Friday, April 27, 2007

Plane spotting in Singapore in the 1960s (Part 1) - Brian Mitchell

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.

Me M and K

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!


Lam Chun See said...

Wow you guys were really daring! Thanks for the story. It reminds me of how I used to bring my kids to Changi Beach to watch the planes coming in overhead from the north.

Maybe I should post the photos at a later date. I too have some photos of the RAF airfield in 1978 when my platoon was tasked to help out with the pyrotechnics for the SAF Day celebrations.

JollyGreenP said...

I have similar recollections of the dispersal area and watching out for interesting aircraft in that area. Two spring to mind: a squadron of Fairey Gannets with the contra rotating propellers flew in and parked on the dispersal area having come from a carrier undergoing work at the navel base. The other was several American Globemasters parked on the hill side of the dispersal area. Later after we moved to Tengah I saw more Globemasters as well as the American version of the Canberra when an American squadron of B56 aircraft were stationed at Tengah for a few months in 1959. The Globemasters were parked on the area next to a sports field and tennis court. The highlight was to be invited on board and to be shown around and to go up to the flight deck. There was a distinctive smell to the cockpit that I have noticed in all military aircraft I have encountered since then. It was a sort of garlicy, sweaty electric spark sort of smell; very distinctive. The American airmen on duty around the aircraft often used to give us chewing gum and were always friendly and did not seem concerned about security at all.

John Harper

Lam Chun See said...

When we were kids, we liked to travel along that part of Upp Changi Rd as shown in your photo becos we liked to look at the planes sitting at what I now know is called Dispersal Area. Of course, unlike Brit kids like you and John, we kampongs boys haven't a clue what type of planes they were.

Victor said...

Until a few years ago, we could still watch aircraft take off and land at Changi International Airport up close. I am not talking about the antiseptic air-conditioned viewing area of the airport here.

A very strategic spot for plane watching was at the end of Changi Village Road, right next to the airport's West Perimeter Road (which was located within the fenced up area of the airport). You could see a patrol vehicle moving slowly along the perimeter road every now and then. During peak hours, an aircraft took off or landed every 5 mins or so. The roar of the aircraft engines was very loud indeed, especially during take off. At night, this secluded spot was popular for courting couples in cars because it was not too brightly lit and there were practically no passers-by on foot.

Then a few years ago, this area was made out-of-bounds to the public because of security reasons. Since then, plane watching from this spot became another precious memory for me.

Lam Chun See said...

Brian, I really like that photo of yours. You look so lanky. Hard to picture those stick-like arms rowing your canoe all the way to Pulau Ubin man .. haha.

And the hairsyle .. wow. Was it Elvis or Cliff Richard look. You know what we locals call that type of hairstyle? Karli-pok (curry puff).

Anonymous said...

Chun See
I wondered if I would get any comments on that photo - yeah hard to recognise myself. Pity that the guy taking the photo Ray is not shown as he had the most amazing Elvis quiff. What I do recall is of course that our shorts were always longer than we wore them - first job on leaving the house was to tuck the shorts hem up inside, this made us look cool and we hoped attractive to the girls - lookng at that pic there was obviously no chance!

Lam Chun See said...

Brian, John. I am beginning to understand why you and other British kids who lived in Spore had such lasting memories of your short stay here.

Besides the strange new environment, your parents gave you a free rein to explore and design your own activities. Those 'reckless' exploits of yours created new experiences which made strong imprints on the brain. If you had been goody-goody boys who followed the same routine as in UK, and tied to your mother's apron strings, I doubt you will remember much about Spore.

I think the educational experience in Spore had been much richer than if you had remained in UK. I venture a guess here. Many of the "Britbrats" (if you will pardon this name I saw in Memories of Spore) who returned to UK became quite successful in their careers in later life.

In contrast, my daughter, who attends Japanese classes and had an opportunity to meet some Japanese children of expatriates working here in Spore, told me that they stayed very close-knit, and had little exposure to Sporean life. She was surprised that they spoke very little English and knew very little about Spore.

Chris Sim said...

Wow... who would have thought that plane-watching can be turned into a hobby with a camera... Wonder what consequences I would get if I do that while people-watching... hahaha.

OAMSN (that means "on a more serious note", thanks to Chun See), I think kids back then are really lucky. Much of nature was unspoilt, and they were allowed to explore and pursue their simple pleasures in life. There were also no computers, internet and arcade to distract them. You boys sure had a lot of fun!

Anonymous said...

Chun See and Chris,

I think you both 'knock the nail on the head' (get it right) with your comments - there is no doubt that perhaps the main feature of our lives in Spore was a degree of freedom (aided by short days at school - most of the afternoons we had off) that we would not have had in the UK and the chance to experience an extraordinary place and society. It does live with us - and for good reason.

Anonymous said...

We can relive the past through our memories but cannot remake the past. So be happy with what we have at present, because future generations may envy of what we have through their memories. People come and go, only their names are left behind.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys, I have just found this web site it really is good, my sister and myself were in singapore in the early sixties our parents were in the forces, our father was serving with teh 7th Signal regiment protecting RAF Tengah, I must admit I have fond memorys of a visit to changi beach, I can also remember trying to open my eyes in a morning as it was so hot the eye lids used to stick together.
I will post some pictures for future ref.
Best Regards
H Leonard

Lam Chun See said...

Hi Leonard. Glad you like the stories we post here. If you click on the label John Harper and Other UK Friends, you will see the whole list of articles posted by UK friends from your generation.

David Taylor said...

My name is David Taylor...oh dear, I'm the 'Malcolm' in the photo and referred to by Brian..but yes it was a long time ago!
I have some photos of Brian amongst the over 1000 pics (mainly of planes) that I took at Changi between mid 1961 and early 1964.
Many of my Singapore aircraft pics from the early 60's have been published over the last couple of years on the 'FlyPast' magazine (Key Publishing) 'Historic Aviation' forum. I now have a publisher interested in them, so have the task now of assembling them, with suitable text to make up a book.
Do however please tell me how I may forward the pictures of Brian so they can be used on your site.

Lam Chun See said...

Hi David. I have alerted Brian to this comment you left here. You mean, he confused you with another kid named Malcolm?

Brian and Tess said...

Well I feel I should record an apology to David here on the blog for getting his name wrong, its great to be in touch and readers here may well be seeing one or more of the photos that David has. I never was quite happy with 'Malcolm'!

Lam Chun See said...

I am happy that this blog has again managed to put two old friends in touch with each other after decades apart. Remember Tom Brown and his army mate from Selarang Barracks?

JJ said...


There are some nice photos of the old and more recent changi area posted here :)