Singapore

RSAF: Swooping in to save the day

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). LOW LI PING (lowlip@sph.com.sg) talks to some personnel who have participated in missions to help others when disasters struck

He set up mobile air traffic control tower under rain at night 

LTC RAMESH TIWARI, 49

The Boxing Day tsunami destroyed almost everything in Banda Aceh in 2004.

With the airport's air traffic control tower damaged, there was no way flights carrying aid supplies could land.

On Jan 6 - barely two weeks after the disaster - the RSAF sent a mobile air traffic control tower to Banda Aceh.

Three days earlier, Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Ramesh Tiwari, then a major, had arrived in the coastal city as part of the RSAF's relief efforts.

On the night of Jan 6, he and two others took on the six-man task of setting up the tower.

A job that would normally take 1½ hours took them six hours to complete.

He said: "We started at 11pm. It was raining intermittently throughout the night, which made it difficult to work."

Despite the rain, more than 60 locals stood by to help.

He said: "They provided us with coffee, bread and even tools. Even though there was pressure, the locals made us feel we weren't alone."

By 5am, the trio finished the tower and handed it to the Indonesian authorities.

But LTC Tiwari's job there was far from done.

Over the next four weeks, he helped the local authorities create a new set of air traffic control procedures to handle the different types of aircraft coming in.

He also met with other foreign officers daily to plan the movement of planes in and out of the airport. He finally returned home on Feb 5.

They flew aid into Nepal after quake

LTC SEAN YANG, 37

MAJ (NS) SAM YEO, 50

SSG YANG CHENGYU, 29

When the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, 2015, it killed almost 9,000 people and left 18,000 injured.

The challenge then was how to get aid to the small, landlocked mountainous country.

That was exactly Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Sean Yang's experience when he was activated to fly a C-130 cargo plane as part of the RSAF's relief efforts.

On the first of his two flights to the capital of Kathmandu on April 27, he and his crew were surprised to hear there was no place to land.

The airport was chock-full of other aircraft, all unloading their cargo of aid supplies.

LTC Yang said: "We tried to circle the airport for as long as possible. But eventually, we had to divert to land in India because we were running low on fuel."

They headed for Kolkata, about 640km away, where they stayed the night. The next day, they rushed back to Kathmandu, where they landed and managed to unload the supplies.

Major (NS) Sam Yeo, who was on another C-130 flight, faced the same problem. He said: "The parking was still tight. We were held up for half an hour before we could land."

He was on the C-130 as a volunteer backup pilot with 122 Squadron.

He had left the RSAF in 2000 to be a commercial pilot. He was in Frankfurt, Germany, when he heard about the earthquake and immediately took leave to return to volunteer. Maj (NS) Yeo left for Kathmandu on April 28, a day after he returned to Singapore.

While they circled the airport to land, Maj (NS) Yeo noticed many tents on the ground.

He said: "Many houses had been damaged so the tents were for the homeless. It was sad, but because of my RSAF training, I could focus on the task at hand."

On a third C-130 flight was Staff Sergeant (SSG) Yang Chengyu. He is a load master and calculates and plans the placement of cargo and passengers on the plane to keep it balanced.

SSG Yang said: "There was only a limited amount of time at the airfield as there were more planes waiting to land."

Since there were no forklifts, he and the rest of the crew had to get the help of Nepalese officers to transport the rations, medication and equipment they had brought.

At the same time, Singaporeans stranded in Nepal boarded the planes to be evacuated.

All in all, the RSAF transported people, equipment and relief supplies on 11 flights to Nepal, evacuating 71 Singaporeans and 24 Nepalese citizens in the process.

Though the RSAF teams had to deal with many uncertainties, LTC Yang said they remained confident in their ability to handle the situation.

He said: "That confidence was due to the collective experience of the whole team of pilots, navigators, flight engineers and load masters who had all been training together for years."

She flew relief missions from sunrise to sunset

LTC CHRISTINE SIM, 46

When she heard of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, Super Puma pilot Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Christine Sim immediately contacted her colleagues to see if they had been activated.

The scale of the devastation was so great that they all wanted to take part in the relief efforts, even though they hadn't received the green light.

Within 48 hours of the disaster, they were packed and prepared for activation.

LTC Sim, then a major in 125 Squadron, where she is now commanding officer, set sail on board a Republic of Singapore Navy Landing Ship Tank on Dec 31 and arrived in the coastal town of Meulaboh, Aceh, on Jan 2, before flying to Banda Aceh.

Her mission was to transport aid supplies from the capital of Banda Aceh to Meulaboh and around the stricken province.

The sight that greeted her when she arrived at Banda Aceh took her breath away.

Water had reached inland for miles. There were no buildings left standing, except for Aceh's mosques.

Said LTC Sim: "No matter how we prepared for it, nothing beat seeing it for real. Realising how bad the situation was reminded us of our purpose there."

Meulaboh was so severely hit that it was inaccessible by land.

She said: "Many of the areas were full of debris because all the wooden houses were destroyed. The task force had to create helicopter landing points for us before we could land."

From the air, LTC Sim saw crowds of people awaiting their arrival.

She said: "Though we flew from sunrise to sunset, the smiles we got from the survivors when they saw the helicopters arriving with aid supplies were most gratifying.

"It was that that motivated us to keep going every day, knowing that we were bringing some comfort and relief to the people of Meulaboh."

She added that the tragedy showed the RSAF was ready to respond swiftly when called upon to help.

"Our individual contributions might seem small, but all our roles were important.

"It was crucial that we were professional and played our parts well. And that contributed to the success of the mission."

They had to winch passenger up from cruise ship

MAJ WONG PEE WEI, 45

LANCE CPLBENEDICT TAN, 24

It was a pitch-black night at 2am on Dec 13 last year, and Major Wong Pee Wei was looking for a ship in the darkened Strait of Malacca.

He was piloting a Super Puma helicopter in response to a call for help from a cruise ship near Pontian, Malaysia.

One of its passengers had suffered a severe rupture in her left eye and needed to be evacuated to a hospital fast.

Maj Wong was on a 24-hour shift at Sembawang Air Base when the call came in that night. It was 1.45am when he and his crew were activated.

Within minutes, the search and rescue team was airborne, thundering into the night.

There were six people on board - Maj Wong, his co-pilot, medic Lance Corporal (Lance Cpl) Benedict Tan, a medical officer and two aircraft specialists.

At 2.15am , Maj Wong spotted a cruise ship in the distance.

He said: "It was a bit of a challenge because through my night-vision goggles the lights were very bright. I had to avoid looking directly at the ship."

Finding the ship was just one of the challenges the crew faced.

When the Super Puma reached the ship, Maj Wong had to hover over it while compensating for wind and the ship's velocity - because there was no helipad.

Maj Wong and his co-pilot had to hold the helicopter steady at about 21 metres, the height of a seven-storey building, above the vessel.

A specialist was then winched down to the ship to recover the passenger. The passenger, who had a bandage over her left eye, had taken painkillers and was in a stable condition. She was quickly winched up to the helicopter.

Lance CplTan made sure she was secured safely and would not fall out of the helicopter. It was so noisy that he had to use hand signals to communicate with the medical officer. They quickly fitted her with an intravenous plug and oxygen mask.

Within 10 minutes, the helicopter was racing to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Throughout the half-hour journey, Lance Cpl Tan kept the the passenger calm and made sure she was comfortable.

They reached SGH at 2.55am, and the passenger received immediate medical attention.

Although she later became blind in her left eye, Maj Wong said she was grateful for their efforts and even invited them to visit her at home.

Said Lance Cpl Tan: "Not everyone gets the chance to be part of arescue like this. I am thankful I am able to help people in pain and to treat them firsthand."

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