Flight Into Fantasy
Singapore's journey into Aviation
by Capt. Ho LH
As I stand by the shores of Changi beach and cast my eyes upon the twilight skies, the tiny specks of lights amongst the stars mark a long stream of aircraft preparing to land at the Airtropolis, Singapore. Taking a moment to ponder, I cannot help but wonder how all this began. The changes that has shaped the wings of aviation on this island into what it is today. Let me invite the reader to embark with me on a journey into Singapore's aviation past and emerge again into the fantasy-like reality of the present.
In The Beginning
The birth of civil aviation in Singapore came about in 1911, when an aircraft piloted by Mr Joseph Christiaens made a demonstration flight at the race course. Eight years later, on 4 December 1919, a pioneering flight from England to Australia, piloted by Capt Ross Smith landed at the same place. Then, with commercial transport in its infancy, the British Colony of Singapore was established as a seaport.
Since 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles set foot on these shores the island had developed into a major port due in no small part to both its ideal location and excellent natural anchorage. Singapore's strategic location on the routes traversing from Europe, the Middle East and India across to the Far East, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands made it an ideal centre to serve the region in aviation too. In 1930, Seletar Airbase was open to commercial aircraft . There on 11 February that year, a Dutch-made tri-engine monocraft carrying 8 passengers and a cargo of fresh fruits, flowers and mail arrived, marking the beginning of commercial civil aviation here. In late 1931, a regular service between Amsterdam and Jakarta (then known as Batavia) was introduced by KLM. Two years later, Imperial Airways, the flagship airline of the British empire at the time, started a service between London and Darwin via Cairo, Karachi, Calcutta, Singapore and Jakarta. This service was to be later extended to Brisbane and operated jointly with Qantas Empire Airways on 17 December 1934. As the importance of passenger traffic overtook that of mail and air cargo, an internal air service was started, linking Singapore to towns in the Malay Peninsula. Known as Wearne's Air Service (WAS), this venture was started by two Australian brothers, Theodore and Walter Wearnes. Already established as bus operators and importers of motor vehicles, these entrepreneurs acquired a twin-engine biplane with an 8 passenger capacity to service the Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang route thrice a week. The DH-89 Dragon Rapide was later joined by a second and services were extended to daily flights with the town of Ipoh added as well.
On 21 October 1937 another airline, Malayan Airways Limited (MAL) was registered in Singapore by Mansfield and Co., Straits Steamship Co (S) and Ocean Steamship Co. (Liverpool). However, nothing much further was done with MAL for the next 10 years. In those interceding years the industry continued its growth around the globe.
As air traffic saturation at Seletar increased a decision was taken to build Kallang Airport in the swampy Kallang Basin. A quote from the Governor of the Straits Settlement at the time, Sir Cecil Clementi "Looking into the future, I expect to see Singapore become one of the largest, most important airports of the world .... It is therefore essential that we should have here, close to the heart of the town, an aerodrome which is equally suitable for land planes and sea planes ...." When Kallang Airport opened on 12 June 1937, it was hailed as "the finest airport in the British Empire" with its "all weather" landing zone, its slipway for seaplanes, and its impressive terminal building.
MAL ceased operation, not having made any profit from the day of its inception, on 7 December 1941. The same day, a historic event occurred in another island in the Pacific. The winds of war soon touched this region and the growth of civil aviation here came to an abrupt halt for the next four years. The war years brought two interesting benefits to postwar aviation in Singapore. First, was the construction of a runway (replacing the previous multidirection "landing circle") at Kallang and the second was the north-south and east-west landing strips at Changi.
The Post War Era
In 1946 after passenger handling facilities had been sufficiently restored. British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and QANTAS resumed their operations through Singapore. In the following year the plans for Malayan Airways was brought down from the shelves, the dust blown off from its covers, a few changes made and put into action. It emerged as a purely local company with Ocean Steamship Co. and Straits Steamship Co. in partnership. On 1 May 1947, MAL started operation when one of its two Airspeed Consuls departed Kallang for KL, Ipoh and Penang. The "Raja Udang" had on board a full load of 5 passengers and a thermos flask of iced water as cabin service!
Later in the year when MAL acquired a Douglas DC-3 the crew complement was expanded to include a radio operator, a hostess and a steward.
Five years after the war ended Kallang Airport had regained its pre-war eminence. MAL expanded within a year of its resurrection with an addition of another Airspeed Consul and 5 Douglas DC-3s. Meanwhile its route also widened to include Jakarta, Medan, Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City), Bangkok, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, Rangoon, Mergui and Hong Kong. The Douglas DC-3s reduced the flight time on the routes, enabled service improvement and provided a more comfortable ride to the passengers. In 1963, the Federation of Malaysia was formed and Malayan Airways was renamed Malaysian Airways. Two years later, on 9 August 1965, Singapore separated from the Federation and subsequently the corporate make-up of MAL was restructured. The Malaysian and Singapore governments took equal majority holding and 14.5 % was held by the Brunei government.
On 1 January 1967, the company became Malaysia Singapore Airlines or MSA. Network, fleet, infrastructure and corporate development continued rapidly under the MSA banner. Cities served by MSA included Manila, Taipei, Perth, Sydney, Colombo, Madras, Bahrain, Rome, Melbourne, London, Athens, Zurich, Frankfurt and Osaka. With the addition of the Boeing 707's and Boeing 737's in 1967 and 1969, the airline joined the ranks of the big league jet operators. As civil aviation continued its thrust into this region, the airlines grew larger, traffic load increased and larger aircraft were being used. Soon it became apparent that Kallang Airport had become inadequate and the search for an alternative site began.
In 1951, the decision to build a new civil airport at Paya Lebar, located just eight kilometres northeast of the town centre was made. After three years of construction, on 20 August 1955, Singapore's Paya Lebar Airport was officially opened.
An Airline For Singapore
After the separation of Singapore, the two nations began charting the course towards their own future. Although in many areas their destinies were closely linked, on aviation, their national priorities differed. Malaysia understandably wanted more attention to be focused on domestic services whereas Singapore favoured more international routes. Eventually MSA had to undergo the biggest change it had ever known through a reconstruction.
In April 1971 the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister announced the formation of Malaysian Airline System or MAS. Following this, on 30 June 1972, it was announced that Singapore would have its own airline, to be called Singapore Airlines or SIA. On 1 October 1972, MSA ceased to exist and in its place emerged two new flag carriers, SIA and MAS. Thus left to carry on after 25 years of airline operation, SIA had not only inherited a proud past but also an international network encompassing 18 countries. From its onset SIA kept to its aim of becoming an international carrier and was never short in its forward planning. Three months before it even began flying the airline placed an order for 4 Boeing 747s. With their delivery, SIA became South East Asia's first Jumbo Jet operator. This also marked the beginning of a relationship between a dynamic youthful airline and one of the most magnificent passenger airliner that ever flew. From those early years till the present, SIA has operated no less than six different versions of the Boeing 747 ranging from the B747-200's to the B747-400's (affectionately called the Mega-Top by SIA).
At one time SIA in conjunction with British Airways introduced the Supersonic Concorde to the London-Bahrain-Singapore route. In Dec 1977, using an aircraft with BA colours on one side and SIA colours on the other, the joint Concorde service was started. BA provided the aircraft, flight crew and maintenance while SIA provided its famed inflight service. It unfortunately ran straight into trouble with the Malaysian Government over environmental concerns, and services were halted after only 3 return flights. 13 months later, after governmental talks, the BA/SIA Concorde service continued, on a thrice-weekly frequency with a stop in Bahrain. It was to last for 21 months, before the service was terminated, due largely to high cost and low loads. Passengers then paid a princely sum of S$12,000 to fly at twice the speed of sound and were served on Royal Doulton bone china at 65,000 above terra firma. The exercise was a marketing triumph for SIA, as it is now one of the only four airlines in the world to have used the supersonic airliner.
As the island state saw the spiralling growth of civil aviation activities so did the airline under the SIA banner. When I joined the new airline in 1977 as a cadet pilot, the airline was heralding the introduction of the Boeing 727's which would high-tail its passengers throughout its regional routes. As the regional capacity increased the European Airbus A-300's joined the fleet in 1980. In May 1983, SIA had decided to add 4 Boeing 757's and 6 Airbus A310's to its fleet replacing the B727's and the A300's. When Boeing unveiled its plans for a 2-man third generation Jumbo to be called the Boeing 747-400, SIA was amongst the first to place its order. Deciding that this new equipment would eventually be its mainstay long-haul aircraft, SIA ordered 20 of them at a cost of US$3.3 billion. More aircraft orders are still in the pipe-line. Boeing 747-400s, McDonnel Douglas MD-1 l s and Airbus A310s. By the end of 1990, the airline's fleet consists of 7 B747-400, 14 B747-300, 7 B747-200 and 13 Airbus A310.
The Changi Connection
Paya Lebar airport served its role well for about twenty years. But by 1975 with 4 million annual passenger movements the search for a new airport started all over again. Changi, once used by the Japanese as an air base during their occupation, was selected for, amongst other reasons, its natural obstacle-free setting by the coast and its potential for future expansion. Site preparation included reclaiming half the total area of the airport. This gigantic task in civil engineering took six years to complete and on 1 July 1981 it was officially opened. With dual parallel runways separated by the H- shaped airport complex and a 78-metre tall control tower in the centre, Changi Airport opened its arms in welcome to 8.1 million passengers in 1981. It also handled almost 200,000 tonnes of airfreight and approximately 63,100 aircraft movements in 1981, an average of 172 per day. Designed with the comfort and convenience of all the users in mind, the traveler especially will find it a pleasant and memorable experience. A wide range of facilities, amenities and outlets awaits the passenger at Changi. One would find restaurants serving Chinese, Japanese, Western and local cuisines, and even "side-walk cafe's". For those seeking entertainment, a video documentary called "The Singapore experience" is shown on 24 high resolution monitors forming a Vidiwall screen. Or they could unwind at the lounges and bars where live piano music is provided in the evenings. Nurseries, children's playground, dayrooms with showers, banks, fitness centre, hair dressing salon, clinics, postal and telecommunication services and a wide range of shops makes up an almost endless list of facilities there.
Safety is paramount,at this new airport. A computerized air traffic control system known as Long Range Radar and Display System (LORADS) ensures safe and efficient air traffic flow within Singapore's Flight Information Region (FIR). In the Changi Control Tower a short range radar known as Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE) enables all aircrafts and vehicles on the runways, taxiways and apron to be monitored. All the runway approaches are equipped for instrument landings. So after completing Changi Airport and winning a prestigious award as the "Best Airport In The World", what is the encore? The answer is Terminal 2 or T2, turning Changi Airport into the Airtropolis. In the mid-80's it was envisaged that a second terminal would soon be needed. Built at a cost of S$650 million it began operations on 22 November 1990. In many respects T2 is not any different from T1, only better. A high speed automated passenger transit system called the "Changi Skytrain" links the two terminals. In keeping with T I's image as a "City within an Airport", hence the name Airtropolis, T2 is also equipped with a wide range of facilities to pamper the traveller. The original plans of the airport had provided for 4 terminals and another runway to be added when necessary. As we look at Airtropolis today and all the other thriving aviation industries in Singapore, we see the fruits of the labour that has taken civil aviation from the days of Seletar and Kallang Airport to the present. Hence as we have arrived into the nineties we can look forth with fortitude to whatever the future has in store for aviation in Singapore.