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The base

The same pride and professionalism is found in our tour guide. All helicopters look very well kept and operational but the cleanest ones were presented to use for photographic use at first. “We do not want to show dirty helicopters to you”, but actually there were none! Bearing in mind that some of the Cougars are twenty years old, they look particularly immaculate. We are in luck, because there is a lot of activity with the Cougars especially, even a SAR scramble, signifying the round-the-clock character of the base’s operations. All helicopters operate out of sheds next to helipads and flight lines enabling flight line maintenance and constant availability of airframes. Each squadron has its own area and flight line. The Colibri helicopters of Seletar-based 123sq are regular visitors to Sembawang’s circuit as well.

The base has two main areas and the surrounding city gradually progresses towards the base perimeter. To get from one side to the other we actually have to leave the base gate and enter at another one because there is no room for a perimeter road on base. Compared to the very stringent security while accessing the base, registration of all electronic equipment is needed and mobile phones are to be left at base entrance, the atmosphere on base is really open and relaxed towards us. Bear in mind that Europeans toting lots of camera equipment are as rare to Sembawang’s personnel as their helicopters are to us!

Training

Before becoming a helicopter pilot, recruits are required to follow the same route that all future RSAF pilots have ton take. This means they will start basic flying training on fixed wing aircraft at the Flying Training School before being channelled to either transport aircraft, fighters or helicopters. The helicopter pilots are also trained at Pearce, Australia in the S.211 jet trainer. So they take in about 100 fixed wing hours before transitioning to helicopters at Seletar where they will fly the EC120B Colibri for 95 hours before type conversion.

The operational conversion phase takes place at the actual unit itself, all units have a tailored curriculum aimed at the tasks needed for their specific helicopter types. This also includes advanced training such as the use of Night Vision Goggles, Search and Rescue operations and tactical helicopter operations.

The cable car rescue

One of the famous rescue operations of 120sq and indeed of all time was the rescue of thirteen people trapped in a cable car running from Sentosa island to the main island. The oil drilling ship Eniwetok was towed from Keppel Wharf but its large tower became entangled with one of the cables of the cable car system about 18.00 hours on 29 January 1983. Two cars plunged into the sea killing seven people and four were still dangling with thirteen on board in total. The RSAF rapidly deployed its Bell 212 helicopters from 120sq. In close cooperation with the fire and police services, they tried to rescue the people by lowering a cable with a hoist, which was a very demanding task given the strong winds. Moreover, the oil rig was forced more into the cable system by rising tide and strong currents and it had to be kept stable by four tugs.

The cars themselves were unstable and could easily fall into the sea. Besides that, it was dark and the whole operation had to be carried out under artificial light. After the first attempt, when he was simple blown off the cabin, the first airman of 120sq succeeded in opening the door on the second attempt and was able to rescue the first passenger. Another helicopter that was piloted by a Royal Australian Navy instructor took care of two more cabins. After a tediously slow but carefully executed operation that took most of the night, all passengers could be safely transported to the hospital. In all, the hoisting part of the operation took 3.5 hours.

Deployments

Apart from the flying training the RSAF has gained a lot of knowledge from their allies around the world. Having to set up shop outside the tiny airspace of Singapore has not only been beneficial from a practical point of view for day-to-day training space but has also meant increased interoperability with other armed forces. Moreover, participation in high-end exercises, like Red Flag and Joint Readiness Training in the USA, has accelerated RSAF’s prowess to no small degree. Multinational co-operation under the flag of the Five Power Defence Arrangement with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom and regular regional exercises with Brunei, Thailand, and Indonesia, with American participation on some occasions, has made the RSAF highly adaptable to many theatres of operations and increased interoperability.

Being the most modern air force in the region means the RSAF is called upon regularly when disaster strikes or regional UN peace keeping operations are in need of support. Examples from the past are operations in Timor Leste (UNIMISET), Cambodia (UNTAC), Tsunami relief missions in Indonesia and Thailand and even disaster support in the USA.