30 Years of Helicopter
by MAJ Sew Chun Liang
In the Beginning
When the British decided in 1967 to withdraw
their forces from the Far East, Singapore saw the need to
build up their own armed forces. The Singapore Air
Defence Command (SADC) was formed as part of the initial
set-up. The Alouette Squadron, established
in September 1969, thus lay the foundation for today's helicopter
The Alouette Squadron was initially
based at the Seletar Airfield, occupying the Lockheed (now
ST Aerospace) hanger. In January 1971, the Squadron
became the first SADC unit to be deployed overseas when
four of her aircraft participated in the Kuantan flood relief
operation. Shortly thereafter, the Alouette
Squadron gained operational status becoming the first operational
unit in the SADC. Now located at Changi Airfield,
the Squadron's main roles included search-and-rescue, air
recce, internal security, rappelling, trooplift and logistics
On 16 December 1973, the squadron's designation
was changed to 120 Squadron (120 SQN). The squadron
continued to operate the Alouettes until 1977, when
the aircraft were no longer able to meet the SAF's growing
needs. In 1977, twenty Bell 212s and UH-1Hs
were acquired, and the helicopters joined the squadron in
February and August respectively. In February 1978,
120 SQN bade farewell to its Alouettes. Their
new, Vietnam-proven Hueys would lead the way into
the new decade.
UH-1Hs (centre) and a Bell 212 (extreme right) replaced
the Alouettes (extreme left) in 1978.
120 SQN initiated the RSAF's first permanent
overseas detachment in September 1978, when three UH-1s
were deployed to Brunei for the first time. Their
role was primarily to support the SAF's jungle training
Evolution and Growth
A new squadron, 123 SQN, was established
to take care of basic rotary wing training in July 1979.
The squadron shared aircraft 120 SQN until 1980, when it
received its own helicopters, a fleet of refurbished UH-1Bs.
In July 1981, an Ops Flight was formed, adding an operational
dimension to 123 SQN's roles and functions. To cope
with the increased intake of helicopter pilots, the RSAF
then procured a new fleet of AS-350B Ecureuil helicopters
in September 1982. These aircraft were used for the
basic phase training, while the UH-1B became the advanced
rise drama in October 1980: A workman trapped in the Raffles
Tower fire crawling onto the overhanging crane arm for the
winchman to reach him.
In the 1980s, three dramatic events thrust
120 SQN into the headlines. In October 1980, the squadron
starred in a high-rise rescue drama at the unfinished Raffles
Tower in Battery Road. A Bell-212 was sent
to rescue a crane operator from the roof of the building
after a fire on the 18th floor had trapped him.
Then, in January 1983, three people had to be winched to
safety from stranded cable cars, after a drill-ship accidentally
ploughed into the cables. The third occasion was the
Hotel New World incident in March 1986. After the
hotel collapsed, 120 SQN deployed three aircraft to the
disaster site to provide round-the-clock casualty evacuation.
By then, the helicopters had vacated Changi
and settled in Kangaw Camp. Kangaw was then used as
an artillery base, although it was previously a British
airfield. When the Singapore Artillery shifted to
Khatib Camp in 1983, Kangaw Camp was handed over to the
RSAF and renamed as Sembawang Air Base (SBAB). SBAB
became the focal point of helicopter operations and one
of the five formations in the RSAF.
125 SQN, comprising the more capable Super Pumas, brought
the SAF into a new era of mobility.
A third squadron, 125 SQN, was formed in
1985. Operating the larger and more capable Super
Pumas, the squadron brought the SAF into a new era of
air mobility. The squadron also took over search-and-rescue
(SAR) duties at the end of 1985. Shortly thereafter,
the Bell 212s were retired after a decade of eventful
The helicopter community was introduced
to a third overseas training area in February 1989.
Three UH-1Hs were deployed to Pekan Baru, Indonesia, for
the opening of the jointly developed SIABU Air Weapons Range.
The other training areas are Brunei and Koke Kathiem in
Thailand, which has been used since 1981.
Towards Army 2000
The 1990s saw a dramatic change in the
battlefield. The Army became smaller, but with technological
improvements, had stronger combat power. The agility,
mobility and speed of the helicopter became more prominent
as a force multiplier for the Army.
The growth started with the acquisition
of AS-530MI Cougar helicopters, which essentially
are improved Super Pumas, and the formation of
126 SQN. The squadron took over the SAR responsibilities
besides complementing 125 SQN in joint operations.
Shortly thereafter, the AS-550 Fennecs
were purchased to replace the Eurecuils. The
aircraft were to be used as basic trainers, but could also
be configured to take on observation and light attack roles.
123 SQN was reorganised in October 1993, taking on the latter
roles, while 124 SQN was formed to take on training responsibilities.
The ICH-47D Chinook, the RSAF's
latest addition to its helicopter fleet, was delivered in
1996, and marked the formation of 126 SQN. The squadron
set up shop in Grand Prairie, Texas, and became known as
the Peace Prairie Detachment. By immersing itself
in the Texas Army National Guard, the squadron was able
to expedite its learning process and establish operational
capability in a remarkable short time.
Fennec armed with the CRV-7 rocket system.
SBAB deployed its third permanent helicopter
detachment in August 1998, when the Super Pumas and
Cougars were deployed to 0akey, Australia.
Oakey serves as the high-end training area for the Super
Pumas crew, where advanced training and large-scale
joint exercises can be conducted.
In December 1998, three Chinooks
were brought back to Singapore to enhance the local SAR
capability, and to improve the RSAF's ability to support
humanitarian and disaster relief operations.
In tandem with the growth of the helicopter
force, its operational readiness was demonstrated on numerous
occasions in the 1990s. In May 1993, four Cougars
were sent to Cambodia to participate in the UN peacekeeping
operation, UNTAC (UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia).
This mission remains, to date, the largest peacekeeping
mission undertaken by the SAF.
In December 1997, RSAF helicopters
were deployed to assist in the SilkAir MI-185 crash.
126 SQN spent two weeks in Palembang conducting search-and-rescue,
and subsequently, salvage operations.
The Chinook squadron in Peace Prairie
has also demonstrated its capability in numerous US Army
exercises: the detachment performed well at the Joint Readiness
Training Centre (JRTC) and at Red Flag and Green Flag exercises,
proving that they are comparable to their counterparts in
the US Army.
Chinook, the RSAF's latest acquisition
The helicopter community has grown over
the last 30 years into a mature, and capable force well-equipped
to play key roles in both peacetime and war.
With its operational effectiveness enhanced
with the acquisition of the additional Chinooks and
the AH-64 attack helicopter, new operational areas and challenges
await to be discovered. The UH-1Hs are due for replacement.
The helicopter community will rise to occasion the same
way it has met challenges of the last 30 years.
1. From Utility to Air Mobility 20 Years
of Helicopter Operations pp. 2-15, (Singapore 1989).