'Top gun' RMAF fighter pilots gather for grand reunion

SHAH ALAM: They flew as 'top gun' fighter pilots for 40 years, keeping Malaysian skies safe.

Around 160 of them earned their wings being trained to fly the United States-built Northrop F-5E Tiger II supersonic light strike jets from 1975.

All in, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) operated 22 F-5E/F and two RF-5E before the jets were decommissioned in 2015.

These were the pilots who provided close air support for the Armed Forces ground troops at the height of the communist insurgency, in the late 1970s through 1980s.

Hence, there was plenty to shout about for the former pilots, along with their ground maintenance crew, during a grand reunion at the Air Force Recreation Club at RMAF Subang.

The 'Night of the Tigers' saw the presence of two out of the five pioneer F-5E Tiger II pilots in Brig-Gen (Rtd) Datuk Abdullah Mohamed and Brig-Gen (Rtd) Datuk Amirul Ghani Abdul Ghani.

The other three pioneers, who could not attend, were Lt Col (Rtd) Charlie Quek Swee Chye, Capt (Rtd) Tan Kheng Ho and Lt Col (Rtd) Jaafar Ismail.

Abdullah said that they were the crème de la crème of the fighter force and 80 per cent of them later ventured into a second career with commercial airlines.

"At least three of the pilots were awarded the air force gallantry medal Pingat Tentera Udara (PTU).

"Five of us also rose to be among the 13 RMAF chiefs," said Abdullah, speaking on behalf of the lot.

He recounted his worst experience flying the F-5E when one of the jet's two engines burnt out during a 'live' firing exercise at the Asahan range in Malacca in the late 1970s.

"My jet was loaded with '4x19' (four pods each containing 19 2.75-inch, or 70mm, rockets) and I was firing salvo (all at once) when one engine died, due to ingestion of foreign objects (probably rocket-fin fragments).

"I struggled to steer and safely land my jet at RMAF Subang base," said Abdullah.

He recalled how in December 1974, the five pioneer pilots, led by Quek, were sent to the United States' 425th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron in Phoenix, Arizona.

He added they had to adjust to the American way of life and training, unlike the systems used by the British Royal Air Force or the Royal Australian Air Force while in Malaysia.

"After getting acclimatised with two weeks of technical ground school and orientation, we went on to complete 45 hours operational conversion training, flying the F-5 'A', 'B' and 'F' versions – the workhorses of the US Air Force.

"We forged a close relationship with foreign pilots from Taiwan, Jordan, Vietnam and Chile while attending the conversion training.

"We often engaged in sports like football and golf during breaks.

"We were treated well by the local community, who referred to us as aliens or just foreigners," said Abdullah.

Abdullah rated the F-5E Tiger II as one with the power and agility to outmanoeuvre aircraft like the Mirage III and MiG-21.

"A few, including myself, won the 'Dart Killer' trophy for executing the most number of aerial kills during our training stint," said Abdullah.

Upon the five's return to Malaysia, they were tasked to start jet-fighter conversion training for younger RMAF pilots at the newly formed 11th Squadron and thereafter the 12th Squadron at Butterworth base.

The 11th was a tactical fighter training squadron with instructors producing operational F-5E and the 'Tiger Eye' reconnaissance RF-5E pilots.

"It was a great, satisfying experience flying the F-5E in air defence exercises and forward operations, and training others.

"Credit must be given to the ground crew who slogged to maintain the aircraft well throughout its journey," said Abdullah.

He also paid tribute to the many air and ground crew who sacrificed their limbs and lives in the course of their duties.

Meanwhile, Major (Rtd) Chandra Mohan A.S. Param said the RMAF had since 1986 organised the 'Ex-Jaguh' (best pilot) competition among its fighter squadrons.

"Six of our F-5E pilots have won the coveted 'Top Gun' trophy and two of them rose to become RMAF chiefs," said Chandra Mohan, whose fighter call-sign was 'Benchotte'.

The six are Lt Col (Rtd) Wong Swee Fong 'SweetFace', Gen (Rtd) Tan Sri Rodzali Daud 'BigFoot'; Lt Col (Rtd) Hisham Yahya 'Boyan', Gen (Rtd) Tan Sri Nik Ismail 'Nikki', Major (Rtd) Khairi Khairuddin 'Djebat' and Lt Col (Rtd) Amran Suleiman 'Batoo'.

Rodzali and Nik Ismail retired as RMAF chiefs.

Chandra Mohan, who went on to serve AirAsiaX for 16 years, said he had originally been trained as an RMAF transport pilot before becoming the first aircrew to become a F-5E pilot in 1986, and later as the 11th Squadron commander.

Among those who attended the reunion were the country's first local RMAF chief Air Vice-Marshal (Rtd) Tan Sri Sulaiman Sujak, former RMAF chiefs Lt Gen (Rtd) Tan Sri Abdul Ghani Abdul Aziz, Gen (Rtd) Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad and Gen (Rtd) Tan Sri Ackbal Abdul Samad, present RMAF chief Gen Tan Sri Mohd Asghar Khan Goriman Khan, former Federal Territories Minister Major (Rtd) Tan Sri Zulhasnan Rafique and his coursemate Col (Rtd) Datuk Bhupindar Singh who claimed to be the world's first Sikh F-5E fighter pilot.

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