RSAF 50th anniversary - Defending Singapore's skies and beyond

First humanitarian mission a big chapter in RSAF's history

LT Leo Tin Boon (third from right), then a 21-year-old helicopter pilot, back in Singapore with the rest of the Kuantan detachment in 1971. It was the RSAF's - then the Singapore Air Defence Command - first humanitarian assistance and disaster relief
LT Leo Tin Boon (third from right), then a 21-year-old helicopter pilot, back in Singapore with the rest of the Kuantan detachment in 1971. It was the RSAF's - then the Singapore Air Defence Command - first humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation.PHOTO: MINDEF

As the Republic of Singapore Air Force celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, The Straits Times speaks to current and former airmen, who share their stories of how they responded to the call of duty, from protecting Singapore's airspace to rescue operations and multinational reconstruction efforts.

It was a particular incident during his 11-day humanitarian aid deployment in Malaysia that reminded former helicopter pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret) Leo Tin Boon, of the importance of his mission.

He and a fellow crewman were delivering supplies to villagers in Kuantan, on the east coast of Malaysia, following floods that forced thousands to flee their homes.

Some of the sacks of rice had torn and their contents had spilled out.

But, then Lieutenant Leo, 21, told his crewman to continue to push these out of the hovering helicopter. Both of them saw how the villagers used their bare hands to scoop up as much rice as they could.

"That was the moment when I felt we were in a better situation. At the airbase in Kuantan, we still had combat rations to eat, but those villagers were starving. It was a heartwarming feeling when we could be there to help them," said LTC (Ret) Leo, now 68.

It was the RSAF's - then the Singapore Air Defence Command - first humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation, which lasted from Jan 6 to 16, 1971, when the air force was just three years old.

LTC (Ret) Leo flew 21 missions in Kuantan, alongside four other chopper pilots and a lean supporting crew. They were all there to help at the request of the Malaysian government. Other than ferrying food and medical supplies, they also rescued survivors stranded in outlying areas.

 
 
 

Back then, they were flying Alouette III helicopters, which could carry 2½ hours' worth of fuel each time. Super Pumas in use today can carry 4½hours of fuel each time.

The squadron was given less than 24 hours' notice before it took off for Malaysia at 8am on Jan 6, 1971.

For someone whose childhood dream was flying - he grew up in the household of a British military officer where his parents worked as domestic servants - participating in the operation was a proud chapter.

"We proved that we were able to be deployed, even as such a young air force, to help our neighbour who was in need. And that Singapore was prepared to deploy all its available resources at that time for humanitarian aid," said LTC (Ret) Leo, who retired in 2000 after 32 years in service. "Above all, we achieved the missions successfully, 100 per cent... and we came back with a sense of accomplishment."


Call to duty: Rescue, peacekeeping and relief efforts

1983: Activated to rescue stranded passengers during the Sentosa cable car accident, saving 13 lives.

1986: Deployed helicopters to evacuate casualties from the Hotel New World collapse and take them to Singapore General Hospital.

1990: Delivered relief and medical supplies to Amman, Jordan, in a joint Singapore-Brunei effort to handle the humanitarian crisis created by the first Gulf War.

1993: In its first UN peacekeeping mission, the RSAF deployed four Super Puma helicopters and 65 personnel to support the UN-sponsored elections in Cambodia.

2000: A C-130 detachment with 24 crew and three military officers was deployed to Timor-Leste to assist in the transition from the International Force for East Timor to the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor.

2005: Three CH-47 Chinook helicopters from Peace Prairie Detachment in Texas were deployed to assist in relief operations in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

2009: The RSAF deployed two Super Pumas as part of the SAF Task Group sent to the Gulf of Aden to support international counter-piracy efforts.

2014: A C-130 transport aircraft, a Fokker-50 Maritime Patrol Aircraft and a Sikorsky S-70B helicopter were deployed in the search for the missing Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

2015: A KC-135R and an imagery analysis team were deployed to support the multinational coalition against extremist threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

2017: C-130s, Fokker-50s, Super Pumas and Chinooks were deployed to support the search-and-locate efforts following the collision of US warship USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker in Singapore waters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2018, with the headline 'First humanitarian mission a big chapter'. Print Edition | Subscribe