'Can-do' spirit among pioneering officers helps fuel RSAF's growth as it marks 50th birthday

Major (Retired) Tony Jiang (left) and Major (Retired) Richard Ho.
Major (Retired) Tony Jiang (left) and Major (Retired) Richard Ho.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - When new units were set up in the early decades of Singapore's air force, there were few manuals to refer to and standard operating procedures were not yet well-established.

For two Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pioneers, it was a "can-do" spirit that kept them going when they headed squadrons that provided ground-based air defence and real-time battlefield reconnaissance capabilities.

Major (Retired) Richard Ho, 76, commanded the first squadron that operated the Bloodhound Mark II surface-to-air missiles system in 1972, while Major (Retired) Tony Jiang, 69, commanded the Scout remotely piloted vehicle squadron in 1988.

The two former servicemen are among the pioneers honoured at the RSAF's 50th anniversary parade at Tengah Air Base on Saturday morning (Sept 1).

In an interview earlier this week, the duo shared with the media stories about the early years of RSAF's predecessor, the Singapore Air Defence Command, which was formed in 1968.

Maj (Ret) Ho said the missiles, which weigh 2,270kg and has a body length of more than seven metres, were important to Singapore's air defence. This is because back then, Singapore's fighter aircraft were not fully night-capable and the Bloodhound was the only system that could defend against air intruders at night.

As an air operation and communication officer, he was not trained in anti-aircraft systems but spent three months learning from engineers from the British Aerospace Corporation (BAC), which delivered the missiles, on how to operate the launch control post.

The ex-commanding officer of 170 Squadron also spent five weeks in the UK and a week in Cyprus to observe the system in action.

Of the early days, he said: "Manpower was a big problem because the air force was still very young, and because we were a sensitive unit, we couldn't just recruit anyone and had to take people from existing units in the air force when they were already short of people."

But the unit's efforts paid off when the squadron participated in its first air defence exercise in April 1973, he added.

Maj (Ret) Ho said: "It was quite a big occasion for all of us, even the controllers and the engineers. Because for a missile system, there's no glory, no glamour in it."

This was because the testing of the missile system’s effectiveness is through simulations, the impact is not visible, unlike in actual live firing operations, he said.

"So something to excite them was when the button was pressed, when the alert when off, everybody was running around to make the mission a success."

The Bloodhound missiles were decommissioned in March 1990 at Seletar Air Base, where they were based at in 1972.

For Maj (Ret) Jiang, who was among the first batch of air force pilot trainees who signed up in 1968, negotiating for flying time for the Scout 700 unmanned aerial vehicle was one of his challenges.

 

The Singapore Armed Forces acquired the Scout in 1984, and it became the first operational remotely-piloted vehicle in the force. Command of the unit was transferred from the army to the air force in 1988.

Maj (Ret) Jiang's crew from 128 Squadron had to train from 6.30am to 8am, as well as in the evening - before and after other air training was conducted.

Within six months, the squadron achieved their operational goal of providing real-time information and battlefield intelligence for army commanders.

On the key to their success, Maj (Ret) Jiang said: "It's the kind of gung-ho spirit that was instilled in us. We would just go and get it done. There was nothing written, you see. There were no books. So we just do.

"But when we do, we realised some things were dangerous, and we wrote it down. And then we produced standard operating procedures as we went along," he added.

Both retired officers expressed hopes that the air force will continue to do well.

On his thoughts on attending the parade, Maj (Ret) Ho said: "Nostalgia, pride, (at) seeing what's being displayed compared to what we have before."

Maj (Ret) Jiang said: "Also a sense of envy, because the systems today are much safer with technology... These days, technicians are very experienced and can support our flying operations well."