Glamour and scandal in the skies

16 05 2022

The 1920s in Singapore were exciting times for aviation. Late in 1919, Singapore witnessed its very first inbound flight, a Vickers Vimy which carried four men and which landed at the racecourse (now Farrer Park). In the excitement of seeing the Vimy land, many would have missed the sight of its mechanic, Jim Bennett, sliding along the fuselage toward the aircraft’s tail keep the nose up just before landing. The brave act — the equivalent of flaring on landing today, was quite necessary given the short landing distance required at the makeshift airfield. This would be a pattern for flights into Singapore that would follow, even after a dedicated but still makeshift landing ground had been prepared by filling Government sand pits at Balestier Plain in the early 1920s anticipation of an increase air traffic. 

The first ever flight into and out of Singapore was on a Vickers Vimy carrying four crew, which landed in Singapore in December 1919.

The lack of a proper airfield proved of little deterrence to the string of intrepid aviators that Singapore would see through the 1920s. Many, on their quests for fame, touched down here out of necessity more than anything else, as the technology of the day required multiple stopovers as flights could not take place in the dark and, due to the short range of aircraft then, required to be refuelled every few hundred miles.   

The location of Balestier Plain Aviation Ground

Among those who touched down at Balestier Plain was pioneering Australian aviator, Mrs Keith Miller (Jessie Maude “Chubby”) on 7 January 1928. The world had a fascination for the female aviator, who added a touch of femininity and glamour to the skies .She would be the first among several aviatrices to land in Singapore — although she did not actually pilot the Red Rose — a small Avro Avian that was owned and piloted by Captain Bill Lancaster. Capt Lancaster, an RAF pilot, described the aviation ground as a quagmire — something that could also describe the somewhat scandalous relationship that the pair, both of whom had spouses, would forge during the long and eventful journey from England to Australia. The pair, who took off from the racecourse (due to the unsuitability of the aviation ground) two days after landing on 9 January, survived a crash on the island of Muntok that resulted in them spending two months in Singapore having the Red Rose repaired. Repaired and tested, the Red Rose  took off once again on 14 March 1928 and arrived in Darwin on 19 March.

Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller.

Some years later in August 1932, a murder trial involving the killing of a certain Haden Clarke, played out at the Miami Dade County Courthouse. Capt Lancaster had been charged with Clarke’s murder, which took place at a rented Miami home of Mrs Miller. During the trial, a sordid tale of love and betrayal emerged. Mrs Miller, who arrived in the United States with her lover Lancaster with the intent of having her autobiography written. She became romantically involved with Clarke, who she had employed to be a ghostwriter for the autobiography, and the allegation was that Lancaster had killed Clarke out of jealousy.  It also emerged during the trial that Clarke had deceived Mrs Miller and was a bigamist.  Lancaster was acquitted of the murder, and the pair, who were deemed to have overstayed in the US, were deported. 

The RAF aerodrome, and later the civil aerodrome at Kallang (terminal building pictured here) would be a big improvement on the “quagmire” that the Balestier Plain aviation ground was described as.

The development of RAF Seletar, and its opening to civil aviation, would write a new chapter for aviation here in Singapore. The military aerodrome, built to provide air cover for an intended naval base, would see the launch of the first regular air services to and from Singapore “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten  first between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies and eventually with Europe in 1933. The aerodrome would also serve as a staging ground for several other female aviators attempting to set records flying from England to Australia, who included the likes of Amy Johnson and the “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten. By the time of the arrival of Amelia Earhart in June 1937, who was perhaps the best known of teh aviatrices, RAF Seletar was forgotten as a dual-use airport and Singapore’s first civil aerodrome at Kallang, was in operation.


The first inbound flight
Piloted by brothers Ross and Keith Smith, a converted Vickers Vimy — a bomber built for use in the First World War but did not get to see action, touched down at the racecourse on 4 December 1919. Together with mechanics James (Jim) Bennett and Walter Shiers, the Smiths had their eye on a prize money of £10,000 — in excess of S$900,000 in today’s terms — being offered by the Commonwealth Government for being the first to fly from England to Australia. One condition was that the flight was to be done in less than 30 days and the four men were well on their way to achieving that, having arrived in Singapore some 22 days after taking off from Hounslow in London. The historic flight would land in Australian soil at Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, four days after taking off on 6 December from Singapore.


The contents of this post supplement that of my talk (cum virtual tour of old Kallang Airport), “An Aviation Journey“, for Singapore Heritage Festival held on 8 May 2022.





Singapore Airshow 2022

15 02 2022

The Singapore Airshow, probably the last large-scale trade event that was held in Singapore before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, makes a return this year to position Singapore to tap on the anticipated strong recovery and growth in civil aviation especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

The ST Engineering stand

Held from 15 to 18 February 2022, the biennial event is being held in the midst of a still ongoing slowdown in civil aviation that even in its scaled-down eighth edition will see some 600 participating companies from more than 39 countries or regions. More than 70% of the top 20 global aerospace companies will be present and the show expects to see in excess of 13,000 trade attendees. This edition of the show will however not be open to the public and will be a trade visitor only event.

The Boeing 777-9 during the Flying Display

A key area of focus for the airshow will be sustainability. The inaugural “Sustainable Aviation Forum” is being held on 16 and 17 February to bring experts in to discuss challenges and opportunities within sustainable aviation and sustainability of future technology in areas of air mobility and aviation operations. The Singapore Airshow is also making its own efforts towards sustainability. Not only will it be largely paperless, the show is also being powered by solar energy. Some 15,000 solar panels have been installed on the roof of the Changi Exhibition Centre!

Airbus 350-1000 during the Flying Display

A popular feature of the airshow is the flying displays. This edition will feature a total of eight such displays that will see the participation of four air forces, as well as Airbus and Boeing. Aircraft that will be seen for the first time at the airshow will be the highly manoeuvrable and rather impressive Indian Air Force’s single engine Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas. The Airbus’ A350-1000 and Boeing’s wide-bodied B777-9 will also be making its show debut.

The Tejas on the ground

Returning to the flying displays will be Indonesia’s Jupiter Aerobatic Team, which was last seen in 2018. Also coming back are a F16C fighter jet displaying solo aerobatics, and a pair of AH-64D Apache attack helicopters from the Republic of Singapore Airforce and the United States Marine Corps’ F-35B Lightning II and a United States Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress in a fly-by.

The Tejas doing what it does best in the air.

The flying displays will be held once a day at 12:30pm on 15 February, and 11:30am on 16, 17 and 18 February and the public can catch these displays via livestream at go.gov.sg/sa22live or on the Singapore Airshow’s Official Facebook page.

The F35-B Lightning II with up to 40,000 of thrust directed downwards (in hover mode)

Other highlights of the airshow include the many innovative defence and security products on show at the Singapore Technologies Engineering stand. This includes the Terrex 8×8 Infantry Fighting Vehicle, configured as a “mothership” or a launch pad for unmanned aerial vehicles and robots. Equipped with vehicle mounted cameras that give its operators an all round view through a virtual “windscreen” and “rear-view mirror”. It is also able to see through other eyes such as drones and robots and unmanned weapon mounted vehicles it operates remotely.

The hybrid drive system of the Terrex.

Another feature of the Terrex is its hybrid Diesel-DC electric drive system that features an externally mounted system which maximises space within the vehicle. The Terrex can operate silently with its diesel driven generator turned off using battery power. It has a range of 20 to 100 kilometres in this mode, depending on its configuration.

The “windscreen” inside the Terrex





Aviation Milestones: first regular intercontinental flights out of Singapore

7 09 2020

The first regular flights from/to Singapore to/from Europe operated out of RAF Seletar. The RAF air station, which was completed in 1930, played host to the first regular air services connecting Singapore with the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) from 1930. Connections with Europe would take a few more years and in May 1933, the Royal Dutch airlines, KLM – the world’s oldest airline in May 1933 introduced regular services from Singapore to Europe. Using a Fokker F.XVIII, the outbound journey took seven days and inbound eight days – with multiple stops.

Flying then was not for everyone of course. It would have cost an arm and a leg and maybe a little more with a single ticket from Singapore to London priced in excess of £164. That would be the equivalent of £11,815 or more than SGD 21,000 in 2020!

Air Travel between Southeast Asia and Europe in the 1930s.





1972, when the Concorde first flew over Singapore

28 02 2017

Singapore had a brief love affair with the Concorde. Arguably the only supersonic passenger aircraft to be successfully deployed, a London to Singapore was operated by its National airline, Singapore Airlines, in partnership with British Airways for a few years at the end of the 1970s. The aircraft’s first flight over Singapore however, goes back to 1972, a year that was especially memorable for several events.  I came across a wonderful photograph of that first flight some years back, one that in freezing the Concorde over a Singapore that in 1972 was at the cusp of its own reach for the skies, captured the lofty aspirations of the aircraft’s developers and of the city seen below it

An amazing view of Concorde 002 over the old city. The city 45 years ago, was seeing several of its first generation skyscrapers coming up. Some of the iconic buildings seen in this photograph include the former MSA (later SIA) Building, former Robina House, and a partially completed 3rd Ocean Building (now replaced by the Ocean Financial Centre) (photo souce: online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

The photo of Concorde 002 over the old city centre of Singapore during its month-long demonstration tour of the Far East in June 1972 (online at http://www.concordesst.com/).

1972 was the year I was in Primary 2. I was seven, going on eight, ten months older than the newly independent Singapore, and at an age when any machine that sped were about the coolest things on earth. I was also finding out that going to school in the afternoon was quite a chore. Unlike the morning session I was in the previous year, there was little time for distractions and TV. School days were just about tolerable only because of the football time it could provide before classes started each day and unlike the previous school year, great excitement seemed to come only away from school, and the highlight of the year would be one that I would have to skip, “ponteng” in the language used among my classmates, school for.

A friendly game between two great  primary school football rivals - St. John's Island School and St. Michael's School in the 1970s. 

Football was very much part of the culture at St. Michael’s School, the primary school I attended.

The buzz the Concorde created, even before it came to Singapore in June of the year, left a deep impression with the boys I kept company with and the paper planes we made featured folded-down noses that resembling the Concorde’s droop nose – even if it made they seemed less able to fly. I was fortunate to also see the real McCoy making a descent at Paya Lebar Airport, one that was much more graceful than any of the imitations I made. I have to thank an uncle who was keen enough to brave the crowds that had gathered at the airport’s waving gallery for that opportunity. The event was a significant one and took place in a year that was especially significant for civil aviation in Singapore with the split of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines or MSA, jointly operated by the two countries taking place in the background. The split would see the formation of Mercury Singapore Airlines on 24 January to fly Singapore’s flag. The intention had been to ride on the established MSA name, which was not too well received on the Malaysian side, prompting the renaming of the new MSA to Singapore Airlines (SIA) on 30 June 1972, a point from which the airline has never looked back.

What might have been.

What might have been.

The building that housed MSA and later SIA is prominent in the 1972 photograph, the MSA Building. Completed in 1968, the rather iconic MSA and later SIA Building was one built at the dawn of the city’s age of the skyscraper. The building was a pioneer in many other ways and an early adopter of the pre-fab construction technique. A second building in the photograph that also contributed to frenzy was the third Ocean Building, then under construction. The Ocean was to be the home of another company that was very much a part of Singapore’s civil aviation journey: the Straits Steamship Company. It was during the time of the already demolished Ocean Building that preceded the third that the company set up Malayan Airways in 1937. The airlines, which would only take off in 1947, became Malaysian Airways in 1963, and then MSA in 1965. The company, a household name in shipping, is now longer connected with sea or air transport in its current incarnation as Keppel Land. Other buildings marking the dawn of the new age seen in the photograph include the uncompleted Robina House and Shing Kwang House, and also a DBS Building in the early stages of erection.

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The fast growing city, seen at ground level in 1972 (Jean-Claude Latombe, online at http://ai.stanford.edu/~latombe/)

The new Ocean Building in July 1974 (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

The completed third Ocean Building (left), seen in July 1974 (photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

It was several months prior to the the Concorde’s flight and just four weeks into school, that I would find myself skipping classes for what was to be the highlight of the year and of my childhood: the visit of the Queen, Elizabeth II of England, Price Phillip, and Princess Anne, to the 3-room Toa Payoh flat I had called home. As its was in the case of several other visiting dignitaries, Her Majesty’s programme included a visit to the rooftop viewing gallery of the Housing and Development Board’s first purpose-built “VIP block”. The gallery was where a view of the incredible success Singapore had in housing the masses could be taken in and a visit to a flat often completed such a visit and living in one strategically placed on the top floor of the VIP block had its advantages. Besides the Royal family, who were also taken to a rental flat on the second floor of Block 54 just behind the VIP block, Singapore’s first Yang di-Pertuan Negara and last colonial Governor, Sir William Goode, also dropped by in 1972. The flat also saw the visits of two other dignitaries. One was John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia in 1968 and the other, Singapore’s second president, Benjamin Henry Sheares, and Mrs Sheares in 1971.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, in the kitchen of my flat on 18 February 1972.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh on 18 February 1972.

One thing being in the afternoon session developed was the taste I acquired for epok-epok, fried curry puffs that are usually potato filled. Sold by a man who came around on a bicycle at dismissal time, the pastries that he vended – out of a tin carried on the bicycle – were ones to die for. They were made especially tasty the vendor’s special chilli-sauce  “injected” in with a spout tipped bottle and well worth going hungry at recess time, to have the 10 cents the purchase required, for. Being in the afternoon session, also meant that the rides home from school on the minibus SCB 388, were often in the heavy traffic. The slow crawl, often accompanied by the deep vocals of Elvis Presley playing in the bus’ cartridge player, permitted an observation of the progress that was being made in building Toa Payoh up. Much was going on in 1972 with the SEAP games Singapore was to host in 1973 just around the corner. Toa Payoh’s town centre, also the games village, was fast taking shape.

A view over the area in the early 1970s when Toa Payoh New Town was taking shape. The school can be seen in the lower left of the photo with Times Building then occupying the other part of the former quarry site.

A view over Toa Payoh around 1972.

Toa Payoh’s evolving landscape stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. To its south, across the Whampoa River, was Balestier – where suburbia might have ended before Toa Pyaoh’s rise. That still held its mix of old villas, shophouses, and a sprinkling of religious sites. The view north on the other hand was one of the grave scattered landscape of Peck San Teng, today’s Bishan, as would possibly have been the view west, if not for the green wall of sparsely developed elevations. On one of the hills, stood Toa Payoh Hospital, in surroundings quite conducive to rest and recovery. Potong Pasir to Toa Payoh’s east had still a feel of the country. Spread across what were the low lying plains that straddled one of Singapore’s main drainage channels, the Kallang River, the area was notorious for the huge floods that heavy rains would bring. When the area wasn’t submerged, it was one of green vegetable plots and the zinc topped structures of dwellings and livestock pens.

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh - with a view towards Toa Payoh (online at https://i0.wp.com/news.asiaone.com/sites/default/files/styles/w641/public/original_images/Nov2014/sgtowns_26.jpg)

The grave dominated landscape north of Toa Payoh – with a view towards Toa Payoh (SPH photo, online at http://news.asiaone.com/).

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978.

Potong Pasir (and Braddell Road) during the big flood of 1978 (PUB photo).

Another main drainage channel, the Singapore River, was a point of focus for the tourism drive of 1972, during which two white statues came up. Representations perhaps of the past and the future, the first to come up was of a figure from its colonial past. The statue of Raffles, placed at a site near Empress Place at which Singapore’s founder was thought to have first came ashore, was unveiled in February. The second, was the rather peculiar looking Merlion and a symbol perhaps of new Singapore’s confused identity. This was unveiled at the river’s mouth in September. A strangest of would be National symbols and with little connection to Singapore except for its head of a lion, the animal Singapore or Singapura was named after, the creature was made up in a 1964 tourism board initiated effort. Despite its more recent origins, the statue has come to be one that tourists and locals alike celebrate and that perhaps has set the tone for how Singapore as a destination is being sold.

The View from the Esplanade towards the open sea at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1976. The Merlion in the background, is seen at its original location at the mouth of the river.

The Merlion at its original position at the mouth of the Singapore River (seen here in 1976).

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore's development.

The Merlion at its position today, staring at the icons of the new Singapore.

1972 was a year that has also to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Externally, events such as the tragic massacre of Israeli Olympians in Munich, brought much shock and horror as did the happenings closer to home in Indochina. There were also reasons for fear and caution in Singapore. Water, or the shortage of it was very much at the top of the concerns here with the extended dry spell having continued from the previous year. There were also many reasons to fear for one’s safety with the frequent reports of murders, kidnappings and shootouts, beginning with the shooting to death of an armed robber, Yeo Cheng Khoon, just a week into the year.

The darkest of the year’s headlines would however be of a tragedy that seemed unimaginable – especially coming just as the season of hope and joy was to descend. On 21 November, a huge fire swept through Robinson’s Department Store at Raffles Place in which nine lives were lost. The devastating fire also deprived the famous store of its landmark Raffles Place home and prompted its move to Orchard Road.  This perhaps also spelled the beginning of the end for Singapore’s most famous square. In a matter of one and a half decades, the charm and elegance that had long marked it, would completely be lost.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

Robinson’s at Raffles Place, 1966.

The burnt shell of Robinson's(SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

The burnt shell of Robinson’s (SPH photo online at http://www.tnp.sg/)

Another tragic incident was the 17 September shooting of the 22-year-old Miss Chan Chee Chan at Queensway. While the shooting took place around midday, it was only late in the day that medical staff attending to  Miss Chan realised that she had been shot. A .22 calibre rifle bullet, lodged in her heart, was only discovered after an x-ray and by that time it was too late to save her.

Just as the year had started, shootouts would be bring 1972 to a close in which four of Singapore’s most wanted men were killed. At the top of the list was Lim Ban Lim. Armed and dangerous and wanted in connection with the killing of a policeman, a series of armed robberies on both sides of the Causeway, Lim was ambushed by the police at Margaret Drive on 24 November and shot dead. Over a nine-year period, Lim and his accomplices got away with a total of S$2.5 million. An accomplice, Chua Ah Kau escaped the ambush. He would however take his own life following a shootout just three weeks later on 17 December. Having taken two police bullets in the confrontation near the National Theatre, Chua turned the gun on himself.

The case that had Singapore on tenterhooks due to the one and a half month trail of violence and terror left by the pair of gunmen involved, would play itself out just the evening before the gunfight involving Chua. It was one that I remember quite well from the manner in which the episode was brought to a close in the dark and seemingly sinister grounds of the old Aljunied al-Islamiah cemetery at Jalan Kubor. The trigger-happy pair, Abdul Wahab Hassan and his brother Mustapha, crime spree included gun running, armed robbery, gunfights with the police, hostage taking and daring escapes from custody (Abdul Wahab’s from Changi Prison and Mustapha’s from Outram Hospital). Cornered at the cemetery on 16 December and with the police closing in, Abdul Wahab shot and killed his already injured brother and then turned the gun on himself.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

The Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery off Jalan Kubor and Victoria Street, where two gunmen met their deaths in 1972.

Besides the deaths of the four, quite a few more armed and dangerous men were also shot and injured as a result of confrontations with the police. A 23 December 1972 report in the New Nation put the apparent rise in shootouts to the training the police had received to “shoot from the hip, FBI style”. The spate of crimes involving the use of firearms would prompt the enactment of the Arms Offences Act in 1973, which stipulates a mandatory death penalty for crimes that see the use of or the attempt to use a firearm to cause injury.

The tough measures may possibly have had their impact. The use firearms in crimes is now much less common. This has also brought about an increased the sense of safety in Singapore, as compared to 1972. Many who grew up in that age will remember being warned repeatedly of the dangers on the streets, particularly of being kidnapped. The same warnings are of course just as relevant today, but the threat was one that could be felt. Many stories of children disappearing off the streets were in circulation and that heightened the sense of fear. While many could be put down to rumour, there was at least one case of a child being abducted from a fairground, that I knew to be true. There were also many reports of actual kidnappings in the news, including one very high profile case in 1972 that saw the abduction of a wealthy Indonesian businessman. The businessman was released only after a ransom was paid.


Singapore in 1972: