Saturday, September 29, 2012

RAAF Butterworth

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base in the town of Butterworth, Malaysia was a military airbase run by the RAAF and is currently a Royal Malaysian Air Force (TUDM) Station after it was handed back to the Malaysian government in 1988. The history of the base goes back to 1941 when the  British colonial government set up the Royal Air Force (RAF) Station there to defend the then British Peninsular Malaya from the looming threat of invasion by the Japanese Imperial Forces at the advent of WWII.

My interest in that airfield was ignited from a bus ride which I took as a young boy from Kangar, Perlis back home to Butterworth in the mid-50's. At that time the airfield's only runway ran from the west starting from the beach facing Penang Island to the east overlooking the lush padi fields of Sungai Dua. The north-south road from Kangar in the north to the town of Butterworth crossed the airfield's runway about half a kilometer from the beach. So when an aircraft took off or landed, traffic on the road was stopped on both sides of the runway giving the bus passengers a grand view of all the aircraft movements on the runway. 

Photo by James Justice

I knew nothing about planes then, so it is now impossible for me to  say for certain what those jets were. The jets had taxied from my left, crossed the road we were on, made a U-turn at the runway end on my right and either proceeded to take off to the left or entered their dispersal area in that direction. The jet sound was loud and whiny typical of early generation jets, the markings were bold and colourful, the aircraft's base colour was metallic blue, the aircraft sat low on the ground and there were two pilots in flight overalls and flying helmets in each aircraft. They looked like the T37 "Tweetie Birds" one sees in the web pages and could have been the De Havilland Venoms. The image and the sound are still fresh in my mind today after more than 57 years!

In 1959 I entered secondary school and it was a brand new school with me as one of its first students ever. There was a new runway being used (36/18) which was much longer than the west-east runway that I saw some years before. That former runway was put out of use after the new runway was completed. Situated less than a kilometer southwest of this new runway's 36 end, we had a good view of the threshold through the coconut palms that surrounded that part of the airfield. I presume that most of the flights started from that end as I was yet to see aircraft taking off in the direction of my school. With the jet nozzles pointing south towards my school, each takeoff is an aural experience hard to forget and the teacher had to stop speaking while all eyes would be on the runway until all the aircraft had taken off. We got used to the jet blasts after a while and no longer deemed them a nuisance.

Google Earth Image

From our playing field, we would see the Sabres (actually Rolls Royce-powered Commonwealth CA27 Sabres) making their rectangular left-handed circuits by first passing between us and the Runway 36 on our right, turning crosswind in front of us, then downwind to our left and curving behind us to land back to our right. The Sabres would usually fly in a right echelon of four with each one peeling off after another to enter crosswind.


Looking south from our classroom we would see the Sabres one by one curving in to land, each one filling up almost a third of our glass-louvred classroom window. The speed brakes and landing gear would be already extended and sometimes the bubble canopy would be pushed back slightly to let some fresh air in (imagine one being fully clothed and helmeted with the oxygen mask covering most of one's face and the baking sun piercing the clear canopy). More often than not, the pilot would add in a bit of power to reduce his descent rate right in front of our class window and we just loved hearing the sweet hiss-whine-roar of the turbines spooling up. That scene is certainly unforgettable and we got to see it every school day.

The next most common aircraft were the English Electric Canberras which I noticed were of two types - the reconnaisance version (PR7) with a clear perspex nose and the bomber version (B1) without it. I remember that there was a red lightning logo on the tail which could well be the squadron emblem. The Canberra had two of the Sabre's engines, so even without looking up I could always tell whether it was the Sabre or the Canberra that was flying up there. Being bulkier and a bomber at that, the Canberra was never seen doing circuits but perhaps they did do circuits. Maybe the circuit legs were too far out for us kids to see.


Among the cargo/passenger aircraft operating from the base were some DC3 Dakotas, the wide bellied Vickers Valettas (one can be seen in the first photo above) and a later addition, the Lockheed C130 Hercules (which marked the end of the radial engined aircraft like the DC3s and Valettas). While the DC3 and Valetta's huge engines shook the ground and shattered the air with their deep throated exhaust sounds, the C130's four turbines emitted equally loud whines which blended with the sound-barrier-breaking propeller tips' blasts to rattle the ground.

Here again I witnessed the transition from piston to turboshaft engines. In the late 50's there were the Westland S55 Whirlwinds which were later replaced by the Bristol Sycamores. Both types had piston engines and were probably RAF rather than RAAF (though I may be wrong here).  They were all completely yellow, which I believe was the colour of search and rescue (SAR) aircraft. I was told that some Whirlwinds were also based atop Penang Hill. The Whirlwind was what I believed a helicopter should look like but the Sycamore when squatting on the ground looked like someone had bent its tail down in anger.


In the early 60's I began to see the RAAF Bell UH-1 Iroquois replacing the Sycamores. The UH-1 was the iconic helicopter used in the Vietnam war where it was called "Huey". Using a powerful turboshaft engine and a two-blade rotor, the aircraft was painted a dark brown making it look vicious.  The whine and roar from the engine was typical of turbine engines but there were another two sounds to it that make this my favourite helicopter sound. One was the deep motorcycle-like throb and the other the "whupp, whupp" of the long rotor blades as they cut through the air.


Until the early 60's I could see both RAF and RAAF aircraft stationed there. The Valettas were certainly British as well as a few of the DC3s and C130s. Other resident aircraft that were probably used for currency checks for desk-bound pilots included the De Havilland Vampire and the Bell 47 helicopter.


 BELL 47

From the late 50's to the early 60's I had the privilege of seeing various visiting aircraft to the base. They either flew in from foreign bases of the RAF, from RAAF's Australian bases or from aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy that quite frequently sailed through the Malacca Straits. Some would stay for just a week or two while some would remain for a few months. 

From the RAF, there were the Gloster Meteors, the Gloster Javelins, the long-nosed Armstrong-Whitworth Meteor night fighters and the V-Bombers. The Meteor was good-looking with oversized engine nacelles and a rounded tailfin/rudder assembly. The Rolls Royce Derwent engines produced a pleasant high-pitched "groan" that was softer than the ghostly sound of the Vampire's single Goblin engine. The long-nosed Meteor, resembling the Canadian CF100 Canuck, had night radar equipment housed in its nose and looked quite different from the day fighter version though it used the same engines. They were later replaced by the delta-winged Gloster Javelin all-weather interceptors, each powered by two loud Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire engines that pounded the runway on takeoffs.


The V-Bombers were huge but shapely jet bombers and were all-white in colour though in the later years they sported camouflaged upper surfaces. Their designs were ahead of their time, the Valiant being swept-winged, the Victor crescent-winged and the Vulcan delta-winged.

(from bottom to top)

They were based in Butterworth during the Indonesian Confrontation period (1962-1966) and could have been significant players in keeping the Indonesia forces at bay. During one of our school's conducted tours of the base, I had a close look at the Victor and managed to catch a glimpse of the inside of its cockpit as its door was open. It was very impressive indeed.

Two other interesting visitors from the RAF were the really huge four-engined Blackburn Beverly and the dual-rotored Westland Belvedere helicopter. The Beverly had 18-cylinder radial piston engines that were absolutely loud and the top of its tail was a couple of stories high..

The Royal Navy aircraft were spectacular to say the least. My first view of a carrier-based fighter was of the De Havilland Sea Venom which probably flew in from the carrier "Ark Royal" that frequented Penang a few times in those days. It resembled the Vampire in shape but was slightly larger, had a crew of two and was powered by a De Havilland Ghost engine. My classmates and I used to wait among the bushes fringing the runway's 18 end immediately after school just to watch the Venoms land from the 36 end, made U-turns and taxied back in front of us to their dispersal. The crews would open their canopies and wave to us as they taxied by.

Another spectacular naval aircraft was the Supermarine Scimitar which always approached with an unusually high angle of attack looking like it was standing on its tail. This of course required a high power setting, the two Rolls Royce Avons producing a very loud blast that was audible a couple of miles away.


One interesting visitor from a carrier was the Fairey Gannet antisubmarine aircraft. A fat-bodied fairly large aircraft, it had a set of two contra rotating propellers mounted on a single shaft that extended in front of its twin turboprop Hawker Siddeley Double Mamba engines producing a unique whine and roar. Another of its unique features was the huge radome under the nose which probably housed its sonar and radar equipment.

Gatwick Aviation Museum

There were two aircraft types that were used by the RAF during that period which I never got to see flying, even though at least one type was actually based in neighbouring Singapore. They were the sleek and beautiful Hawker Hunter and the ultrafast English Electric Lightning. However I did manage to get a close look at the Lightning seven years later at the Farborough Air Show and the Hunter at one of the museums somewhere else.

The Vietnam War was at its peak in the 60's and a few US military aircraft did make visits to Butterworth, apparently moving casualties out of the war zone. I saw some C74 Globemasters which were huge four-engined turboprop transports and to my delight some F105 Thunderchiefs which were fast and awesome looking fighter-bombers that liked to fly low above the airfield (one of them did an impressive vertical climb right in front of my eyes). One aircraft which I would have liked to see was the CH-47 Chinook dual-rotor helicopter.

For a couple of years the RAF and RAAF opened their doors annually to visitors with static and flying displays of their aircraft. These had a big influence on me and made me want to be a fighter pilot. The RAAF had an aerobatic team of Sabres which performed quite impressively at these shows. Our school also had close links with the base authorities and we used to go and swim at the base pool every Wednesday morning.  There was also an occasion when we kids were taken on a conducted tour of the base. Besides walking around a Victor strategic bomber and a Vampire, I also had a chance to inspect the cockpit of a Sabre jet.

After 1963, I had to move away from Butterworth and lost touch with the movement of aircraft at the base. However, I knew that the Sabres and Canberras had been replaced with the RAAF's Dassault Mirage IIIs.

In the mid-70's I was posted to Penang and by coincidence handled the banking account of the RAAF Butterworth. Once a week I would travel to the base to attend to their banking needs. Once I was driven within sight of the long row of Mirages parked to the left of Runway 36. That was the first time I saw the aircraft. There were a few people I dealt with then and I remember some of the civilian officers as Jim Sweeney and a certain Mr Prowse. There was also a handsome Squadron Leader by the name of Jim Dickson. In fact they even had me in their homes during Christmas.

On one occasion, I saw a visiting RAAF F-111 Aardvark swing-wing bomber beating the base up at just above the flagpole that stood near the main gate of the base. The pole actually swung from the downwash off the aircraft's extended wings.

By that time, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (TUDM) was already sharing the base with the RAAF and was operating the Northprop F5E twin-engined jet fighters as well as some of the former RAAF Sabres donated by the Australian government. The RAF had completely evacuated some time earlier. Today the base is solely occupied by the TUDM as a station and is the home of its BAE Hawks, Aermacchi MB339s. Sikorsky S61s, Northrop F5Es and Boeing F/A-18D Hornets.

P.S. A sad development reported in The Sun on 6 February 2014:

1 comment:

  1. During my time the AVON CA27 Sabre is no more to be seen flying. That time RAAF's Dassault Mirage III along with RMAF's Northrop F5 roam the sky above Butterworth. The year 1981, the first time I saw C5 Galaxy landed is the event I shall not forget. It's not the first that aircraft been to B'worth tough. The old east /west runaway is still visible untill now,partially.