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.

Advertisement




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.





A glimpse of Seletar’s past – the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection

5 11 2018

The generous donation of more than 1,400 images on photographic slides from the Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – of Singapore and Malaya (and maybe a few of Lima) taken in the late 1950s – made the news some months back (see : Rare glimpse into Singapore’s colourful past, The Straits Times, Mar 31, 2018). The photographs, many of which were put up by the donor, Dr. Clifford Saunders, on the Facebook group “On a Little Street in Singapore” currently and prior to the donation (the National Heritage Board, NHB, is the custodian), provides us with a peek into a world and a way of life we will never go back to.

Seletar Village, 1959 – from one of the more than 1,400 slides donated by Dr. Saunders.
(The Ralph Charles Saunders Collection – courtesy of Dr. Clifford Saunders / NHB).

Dr. Clifford Saunders at the Indian Heritage Centre.

Dr. Saunders. whose father was the genius behind the well taken and meticulously labelled slides, is currently in town as a guest of the NHB and was kind enough to meet with heritage enthusiasts and members of the Facebook group on Sunday to provide some insights into the images as well as his impressions of Singapore through the eyes of the young and inquisitive boy that he was when his father and family were based at RAF Seletar all those years ago.

Members of ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’ with Dr. Saunders.

The slides include a set of images involving an old lifeboat, the John Willie. Bought off a Dutchman coming out of Sumatra at the time of the Indonesian National Revolution for $200, the leaky lifeboat was repaired and provided the family with a means for offshore adventure – one of many activities that Dr. Saunders, now 69 described during his presentation. He also mentioned that his favourite island was Pulau Ubin, which I understand he will be trying to visit during his short stay here. Other experiences Dr. Saunders spoke of include fishing at fishing ponds, life at Poulden Court in Jalan Kayu, trips “up country” and his impressions of the causeway and river crossings (my own experiences: Crossing the river in days of old), and the rather alien smells and sounds of a then very foreign land.

James Seah seeing the funny side of Dr. Saunders’ story.

More on his wonderful experiences in Singapore – shared over the two hour session at the Indian Heritage Centre and which Clifford feels shaped his life and profession (he is now a neuroplastician) – can be found in these two recordings:


 





RAF Seletar’s last barrack block

26 05 2015

A part of Singapore that has seen a transformation in recent times is Seletar. The area was once occupied by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar station or RAF Seletar, which at its establishment in 1928, held the distinction of being its largest station in the Far East. Vacated by the British during the 1971 pullout of forces, the former air base was used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as Seletar Camp, home to several units including ones that I was most familiar with from my involvement professionally in floating military bridges, such as the Combat Engineers.

A survivor of RAF Seletar.

Block 450, one of the last survivors of RAF Seletar.

Beyond Block 450 and a few other remnants, little is left of the oldest British Far East air station.

Beyond Block 450 and a few other remnants, little is left of the oldest British Far East air station.

The charm the area long had a reputation for and its laid back appeal provided by the  generously spaced clusters of old world military buildings and dwellings, retained even during the days of the SAF military camp, is now fast being lost. The transformation it is now seeing, involves not just an expansion of its now civilian airport, Seletar Airport, but also the development of a 320 ha. industrial Seletar Aerospace Park. These developments has left its scars on Seletar, a Seletar but for a few reminders of the old world, is one now hard to recognise.

The iconic entrance complex over the years.

The iconic entrance complex over the years.

One part of the former RAF station that serves to remind us of the old military installation is the iconic entrance  complex with its gate and guardhouse – although a two-storey building that somehow provided the camp’s entrance with some of its past flavour has since been lost. It is beyond the gate house, past what some may feel is Singapore’s equally famous Piccadilly Circus, down the Piccadilly – the road to the East Camp; even if it deceives at its start in evoking a sense of the old world, that the visitor is confronted by the changing face of Seletar.

The entrance gate in RAF Seletar days.

It was down the same Piccadilly, at least what it had been before the recently introduced confusion of roads, that a group of servicemen past and present, gathered to celebrate the past as well as a survivor of the past, a barrack building, that if not for it, might have made the celebration’s venue – now dominated by new roads and newly turfed spaces, not such an obvious choice.

The barrack building, Block 450.

The barrack building, Block 450.

JeromeLim-2388

RAF Seletar was where life began for 160 Squadron.

RAF Seletar was where life began for 160 Squadron.

JeromeLim-2575

The barrack building, Block 450, more affectionately referred to as “Alpha”, was at the heart of the area that was not only the birthplace of the servicemen’s unit, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) 160 Squadron in 1970, but also that of the RSAF’s air defence set-up. Its heritage, that of the RAF air station, and 160 Squadron,  Singapore’s first and longest serving air defence unit, celebrated with a heritage storyboard for which the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the 160 Anti-Aircraft (AA) Alumni and 160 Squadron came together to produce.

The 160 Squadron's 35mm Oerlikon AA gun - the onetime backbone of the AA defence system on display at Block 450.

The 160 Squadron’s 35mm Oerlikon AA gun – the onetime backbone of the AA defence system on display at Block 450.

JeromeLim-2412

The launch of the heritage storyboard, by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, was the highlight of the gathering. It provided an opportunity not just to learn about the unit and its role in the air defence of Singapore – something Minister Chan emphasised in his speech by saying how, put less crudely, our young now have a greater chance of being hit by droppings from airborne beings of an avian kind than ones with more destructive potential; but also to have a more intimate look at the barrack building through the Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar staged by the 160 AA Alumni.

Mr Chan Chun Seng and President of the 160 AA Alumni MAJ(NS) Jayson Goh launching the heritage storyboard.

Mr Chan Chun Seng and President of the 160 AA Alumni MAJ(NS) Jayson Goh launching the heritage storyboard.

An exhibit tracing the evolution of aids to aircraft recognition in one of the rooms in Block 450.

An exhibit tracing the evolution of aids to aircraft recognition, from the use of the OHP, 35mm slides and printed material, in one of the rooms in Block 450.

An exhibition of photographs.

An exhibition of photographs.

An improvised fire-alarm.

An improvised fire-alarm.

JeromeLim-2640

JeromeLim-2634

Typical of barrack blocks built during the Far East military build-up in the 1920s and 1930s, blocks such as Alpha – of which there were at least ten in RAF Seletar, provided shelter not just for the Anti-Aircraft gunners of 160 Squadron – who moved out in 2002, but also to numerous men in the service of His (and later Her) Majesty’s Government. Built in 1930, Block 450 is the only one in Seletar to have survived, having been gazetted for conservation as part of the 2014 Master Plan together with Block 179 – the former Station Headquarters, along with 32 bungalows in the former air base.

The Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar also offered a peek into the conserved barrack building.

The Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar also offered a peek into the conserved barrack building.

JeromeLim-2570

JeromeLim-2571

JeromeLim-2574

Architecturally similar to many other barrack blocks put up in the era – I had the experience of it from my reservist days in Sembawang Camp (the former HMS Terror)  before it was renewed, the block is an example of the tropical military architecture of the age. Those were times forgotten when it was desirable to maximise comfort levels of the buildings’s occupants, without an over-dependence on high levels of energy consumption. Measures typically employed to provide maximum ventilation and shade is seen in the wide verandahs and in the provision of ample openings, is a very noticeable feature of Block 450. Some of this is also described in the URA’s Conservation Portal:

Like the former Station Headquarters, this building was designed in the tropical Art Deco style that was favoured by the British military. The use of traditional timber windows and doors with the then relatively new medium of reinforced concrete demonstrates a combination of traditional and modern design approaches.

As a response to the humid tropical climate, the building has long and continuous covered verandahs complemented by inner facades featuring timber-louvred windows, doors and pre-cast concrete vents to promote cross-ventilation. Other features of the building include moulded Art Deco style motifs at the top of every column which help to adorn this otherwise simple yet functional building.

A view of a sister block, H Block in the West Camp, in its early days (online at http://81squadron.com).

The wooden louvred doors along the generously sized verandah. The moulded Art Deco style motifs can be seen at the top of the pillars.

The wooden louvred doors along the generously sized verandah. The moulded Art Deco style motifs can be seen at the top of the pillars.

JeromeLim-2517

Abandoned by its one-time companions, which I am told in the days of 160 Squadron would have included a parade square in its shadow, as well as building housing the squadron headquaters, the ops room and also hangars where the guns were stored across the Piccadilly, Block 450 now stands alone, out of place against the now vastly altered surroundings. It may be a shame that we are are unable to hold on to spaces such as Seletar with its rich history and its unique and now hard to find charm, but we have to be thankful for the conservation of buildings such as Block 450. While it will not come anywhere close to reminding us of the beautiful space Seletar once was, we will at least have several reminders that tell us of a history that will otherwise be forgotten.

JeromeLim-2461

JeromeLim-2512

JeromeLim-2513

JeromeLim-2655

JeromeLim-2665

JeromeLim-2549
JeromeLim-2524

JeromeLim-2485

JeromeLim-2535


Further information on Block 450 and conservation within the former RAF Seletar:

JeromeLim-2458


 





A last cup of kopi-o at Blk 398 Canteen

1 05 2013

It is always nice to drop in on a place that is reminiscent of a world we can no longer see such as the Blk 398 Canteen. Operating on the grounds of the former Seletar Camp since 1969, it was for long insulated against the winds of change which seem to sweep across much of the island of Singapore  over the four decades that have passed. Said to be one of the last “kampong kopitiam” (village coffee shop) in Singapore, it maybe is less of the kampong kopitiam many of us might wish that it is, seemingly more like a world caught in transition, but one certainly in which time does seem to have long stood still.

Having a cup of kopi-o at the Blk 398 Canteen takes one back in time.

Having a cup of kopi-o at the Blk 398 Canteen takes one back in time.

The canteen sign painted on a corrugated zinc sheet exterior wall.

The canteen sign painted on a corrugated zinc sheet exterior wall.

The canteen takes its name from its address at 398 Piccadilly. The address is itself a throwback to to days now long forgotten when the area was part of the Royal Air Force’s RAF Seletar. Completed in 1928, the former air station and its grounds was for a long while after the 1971 British pullout, well preserved – an area rich in charm, the eastern side of the former air station was used to house several Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) military units, while some 378 colonial houses on its western side were turned over for civilian use. It was in the transition that the canteen commenced operations serving first the RAF personnel before their pullout and the SAF personnel after that.

The outside of Blk 398 Canteen

The outside of Blk 398 Canteen.

A customer entering the canteen.

A customer entering the canteen.

The inside of Blk 398 Canteen.

The inside of Blk 398 Canteen.

The area the canteen is in is now undergoing yet another transition, one which will see the biggest transformation of the area since work commenced on RAF Seletar in the 1920s. The transformation will see the Jurong Town Corporation’s (JTC) Seletar Aerospace Park built over much of the area which the former RAF Seletar occupied and will see some 174 of the “black and white” houses – former homes of RAF personnel which provided the area with much of its charm, demolished. This transition is also one which will also see the 44 year old canteen go (it was supposed to have been closed last December) and with it one of the last chances to have that cup of kopi-o in Singapore today, as it might have been yesterday.

Houses left behind by the RAF provided the area with much of its previous charm.

Houses left behind by the RAF provided the area with much of its previous charm.

Another view of the inside.

Another view of the inside.

Concertina wire - a reminder of the former military site on the fence of the canteen.

Concertina wire – a reminder of the former military site on the fence of the canteen.





Strange Horizons: A mound of sand where the sea once was

21 04 2013

A somewhat curious sight that greets a drive or a ride through Pulau Punggol Timor, is the mound that is seen in the photograph. The mound is one of two very obvious one found on a man-made island off the northeastern coast of Singapore, Pulau Punggol Timor. The island is one of two which came out of a huge land reclamation project along the Northeastern coastline of Singapore that took place from 1985 to 1990 to provide land primarily for future public housing, the other island being Pulau Punggol Barat.  The reclamation project which added a land area of some 685 ha. was also supposed to have seen Coney Island or Pulau Serangoon joined to the mainland, but that part of the project was deferred. The islands are located off the coast just north of the area where an old world, that of the former Seletar Camp, had once existed, between the mouths of the Sungei Seletar to the wast and Sungei Punggol to the east (both of which have since been dammed). The camp which came out of the former RAF Seletar was home to several army units including Combat Engineer units is in the midst of being transformed into the Seletar Aerospace Park.

img_1636

Since 2009, the otherwise undeveloped Pulau Punggol Timor, has played host to a construction aggregates receiving terminal (which moved there from Lorong Halus), as well a storage area for the aggregates. Besides the mound of sand – a mound of granite can also be seen.