New life for old warbirdsPIONEER visits retired military aircraft that have found renewed purpose in life – helping students learn about aviation.
// STORY Ong Hong Tat
// PHOTOS Timothy Sim
They still look like they are ready for action despite their age. The distinctive delta-shaped wings of the A-4SU Super Skyhawk fighter jet are still taut and the bodylines on the UH-1H utility helicopter are still straight.
The insides show wear patterns characteristic of combat aircraft that have seen much use: the seats are wrinkled, surfaces have worn smooth and the windscreens are pockmarked.
Imagine the sorties they have been through, and the stories they could tell. After more than three decades of service with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), the aircraft were donated to Singapore Polytechnic (SP) in 2005.
With their military duties now a thing of the past, their cockpits play host to eager students looking to stretch their horizons.
The two aircraft now sit in the SP Aerohub complex located off Dover Road. Students enrolled in the Aeronautical Engineering and Aerospace Electronics diploma programmes use them as learning aids.
The former military aircraft share the space with two other general aircraft — a turboprop King Air B90 and a turbofan Hawker 700.
"We try to show students both military and general aircraft, so that they can appreciate the design differences between the two," explained Mr Chua Ming Sing, 42. He teaches aircraft maintenance and aviation management at SP. He is also a former aircraft technician with the RSAF.
"Military aircraft are generally more advanced compared to another plane from the same period. They are also designed for performance, as compared to civilian aircraft which prioritise safety and comfort," he added.
The aircraft have been a welcome addition to the students’ learning. "During one of the modules, our lecturer used the UH-1H to show us the different kinds of fasteners used on the aircraft," said Ms Cheryl Ng, a third-year aeronautical engineering student.
Students have also been using the ex-military aircraft in preparation for the WorldSkills Singapore competition happening in July.
In fact, other schools have requested the use of SP’s aircraft to train for the competition, in which youths pit their vocational skills against their peers. Those who do well in the local competition series may go on to represent Singapore at the overseas competition.
The competition team from SP comprises Cheryl Ng, Celine Tan, Emmanuel Eng and Lee Sheng Yuan. They will be competing in the Aircraft Maintenance category.
"Having the military aircraft has been invaluable in our preparation," said Mr Leonidas Chua. The 56-year-old Senior Lecturer at SP had worked on the UH-1H while serving in the RSAF as an aircraft technician.
During the competition, participants have to be vigilant to spot any defects or missing parts on the aircraft and log the issues accordingly. They are judged on both speed and accuracy.
"(Having the A-4SU and UH-1H) is definitely more realistic and we’ve been able to learn more quickly. It’s also more fun training on a real aircraft!" said Ms Tan.
FLIGHT DOWN MEMORY LANE
The Skyhawks first arrived in 1974. Designated A-4S, they were extensively modified versions of the A-4B used by the United States Navy. As the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) progressed, the Skyhawks received further upgrades, which included new engines and modern avionics, before they were finally designated as A-4SU Super Skyhawks. In their heyday in the 1990s, the A-4SUs formed most of the RSAF's fleet of fighter aircraft. They were retired in 2005.
The UH-1H helicopters, which the RSAF received in 1977, were the workhorses in supporting the Army when it came to tactical trooplift and heliborne operations. In October 2002, four UH-1Hs were deployed to Timor Leste to serve in the United Nations-led peacekeeping mission there. They were phased out from active service in 2005.