Barely 15 minutes after take-off, 114 passengers and nine crew members on Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore found themselves in a terrifying situation.
Four men armed with knives had taken control of their flight. This is a hijack! shouted the leader.
In the cockpit of the Airbus A310, the captain quickly alerted Changi Airport Control Tower.
At the Queensway Base of the Singapore Police Force’s Special Operations Command (SOC), Station Inspector Chong Teng Kok, 39, heard the alarm: Code Red (Confirmed): A hijacked Singapore Airlines flight has landed at Singapore Changi Airport.
That day, the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of the troop was on leave. “By the luck of the draw, I was made covering OC of the troop!” recalls Mr Chong.
Within moments, Mr Chong had gathered 39 SOC troopers and headed to the airport in a command vehicle, bus and Land Rover. Once there, they were directed to the runway where SQ117 now stood. The SOC troopers quickly cordoned off the plane and began monitoring the ground situation.
Mr Chong stood guard at the tail of the plane. It was dark, and daylight was hours away.
At the Changi Airport Control Tower, the Executive Group (EG), a crisis management team comprising key representatives from various ministries, had gathered. Mr Lim Siong Guan, then the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, was the group’s Acting Chairman.
Learning that the hijackers were Pakistani nationals, the team decided to carry out the negotiations in English to slow down the pace of communications. Though the atmosphere was tense, the team was resolute; the EG had been training for just such a crisis. “People knew what to do,” recalls Mr Lim.I started running after the plane at its 5 o’clock position… I knew I had to bite the bullet.- Mr Chong Teng Kok
The hijackers decided to demonstrate their seriousness to the terrified hostages. They hurled a steward out of the plane, and he fell 4.5 metres onto the tarmac.
The SOC troopers swung into action. “We had to search the man with extreme caution as we did not know who he was,” explains Mr Chong.
Once his identity had been established, the steward was whisked away to the Airport Command Centre, where he provided vital information on the hijackers. Meanwhile, the SOC troopers maintained their guard.
The hijackers began to grow agitated. We’ll set the plane on fire! they threatened.
To buy more time, negotiators told the hijackers that the plane would be refuelled. SQ117 was directed towards a refuelling point – but this was a strategic move on the EG’s part as the plane was now at a spot where hostage rescues had previously been rehearsed.
As SQ117 taxied along the tarmac, the SOC troopers followed closely behind, out of sight to those on board. “I started running after the plane at its 5 o’clock position,” says Mr Chong. He was now at the rear end of SQ117, with the intense heat from the two engine exhausts coming down at him. “I knew I had to bite the bullet,” he recalls of that moment.
A new set of players arrived on the scene – the Singapore Armed Forces’ Special Operations Force (SOF). Clad in black and carrying short-burst machine guns, the highly trained SOF officers were invisible in the pre-dawn darkness. Now they made their first approach towards SQ117, ready to be deployed during the crisis’ most critical moment: the storming of the plane.
“What decisions can you make which will best assure the safety of the people on board? You think about that all the time,” says Mr Lim. “And you know that that safety is sometimes a matter of – ‘if you delay, what are the consequences?’. You have to imagine these things. You run different scenarios through your mind.”
After seven hours of talks, the hijackers reached their breaking point. You have five minutes to start the engine! Otherwise, every 10 minutes, we’ll kill a passenger! Refusing to speak any longer, the hijackers began their countdown. The EG knew: We have to storm SQ117. Minister for Home Affairs Mr S. Jayakumar gave the green light for Operation Thunderbolt to proceed.
“Once the decision to storm the plane is made, everything is no longer in your control,” says Mr Lim of that moment. “The people on the ground are well-practised; they know what to do. You just make what you believe is a good and necessary decision.”
Using ladders specially made for the Airbus A310, six SOF teams scaled the plane. In one coordinated move, the officers forced open the plane’s doors using explosive charges. Tossing in stun grenades, they entered the cabin, weapons ready. Two hijackers in the cockpit were swiftly shot. A third was brought down in Business Class. The final hijacker was shot at close range. Operation Thunderbolt was over within 30 seconds.
As confirmation reached the control tower that no hostages had been harmed, applause broke out. Rigorous planning and practice, combined with skilful execution on the ground, had made the difference.
Back on the tarmac, the exhausted and thankful passengers and crew members exited SQ117. As they slid down the plane’s emergency chutes to safety and medical assistance, the sun appeared on the horizon, bringing their long night to a close.
According to Mr Lim, what the SQ117 hijacking demonstrated was the need for vigilance and constant preparation. This was why the EG was ready to respond when the crisis struck. “We had exercises and it was, in many ways, well-practised ground,” he says. “Obviously, you need to have the police capability and the military capability… But the fact that… people know the processes and know each other, allows you to handle this in a way which, if the EG were just two months old, would have been impossible.”
Collaboration was also key to the operation’s success. For SOC trooper Mr Chong, his team had simply done its part to ensure that the plane was secure on the tarmac, so that other aspects of the operation could be successfully carried out. “The SOC’s role in monitoring the situation on the ground level was crucial,” he says of that difficult night. “We were extremely tired, but as SOC troopers, our call of duty comes first.”
As for the SOF officers who stormed the plane and rescued the hostages, they are proud to have served when the moment called for it. Having risked their lives for the hostages, they are glad to stay anonymous, but we owe them our thanks.