Flying further under their wings

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11 Nov 2019 | OPS & TRAINING

Flying further under their wings

These majestic warbirds have served the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) well for over two decades. Now it’s time for the KC-135R long-range jet tankers to rest.

//Story by Benita Teo

//Photos by Chai Sian Liang, PIONEER photographers & courtesy of RSAF

English 华文
Three KC-135R aircraft conducting air-to-air refuelling for F-15SG aircraft.

They give our fighter jets an extra boost to fly further and stay in the air longer, by providing Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR). Since the KC-135R long-range jet tankers were acquired by the RSAF in Sep 1997, they have participated in countless high-profile operations and exercises.

These tankers are also able to perform aeromedical evacuation and airlift missions and have been deployed in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) efforts such during the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In June this year, the KC-135Rs flew their final flight. In their place will be Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft that will take on the RSAF's AAR and airlift requirements.

"I'm heartened to see that the KC-135R has delivered such a capability to the RSAF and contributed so much to the achievements of the RSAF, as well as the people who have played a part continue to be committed to safeguarding the Singapore skies," said Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Yeo Hwee Liang, the last Commanding Officer (CO) of 112 Squadron (SQN), which operates the KC-135R.

As the 22-year service of our KC-135Rs comes to a close, take a look at some of the missions they've been on, and how the aircraft and crew have left their mark on the people and places they've visited.


 

The KC-135R joined international forces in the multinational effort to rebuild Iraq, refuelling a wide variety of aircraft from fighter jets to airborne tankers from coalition forces.

Rebuilding lives

In 2003, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) answered the United Nations Security Council's call to contribute in multinational efforts to rebuild Iraq and preserve security and stability in the Gulf region.

Codenamed "Operation Blue Orchid", the five-year mission saw the deployment of the KC-135R, and the C-130 transport aircraft. Joining them were Landing Ships Tank from the Republic of Singapore Navy, and a total of 998 SAF servicemen and women.

Recalling the time he spent there as an Air Crew Specialist (Boom Operator) Master Warrant Officer (MWO) (Ret) Bhonesveran said: "Most of the time, we knew who our receivers would be. But because this was an operation, we didn't always know who would be coming up to us (due to real-time changes).

"We just had to be well-prepared for all the different types of receiver aircraft," said the 55 year-old. He was also among the squadron's first batch of boom operators.

A coalition aircraft receiving fuel from the KC-135R. The tanker aircraft completed a total of five deployments between 2003 and 2008.
Air Crew Specialist (Boom Operator) Master Warrant Officer (MWO) (Ret) Bhonesveran (left, then a 1WO) was part of the KC-135R crew that participated in Operation Blue Orchid.

 

The KC-135R was part of the HADR mission to evacuate victims of the Christchurch earthquake.

Bringing help to victims of natural disaster

When an earthquake hit the New Zealand city of Christchurch on 22 Feb 2011, the Singapore Armed Forces despatched a 116-man team and two C-130 military transport aircraft to assist the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in airlifting humanitarian aid and supplies to victims of the disaster. A KC-135R was also deployed to evacuate the victims.

1st Warrant Officer (1WO) Ng Kok Wee, 40, was part of the team deployed to assist in the mission to bring aid to the victims of the earthquake and evacuate them to safety. "We were activated on short notice, taking off within nine hours of receiving the mission. During that time, the various agencies, including the Home Team, worked together to make the mission a success. We flew overnight from 3 a.m. straight to Christchurch. The thing about the KC-135R is that we have the reach and the speed, so we can fly further and faster to the destination."

Crew members of the KC-135R helping to load the belongings of the earthquake victims during evacuation.

 

The medical team onboard the KC-135R taking care of the casualties during the flight back to Singapore.

Bringing our injured Singaporeans home

On 31 Oct 2000, harsh weather conditions caused Singapore Airlines flight SQ006 to crash during take-off at the Chiang Kai-shek Airport (now called Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport) in Taipei, Taiwan. The crew from 112 SQN, together with RSAF Medical Services flight surgeons and paramedics were activated to bring the Singaporean victims back on the KC-135R.

This was the KC-135R's first aeromedical evacuation mission. The team modified the aircraft, usually used for refuelling missions, to make it suitable for evacuating the casualties. For example, they suspended equipment like intravenous drips from the cabin roof using a looped line normally used by static-line parachutists.

Pioneer CO of 112 SQN LTC (Ret) Geoffrey Lui was one of the pilots on this mission. The 59-year-old recounted the mission: "We were given very short notice, less than 48 hours, to transform our KC into an air hospital for this aeromedical evacuation.

"Our aeromedical centre and pilots in the squadron had to equip the aircraft, fly it locally, and make sure the system was tested because we built four different stations on the aircraft which were manned by various surgeons and nurses from the hospitals."

"To us, it was a national call of duty. You can imagine the tension following the incident. It was an opportunity for the whole of the SAF and Ministry of Defence to provide this capability to help the injured and those suffering from the accident," said LTC (Ret) Lui (front right). He is pictured with the KC-135R and Medical Services teams.
On its first aeromedical evacuation mission, the KC-135R had to be transformed into an air hospital, with four stations to care for casualties.

 

The KC-135R has participated in multilateral exercises, such as Exercise Pitch Black in Darwin, Australia in 2018. Here, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F/A-18F Super Hornet is receiving fuel from the KC-135R during an AAR mission. Beside them are two RAAF EA-18G Growlers.

In their 22 years in the RSAF, the KC-135R has also participated in numerous multilateral exercises, holding their own alongside militaries from around the world. These include Exercise Red Flag held in the United States (US), Exercise Pitch Black in Australia and Exercise Cope Tiger together with the US Air Force and Royal Thai Air Force.

(From right) The KC-135R with the new A330 MRTT. The A330 MRTT will provide the RSAF with greater operational flexibility, enabling the SAF to contribute even more to HADR and peace support operations.
The first and last COs of 112 SQN when it was operating the KC-135R, (from left) LTC (Ret) Lui and LTC Yeo. LTC Yeo admits to feeling "heavy hearted" at seeing the aircraft conclude its operations, but is happy for the legacy it has left behind.
MWO (Ret) Bhonesveran and LTC (Ret) Lui (second and third from left) revisiting the KC-135R at 112 SQN, together with LTC Yeo (right) and 1WO Ng (left).
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