Responding to bomb threat on flight SQ33

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11 Oct 2022 | OPS & TRAINING

Responding to bomb threat on flight SQ33

// Story Benita Teo

// Photos courtesy of MINDEF

English 华文

In the early morning of 28 Sep, a bomb threat was reported on Singapore Airlines flight SQ33. Meet some members of the courageous team from the SAF who successfully intercepted the aircraft and examined the suspected bomb.

(From left) Air Traffic Controller CPT Mark Heng, wingman MAJ Huang Yong, team leader MAJ Leow Yee Shiang, OIC of line operations ME4 Sandeep Singh, and NSF Air Force Technician 3SG Benjamin Ma.

It was a race against time to guide the distressed aircraft to land safely and make sure that the passengers and crew were in no danger.

Minutes after receiving the alert, two F-16C/D jets from the Republic of Singapore Air Force scrambled to escort the plane to safety at Changi Airport.

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On the ground, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) experts from 36th Battalion Singapore Combat Engineers (36 SCE) – pictured above – stood by to assess the situation and determine if the threat was real or a hoax.

The bomb threat was later confirmed to be a hoax, and the passenger who made the threat has been arrested for making a false report.

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Major (MAJ) Leow Yee Shiang (pictured above), 34, was one of the two F-16 pilots who were activated to escort the plane which was arriving from San Francisco to Singapore.

"When I found out that the activation was for a bomb threat, I was definitely anxious since there were lives at risk. But quickly, my operational instincts kicked in and I focused on the mission, which was to intercept the aircraft expeditiously and escort the plane to land safely at Changi Airport," said the team leader.

The biggest challenge, he added, was the race against time to respond to the threat – from the Air Force Engineers (AFEs) getting the fighter jets ready at the airbase and squadron, to the Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) preparing the runway for take-off.

Although MAJ Leow had been activated for similar operations in the past, this was the first time he had to be airborne. He believes that his years of training on simulators and live flights, both in the day and at night, prepared him well for this mission.

"I felt a huge sense of relief when the aircraft landed safely onto the tarmac of Changi Airport. It was after this that I felt a great sense of achievement, because our whole team was able to respond to this threat within minutes and at night, to fulfil our mission and safeguard our Singapore skies."

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Military Expert 4 Sandeep Singh (pictured above), the Officer In-Charge of line operations at the time, was one of the AFEs who had to spring into action.

"Every minute was crucial. The main thing on our minds was to launch the aircraft on time and safely, so that the pilots can carry out their mission. Within minutes, we got the aircraft onto the runway. When the pilots landed, it was very heartening for the AFEs to see that everything was executed well."

An F-16C/D fighter jet simulating escorting a hijacked aircraft during Exercise Vigilant Shield 2019, a national air defence exercise which tests the SAF's capabilities in responding to air threats along with other agencies. [File photo]

The 35-year-old, who is proud that his team is ready to respond to any threat or activation, said: "We are trained to react to changes on the ground… All the training we've undergone, such as Exercise Vigilant Shield, are critical components we must take seriously in our peacetime exercises, to ensure that every agency and party can communicate and execute our plans.

"So that when such a threat arises, we can spring into action, address the situation on the ground within seconds, and execute the mission smoothly. The most important thing is communication."

CPT Heng was the first person from the RSAF to make contact with the troubled commercial plane.

Captain (CPT) Mark Heng, who was the first person from the RSAF to make contact with SQ33, said: "(The pilot) sounded normal with no signs of distress. He adhered to my instructions, whether it was to descend to a certain altitude or turn in a certain heading."

"As part of our training, we are taught to assess if the pilot is being compliant to our instructions and how to react if they do not," added the 32-year-old ATC.

CPT Heng also had to make sure that the F-16s were able to take off swiftly but safely, and work with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to keep the airspace open for the fighters to carry out their mission.

"This is my first live activation to manage such a scenario. All the exercises we carried out with the CAAS have helped to make communications smoother and more prompt.

"It has also made air defence easier as they understand what is required from the air defence perspective and how it helps us make the security of Singapore our number 1 priority."

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EOD officer 2nd Lieutenant (2LT) Foo Shi Jian (pictured above) did not expect to be activated so soon – the 22-year-old NSF enlisted in May last year and only came to 36 SCE two months ago.

"From the time I received the call until I reached Changi Airport, I was extremely nervous. But there was no time to hesitate because we had to think of different contingency plans for possible scenarios.

"Looking back, the training I had received was really essential as it prepared me and my team to handle ambiguous and uncertain situations such as this."

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On the ground, 2LT Foo and his team (pictured above) had to quickly gather information and facts from the relevant agencies and formulate a response plan.

They also brought with them an arsenal of equipment that would help with identifying, verifying and detecting explosives, as well as examining the content of the suspect items.

Said 2LT Foo: "Once the aircraft landed, the Airport Police Division (APD) and I decided that it was in the best interest of passenger and ground staff safety to remove the suspected item from the aircraft.

"After examining the suspected items and confirming that there were no traces of explosives, we concluded that it was a false alarm and handed the case over to the relevant authorities."

He added: "We treat every bomb threat seriously because we cannot afford to make any mistakes. We have to get it right the first time and every time."

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