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Home > Back Issues (Supplement) > Pointer Supplement (Sep 1999) > 30 Years of Helicopter Operations

Back Issues Supplement

30 Years of Helicopter Operations
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 force.

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 support.

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.

Two 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 conducted there.

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 trainer.

High 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.

The 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 service.

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.

A 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.

Operational Readiness

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.

The Chinook, the RSAF's latest acquisition

The Future

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).

2. Ibib

Last updated: 04-Jul-2006






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