Chun See’s kind invitation to me to post the occasional guest piece on his blog has led me to reminisce about some of the ways I passed my time as a young teenager in early 60s Singapore – but I have missed out perhaps one of the most important, which was plane spotting.
But first a warning – some of today’s Singaporeans were a little dismayed at my recklessness whilst paddling my dug out canoe (no life jacket, no safety boat, casual trips across to Pulau Ubin etc) – my exploits whilst plane-spotting were even worse! You have been warned.
So why plane-spotting? Well I was certainly interested in aircraft, with a father in the Royal Air Force I had grown up around them. But in Singapore my main interest was photographing aircraft – including getting close to them if I could.
My hobby was greatly encouraged by my father buying me my first ‘real’ camera. We went into Changi village and after a bit of haggling came away with a Samoca LEII (I probably still have it somewhere, but its years since I used it), a simple manual 35mm which even had a light meter built in to the body. I can’t remember what we paid for it but when we got back to the UK I was pleased to see that it cost just under £20 which was certainly more than in Changi village – then as now Singapore prices were good!
There were several of us who went plane spotting. Here (courtesy again of my old friend Ray Shaw) is a photograph of three of us, myself on the left, then tiny Malcolm with his camera and finally Kerry on the right.
So where did we go to photograph planes? Well Changi obviously. In those days the Upper Changi Road went right across the main dispersal area so our school bus or gari ride was always a way of checking out any interesting planes. And the other location was Singapore’s international airport at Paya Lebar – we took a bus along the Tampines Road, then a trek through some Kampongs (I still remember the pigs and chickens) to the end of the runway or a further walk to the terminal building itself. Those were the days of Boeing 707s, and Douglas DC8s. Singapore was already an international hub with planes from the USA, South American, Australia etc.
Photo of RAF Changi from the air and showing the dispersal area (with Upper Changi Road running across the centre of the picture) contributed by Barry Fagg to Memories of Singapore.
Photo of Paya Lebar Airport courtesy of Memories of Singapore.
But the attempt to get exciting photographs of aircraft sometimes got us into trouble. After a few attempts at photographing aircraft landing at Paya Lebar we decided to have a go at Changi. The north end of the runway was open and we could get to it easily so two of us took our cameras and crept as close to the end of the tarmac as we dared. A single Shackleton (a large four engined aircraft based on the WW2 Lancaster bomber) was doing what we called ‘circuits and bumps’ so as it circled to land we got ready with our cameras.
I swear the pilot must have spotted us and decided to give us a scare for we were dismayed to see the plane coming in to land very low indeed. As it got nearer we abandoned any photography and flattened ourselves on the ground hardly daring to believe that it could miss us. It roared overhead, a few feet above us, the ground shook and our ears protested. I stole a quick glance up, the sky was blotted out by a mass of metal and rivets. Then it touched down and took off again, we got up on shaking legs and ran! Never again!
But sometimes there were rare and interesting aircraft that demanded a closer look – particularly since without a telephoto lens that was the only way to get a decent picture. Around the time of the first US space shots some very interesting US aircraft arrived at Changi – presumably engaged in tracking the space shots. One aircraft bristling with radar and electronics was spotted from the school gari on the way home. I was back shortly afterwards with my camera.
Getting off the bus before it reached the airfield I walked across a field of tall vegetation behind the dispersal area hoping not to be noticed – aircraft like these were often under guard. Half way across the field I was astounded to see Malcolm striding openly across the dispersal tarmac from the other side – he wore only his shorts, socks and shoes in a vain attempt to appear to be one of the aircraftmen! His disguise was hardly effective, he was after all not much more than 5 foot tall! He was not even half way across when I saw the military police Land Rover rush out from near the control tower, stop him and take him on board. I did a swift about-turn, ducking low in the vegetation hoping not to be spotted.
Malcolm got off lightly on this occasion. But Kerry and I were not so lucky with a further exploit to be told in part 2!
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