TAKING FLIGHT

Aviation has never been for the faint of heart. Fifty years have passed since Mr Soon Boon Hai joined Singapore’s aviation industry, but he remains as starry-eyed about his field as ever.

Labour Day was my first day at work – 1 May 1965. I arrived at Paya Lebar Airport, only to find the office closed. I asked around and was ushered into the air traffic control centre. A supervisor met me and said, “Since you’re here, let’s get to work!”

And that was how my career with the Department of Civil Aviation began. It was all serendipity.

Earlier that year, I’d gone for a Public Service Commission interview at City Hall. After climbing a dark staircase, I ended up in an office where I was presented with a few options such as “police” and “customs”. I decided on “air traffic control” because the term was long and incomprehensible, and I assumed it must mean something better!

I began as a probationary Air Traffic Controller, then passed my courses to obtain the necessary ratings. Over time, I worked my way up to Instructor, Changi Control Tower Chief, Training Centre Chief, Area Control Centre Chief and then Chief Air Traffic Control Officer.

I was told in my early days that there’s never a dull moment in this line. One night in December 1977, I was Duty Watch Manager at Paya Lebar Airport when Malaysia Airlines flight MH653 was hijacked. We had a short time to respond – the aircraft was only 16 minutes away from landing in Singapore when we were handed control of it.

We activated the emergency plan immediately. Within minutes, we lost radar tracking and radio communications with the plane. Reports said it had crashed in Tuas, so we initiated crash action and activated our fire and rescue forces. It turned out that the plane had crashed in Tanjung Kupang, Johor. It was traumatic for us but we had to carry on and ensure the smooth movement of other flights.

Air traffic control requires multi-taskers who can hold their nerve. In March 1991, when I was Tower Chief at Changi, the Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 hijack happened. Air traffic controllers aren’t professional negotiators, but the Changi Control Tower crew had to hold the hijackers at bay while the trained negotiators came on-site.

Needless to say, we were relieved when they arrived. We could once again focus on our main task, which was to keep air traffic moving. We worked as a team to ensure the show went on. Changi Airport didn’t shut down, all the passengers and crew were rescued, and the world came to know about little Singapore’s swift handling of a crisis bigger than itself.

We always have to be ready for the unexpected. Six days into my role as Area Control Centre Chief in August 1995, a lightning strike shut down our air traffic control system. We were in the midst of upgrading to a new radar and display system, but there’d been delays. So the “great controller” above decided to speed things up. When the lightning struck, we lost our eyes in the sky and a bulk of our communications capabilities. We couldn’t see or talk to the planes.

It was also raining cats and dogs, which didn’t help at all. This was when our training kicked in. To separate the planes by level and position, we turned to our old friends, pen and paper, which had served us well at Paya Lebar Airport. We also needed extra hands on deck. Our off-duty guys responded, no questions asked. It was a wonderful display of teamwork and resilience.

Even though two of Singapore’s major airline crashes occurred outside our local airspace, we were still very much involved. I was Chief Air Traffic Control Officer in December 1997 when SilkAir flight MI185 crashed into the Musi River in Sumatra, Indonesia. In fact, I was in Kuala Lumpur for work and had to return to Singapore immediately. Then Singapore Airlines flight SQ006 crashed in October 2000 in Taiwan, on my last day at work, when I was set to retire. I cancelled my retirement while I worked with the investigators. Once again, we got through it, and learnt from our experiences.

I’m honoured to have helped restructure the air routes over the South China Sea in the 1980s. The skies were getting congested, and it was a long but rewarding five-year battle to get all the countries and stakeholders on board. To draw lines on a map is easy, but to persuade everyone to agree on new routes is hard.

After I retired, I wanted to contribute to our aviation sector in a different way, so I joined the International Air Transport Association (IATA). During my six years at IATA, I had the opportunity to raise awareness about long-haul flights heading to Western Europe from Southeast Asia, which were often delayed due to congestion over Afghanistan, and to contribute to a new slot allocation system that reduced flight delays.

Change is constant. We continue to learn and work hard, to stay ahead of the game. That’s why Changi Airport was prepared to handle the Airbus A380 when it arrived, and why Singapore Airlines flew it first in 2007. When things go right, nobody notices – that’s the hallmark of good planning.

These days, I’m a consultant with the Air Traffic Management Research Institute, a think-tank run by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University. People are surprised that at my age, I’m still crazy about developments in aviation. Being in a country and sector that’s always evolving, how can I not feel excited?