Sikh air-quartermaster who knows Sikorsky helicopter like the back of his hand

Retired Warrant Officer 1 Pak Singh Johal served Royal Malaysian Air Force, king and country in thousands of perilous sorties deep into the jungles at height of the communist insurgency, two Emergency periods and other missions

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Warrant Officer 1 (Rtd) Pak Singh Johal resplendent in his military ceremonial uniform while in service as an air-quartermaster. – Photo courtesy of Warrant Officer 1 (Rtd) Pak Singh Johal
By Adrian David | New Straits Times | Malaysia |

Retired Warrant Officer 1 Pak Singh Johal probably knows the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s Sikorsky S-61A-4 Nuri helicopter like the back of his hand.

For Pak Singh, who will turn 74 on June 26, had been groomed as an air-quartermaster (AQM) several years after the arrival of the first of 43 Nuri in January 1968.

He practically ate, slept, trained and flew in the helicopter that has been dubbed the ‘iron bird’ by military aviators, owing to its durability as a workhorse for over five decades until being phased out from service in January last year.

The Nuris were the mainstay of the armed forces for aerial transport, at a time when British troops withdrew from the East of Suez in 1967, ending the Anglo-Malaysian Defence Agreement.

Pak Singh is among the earlier batch of AQMs, who on Sept 7, 1968 joined the RMAF to be trained initially as an armaments technician, after completing his Form Five from Ledang Secondary School in Tangkak, Johor, a year earlier.

Owing to great demand for experienced aircraft personnel, Pak Singh was roped in to be trained as an AQM for the Nuri fleet’s arduous tasks.

Warrant Officer 1 (Rtd) Pak Singh Johal (centre, standing) quenching his thirst with his crew at the crash site of a Nuri helicopter that killed 23 onboard near Fort Chabai in Gunung Gerah close to Ipoh, Perak oon Nov 9, 1989. – Photo courtesy of Warrant Officer 1 (Rtd) Pak Singh Johal

He went on to serve the RMAF, king and country in thousands of perilous sorties deep into the jungles at the height of the communist insurgency, the two Emergency periods and other missions.

“I had the opportunity to have clocked nearly 4,500 flying hours as an AQM in various missions – from search and rescue, medical, body and casualty evacuations, recce (reconnaissance), disaster relief and the like.

“I was tasked to assist the pilots in flight and operational safety of the Nuri. My duties included winching and dropping of supplies and personnel, extended under-slung of heavy cargo and abseiling via rapid deployment in the deep jungles,” said the burly Pak Singh, who retired on Sept 6, 1990 after 22 years of dedicated service.

He related his episodes to the New Straits Times in conjunction with the Vasakhi Sikh new year reunion organised by the Sikh Veterans Association, to be held on Saturday at the Gurdwara Sahib Parliament, adjacent to Padang Merbok, Kuala Lumpur.

Pak Singh added that as an AQM, he also had to master the mechanics, flight operations and technical aspects of the helicopter.

“At that time, some of us senior AQMs were also provided with some flying skills as a backup measure, in times of exigencies should the pilots be incapacitated while in flight.

“Should such a scenario occur, it is crucial for a non-pilot crew member to steer the helicopter for a safe landing expeditiously to save limbs and lives of those onboard,” said Pak Singh, who later became an AQM instructor.

Warrant Officer 1 (Rtd) Pak Singh Johal with his wife Goh Eng Chwee. – Photo courtesy of Warrant Officer 1 (Rtd) Pak Singh Johal

He recalled many a harrowing moment during his operational days, where he and other crewmen miraculously escaped from enemy gunfire.

“There was this instance when we came under heavy gunfire from the ground, when a young pilot had misjudged his rapid take-off from a jungle landing point.

“It resulted in the helicopter’s rotor blades clipping some tree branches but we managed to safely fly away to avoid being shot.

“Later, during a check-ride (test flight) of the helicopter, the pilot reported of a warning light in his cockpit alerting of a hydraulic oil leak while cruising at 5,000ft.

“I had to pacify the pilot to continue flying cautiously, while at the same time to extend the undercarriage (wheels) before the hydraulic fluid was drained out.

“Had this happened, we would not have been able to lower the wheels (through the hydraulic mechanism) for a proper landing.

“The quick action enabled the pilot to safely make an emergency landing at the nearest check-point,” said Pak Singh.

He also recalled assisting in follow-up operations in retrieving the remains of 11 onboard a Nuri that crashed in Gubir, Kedah on April 26, 1976.

Pak Singh was also one of the Nuri crewmen in locating and securing Swallow Reef, or better known as Terumbu Layang-Layang (now Pulau Layang-Layang) off the Sabah coast in the South China Sea on Nov 12, 1977.

It was the beginning of Malaysia’s serious attempts to secure initially up to eight reefs, atolls and shoals in the Spratlys archipelago, within the country’s exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles off the mainland, that were hotly disputed by several regional countries.

“In follow-up missions, we encountered a fully-armed foreign helicopter hovering menacingly at our troops, including naval special forces, who were guarding Station Lima on Terumbu Layang-Layang.

“We were fortunate to have a naval gunboat in the vicinity and stood our ground to shoo away the foreign helicopter,” said Pak Singh.

Another mission he was involved in was to rescue the then home minister Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, whose Cessna aeroplane had crashed in the jungles of Janda Baik, Genting Highlands, on Jan 11, 1982.

The aircraft, co-piloted by Ghazali, had taken off from the Royal Selangor Flying Club at the RMAF Sungai Besi station a day earlier. Ghazali was the sole survivor, while the pilot and Ghazali’s bodyguard perished.

Pak Singh recounted another episode on July 26, 1983 when he and his crew were tasked to evacuate two soldiers in Karak, Pahang who were seriously injured from gunshots during an operation to weed out communist terrorists.

But his saddest moment was in discovering the site of a horrific crash involving his Nuri squadron mates near Fort Chabai on the slope of Gunung Gerah close to Ipoh, on Nov 9, 1989.

A total of 23 soldiers, including the three crew, perished in the mishap when returning from Fort Lasah near Sungai Siput during “Operation Bamboo”.

Pak Singh, who migrated from Punjab, India to Malaya at the age of five in 1953, is married to Goh Eng Chwee, the younger sister to popular asli singer Datuk Andre Goh.

Read the full story, ‘Pak Singh’s daring episodes on the ‘Iron-Bird’ Nuri’, (New Straits Times, 6 April 2021), here.

 

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