How RSAF personnel responded to bomb threat on SIA flight in the middle of the night

Major Leow Yee Shiang (centre) and other team members who were part of the operations. PHOTO: MINDEF

SINGAPORE - When fighter pilot Leow Yee Shiang was alerted to a bomb threat on board Singapore Airlines flight SQ33, he was afraid for the many lives at risk.

It was the first time in his 16-year career that he was being activated to go airborne to deal with such a danger.

But operational instincts kicked in, he calmed himself down, and within minutes, he was aloft in a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) F-16 jet to intercept the plane that carried 208 passengers and escort it to land at Changi Airport.

Major Leow, 34, said he trusted that his training would allow him to do his job, adding: "I did tactical breathing to control my anxiety. It was all about compartmentalisation and then focusing on executing the mission."

He and the team which dealt with the threat on Sept 28, including an air warfare officer, an explosive ordnance disposal officer and an air force engineer, were speaking to the media in an interview organised by the Defence Ministry on Friday.

A 37-year-old American, La Andy Hien Duc, has been arrested for allegedly making a false bomb threat on the flight from San Francisco to Singapore. He is said to have shouted that there was a bomb in a hand-carry bag, nearly six hours from arrival.

He also grabbed another passenger's luggage from the cabin's overhead compartment, and allegedly assaulted a cabin crew member who tried to restrain him.

The man has been charged with causing alarm and voluntarily causing hurt.

The RSAF said it responds to and investigates more than 350 suspicious air threats in any given year in order to protect Singapore's skies.

Major Leow said training - using simulators and live flights - is regularly conducted to handle such menaces.

In the SIA incident, the police were informed at about 2.40am. Air warfare officer Mark Heng, 32, was the first to speak to the pilot, instructing him what to do.

At Tengah air base, the air force engineers, flight line and weapon load crew got the fighter jets ready, while air traffic controllers cleared the runway for take-off. Two planes were activated to intercept the SIA aircraft.

Air force engineer Sandeep Singh, 35, said: "The key thing is we need to know how much time we have to be out on the runway, we need to work within a short period of time to make sure that the aircraft is ready, and ensure it is safe before the pilot takes off."

Once airborne, Maj Leow continued to communicate with air traffic controllers and he informed the SQ33 pilot that his plane was intercepted. He then monitored the flight parameters - to make sure the pilot complied with instructions - till the plane landed.

When it touched down in Changi at about 5.50am, it headed to an isolated part of the airport for security checks, and was towed to Terminal 3 after these were completed.

Verifying the bomb claim took time and those on board disembarked only at about 9.30am.

Explosive ordnance disposal officer Foo Shi Jian, 22, said: "I was extremely nervous, because I didn't expect to be activated so soon.

Explosive ordnance disposal officer Foo Shi Jian. PHOTO: MINDEF

"However, we do not have any time to hesitate, as we have to constantly think of different contingency plans for possible scenarios that could happen in the next few moments."

For Maj Leow, relief came "after the aircraft landed safely... and it was a little bit after that, that I felt this great sense of achievement that the whole team was able to respond to this threat within minutes at night to conduct our mission to safeguard our Singapore".

La Andy Hien Duc has been remanded at the Institute of Mental Health for psychiatric observation.

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