SINGAPORE: It was nearing dusk on Jan 22, 2008, but Captain Benjamin Lim and Major (NS) Mark Lim weren’t retiring for the day.
The F-16D pilot and weapon systems officer (WSO), based at Changi Air Base (East), were part of the standby crew, which is the team activated for air defence responses.
At about 6.40pm their paging system went off with a siren: A call to scramble. “It was quite glaring,” the WSO MAJ (NS) Lim, 48, said. “Everybody could hear it.”
Scramble calls are not uncommon. These Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) standby airmen go through numerous drills to achieve a heightened state of readiness, so they treat “every scenario as real”.
Things moved in a matter of minutes. The pair suited up, climbed into the dual-crew cockpit and closed the canopy. “The instructions were just for us to take off,” MAJ (NS) Lim said. “We were not absolutely clear what we were up against, but we were ready for it.”
Once airborne, the men soon realised it was not just another drill.
“We received further orders to carry on with the particular profile, and that day’s was to basically intercept and escort an unknown aircraft back into Singapore,” CPT Lim, 37, said.
There was also “nervousness and anxiety” in the air, he added. “But when the engine starts up, all of these will automatically go away and you just execute what you’ve been trained to do.”
Together with another F-16, they flew across the evening sky to a location 113km away from Singapore. While that was in international airspace, the aircraft in question was heading towards Singapore airspace without an approved flight plan, the Ministry of Defence had said.
The F-16s caught up with the Cessna 208 and immediately sent back “valuable information” – the aircraft type, colour and its flight profile – to ground controllers and commanders.
Then came the warning.
“You have been intercepted by Republic of Singapore Air Force armed fighters. You have to comply with our instructions,” MAJ (NS) Lim said. They requested for the Cessna’s call sign, clarified its intentions and waited for instructions before escorting it back to Singapore.
“Could be a lost sheep. Could be somebody coming in with loads of bombs in the aircraft,” he added. “When we first contacted him, his voice return was very shaky. He told us he’s heading to Singapore to do some aircraft repairs.”
Even so, the pilots had to turn the Cessna away to “buy some time” for commanders to make an assessment. By then, everyone was running on adrenaline, CPT Lim said. “No questions asked, we just do what we were trained to do and wait for instructions.”
The F-16s were ready for all types of instructions, including an order to engage. They were armed with heat-seeking and beyond-visual-range missiles. “In the event that we need to neutralise the threat, yes, we will do it,” MAJ (NS) Lim said.
Despite that, CPT Lim stressed, the crew is not “trigger-happy”. “There are strict rules and processes to follow,” he said, like getting clearance from a higher authority. “No such thing as being able to just flip on a switch and go armed.”
The entire operation took one-and-a-half hours, with the bulk of the time used for gathering information on the Cessna before allowing it to land at Changi Airport. Its Australian pilot was subsequently fined S$5,000 for flying without an airworthiness certificate.
“The whole mission was executed flawlessly, which meant that airborne and ground assets worked seamlessly together,” CPT Lim said, pointing to a team effort involving radar and air defence controllers on the ground.
THREATS ARE REAL
In the bigger picture, the RSAF detects a wide range of threats on a daily basis, with some unidentified aircraft bearing no information on where they are headed.
“This is a very important incident to remind all of us that threats are real,” MAJ (NS) Lim said. “It also demonstrated the air force’s capabilities; how important it is for us to maintain a high alert state.”
Indeed, the airmen go through strict training to earn a spot in the standby crew. There are procedure reviews, simulators and actual flights. Then there’s a syllabus to complete before qualifying for the job.
“Everything happens like clockwork,” MAJ (NS) Lim said. “We’ve been practising this; not anybody can do it.”
Are they also prepared for the ultimate sacrifice, in the event the unidentified aircraft turns hostile?
“We dedicate our lives to Singapore, so we are ready to do what is necessary to make sure that the mission is executed properly,” CPT Lim said.