2022. Available from Amazon sites that serve your location. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages.



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There are families in Singapore who have endured the pain of losing a loved one in a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training accident. The family of Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Captain Seah Boon Thong, who died at the age of 25 in a 1985 plane crash, is one such family.

This close-knit family's irreplaceable loss has not stopped the Seahs from contributing to Singapore in the same field - national defence - that CPT Seah gave his life to.

Even if you are from Singapore's defence eco-system, there's a good chance you may not see the link between CPT Seah and his only brother, the eldest among boy-girl-boy siblings. But you and your loved ones would probably have travelled on the MRT trains, buses or taxis that his brother is now responsible for as Chairman of the Board for SMRT Corporation Ltd. This is his current contribution to Singapore that crowns a distinguished career in the defence and energy sector.

We start the story of the Seah brothers, Boon Thong and Moon Ming, from a botched birth registration that saw the youngest son's name recorded wrongly as "Boon" and not "Moon" - the generational name for the boys. Unless you saw them standing side by side, it was not apparent looking at a name list that they were brothers.

Boon Thong was the pride of the family and the toast of Hwa Chong Junior College (now Hwa Chong Institution) when he was chosen as a President's Scholar in 1979 - the second such scholar for Hwa Chong. He received his scholarship from then Singapore President Benjamin Sheares on 1 July of that year - a date which coincided with SAF Day - and flew to University College, Oxford, to further his studies.

Upon graduation, he joined the RSAF and was trained to fly the McDonnell-Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. In the early 1980s, the A-4 Skyhawk was the most numerous jet fighter type in Singapore's young air arm. The refurbished ex-United States Navy fighter-bombers formed the main strength of the RSAF's strike force that also comprised Northrop F-5 Tiger II supersonic interceptors and Hawker Hunter ground-attack fighters.

On Thursday 25 July 1985, CPT Seah made his final flight with 145 Squadron.

Lined up on Runway 36 at Tengah Air Base, CPT Seah and two other planes were cleared for takeoff at 9.36am that morning.

Less than a minute after commencing his takeoff roll, the single-seat A-4 Skyhawk was airborne. The directional heading of 360 degrees pointed the fighters due north. Three seconds after liftoff, a fire warning in the cockpit and a black plume of smoke from the tail pipe signalled trouble. The engine was on fire with the blaze fed by a broken hydraulic pressure line that affected flight controls.

An air traffic controller at the TAB control tower reported seeing "an explosion". It was CPT Seah ejecting from his stricken plane.

The Skyhawk crashed at 9.40am some 1.9km east of an islet on Singapore's northwestern shore called Pulau Sarimbun. In its entire service life, the doomed Skyhawk had clocked 3,766 hours of flying time - which was within its design limit. It was the aircraft's ageing Wright J65 engines that were giving up in the high humidity and heat of Singapore's climate.

CPT Seah's body was found three days later after an extensive search by the Marine Police and Republic of Singapore Navy. He left behind a wife whom he married in April that year.

Skyhawk Crisis
The loss of CPT Seah came during a dark episode in the RSAF's annals called the Skyhawk Crisis. From October 1984 till March 1986, the RSAF lost two pilots and five Skyhawks in 17 months. It was an unsustainable attrition rate. The losses were traced to Wright J65 engines, an engine type no longer made by its manufacturer. Spare parts were hard to obtain, components were pricey and OEM support had dried up.

RSAF Skyhawks had dropped out of the sky for various reasons since they entered operational service in the mid-1970s. But to lose five aircraft within a relatively short space of time raised suspicions of a systemic anomaly bordering on a crisis considering the large number of Skyhawks in RSAF service and the pivotal role they served in the SAF's deterrent posture.

Although press reports on the accident quote the Singapore Ministry of Defence as saying this was a routine training flight (which was true), the determination of the RSAF's Skyhawk community to keep their ageing fighter-bombers flying is evident only when you connect the dots. CPT Seah and his colleagues took to the air just a day after another Skyhawk was lost in the Malacca Strait some 35 nautical miles from Singapore. The pilot, Captain Cheong Seng Chee, 31, was saved within 30 minutes by an RSAF rescue helicopter.

One fatality from two Skyhawk crashes in as many days hit the RSAF's flying community hard. The actual losses belie the poor aircraft availability during the period caused by defective engines that grounded more than a handful of flights. As reliability plummetted, there were concerns over the RSAF's operational readiness as the air force's main strike force could be crippled.

Still they flew. RSAF A-4 drivers ventured out to sea, far from home in single-engine Skyhawks with J65 powerplants of dubious reliability, not knowing when any of them would end up as the next casualty.

If ever you need an example of a community with the fortitude and commitment to get on with the job, this was it.

In the meantime, Singapore's defence engineers came into play.

What followed was a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Four engine types were considered for a re-engining programme for the Skyhawk, with the General-Electric F404-GE-100D eventually picked to power the Skyhawk. This was a non-afterburner variant of the F404 engines fitted on US Navy F/A-18 Hornets - a warplane that was regarded as the US Navy's latest strike fighter in the mid-80s.

We know how this story ends: Re-engining proved immensely successful and was carried out in Singapore with a tight timeline. Problems that plagued the problematic J65s vanished with the new engines. This was complemented by a revamp of the Skyhawk's weapons delivery and navigation system (WDNS) to sharpen the fighter-bomber's ability to detect, track and deal with various targets. Refinements such as a new wide angle heads-up display that projected flight and targeting information on a transparent screen above the pilot's cockpit panel, a laser spot tracker under the nose and radar warning receivers on the nose and tail cone to warn of hostile emitters were added to modernise the combat capabilities of these Vietnam War-era fighter-bombers.

On 19 September 1986, the first phase of the re-engining programme conducted its first test flight with an American test pilot, Mr Tom Wagner, at the controls. This followed 16 months of development during a critical phase in the RSAF's decision-making process when air force planners had to decide whether to proceed with giving the Skyhawks a new lease of life, or buy a new warplane to replace these fighters. The first option was cheaper but unproven. The second more expensive option promised to sweep aside hand-me-down fighter planes and usher in a new era for the RSAF at a time when neighbours were mulling cutting edge fighters such as the Tornado.

By 1990, the RSAF had gained so much confidence with the re-engined Skyhawks that it reformed its Black Knights aerobatic display team to demonstrate the performance of its revitalised A-4 fleet. At Asian Aerospace 1990, RSAF Super Skyhawks thrilled the crowds with their formation flying and aerobatics that showed off the high roll rate of the A-4 and powerful thrust-to-weight ratio that gave it a faster rate of climb in the vertical.

Among airshow attendees was Moon Ming, who was flying the flag for the Singapore defence industry.

As for the Seah family, Moon Ming did not allow the loss of his brother to unsettle his desire to serve the Singapore defence industry. He climbed the rungs from junior engineer to emerge as founding president of local defence electronics company, ST Electronics, and has since earned a string of accolades and chairmanships of august organisations. Long after the tears had dried, the older of the Seah brothers was determined to continue contributing as best he could to Singapore.

More than 30 years after that fateful day and despite the many corporate achievements to his name, there's always a place in Moon Ming's heart for the younger brother whom he never got to grow old with.

Until its retirement early this century, the RSAF did not lose a single A-4 Super Skyhawk to flying accidents. The Skyhawks made their final flight over Singapore on 31 March 2005. Twelve twin-seater TA-4SU Super Skyhawks (some with VIPs aboard) did the honours. At the time, the RSAF had another 10 twin-seater TA-4SU Super Skyhawks in Cazaux, France. It was a disproportionately large number of "trainers" for the air force. Till this day, the TA-4SU's wartime role has not been declassified.

Republic of Singapore Air Force Skyhawk Crisis incidents
10 Oct 1984: A two-seater TA-4 Skyhawk crashed in the Strait of Malacca 30nm west of Singapore. Pilot CPT Kwok Him Yick, 28, ejected safely and was rescued by a passing fishing boat while LTA Khoo Seng Kim, 26, missing. LTA Khoo's body found was on 18 Oct 1984.

24 July 1985: CPT Cheong Seng Chee, 31, ejected over Strait of Malacca 35nm off Singapore. He was rescued within 30 minutes.

25 July 1985: CPT Seah Boon Thong, 25, ejected over the Johor Strait minutes after an engine fire was reported. His body was found three days later.

22 Oct 1985: LTA Leow Yong Yean, 22, ejected safely south of TAB. He was picked up by boat and then airlifted by rescue helicopter to TAB.

3 Mar 1986: A two-seater TA-4 Skyhawk piloted by CPT Tsu Way Ming, 29, and LTA Goh Char Li, 22, crashed into the sea southwest of TAB. Both were rescued by helicopter.