Identified for new airport
The decision to develop Changi Airbase into Singapore's new international airport was announced on June 3, 1975. Studies had shown that expanding Paya Lebar instead of building another airport would be too daunting due to the drainage of the area, the swampy nature of the terrain, the need to resettle squatter populations there, and limited land area. Relocating to Changi would mean less disruption to lives and less noise and environmental pollution.
The model of the new Changi Airport was unveiled at the ceremony to mark the start of piling works for the terminal building at the airport site on June 4, 1977. The new airport would have a $200 million ultra-modern five-storey passenger terminal building, two parallel finger piers each approximately 570m long, and a total of 45 aircraft parking bays, of which 22 would be connected directly to the fingers by passenger bridges.
To prepare the swampy ground at Changi for the construction of the airport entailed the largest land reclamation project undertaken in South-east Asia at that time. A task force of 900 men was employed, and the mammoth public project would cost $239.1 million.
Changi would begin operations in 1981 when its first phase - which included the completion of a runway, 45 aircraft parking bays, passenger Terminal 1, a huge maintenance hangar, a fire station, workshop and administrative offices, airfreight complex, cargo agent buildings, in-flight catering kitchens and a 78m-high control tower - was completed, and would be Singapore's main international airport right into the 21st century.
In the meantime, Paya Lebar Airport would continue to be the main civilian airport, and would handle around eight million passengers annually. To bridge the period before Changi Airport could be ready, Paya Lebar Airport was to have 17 parking bays added for aircraft under a $54 million expansion programme to alleviate the shortage of air traffic parking space. Construction of the new bays began in August 1975 and was planned for completion by mid-1977.
The move to Changi Airport was a cumulation of the rapid growth of the aviation scene in Singapore in the first 15 years after independence. The rapid build-up of industrial capabilities, backed by the establishment of aerospace-oriented training institutions, and the development of military and commercial airport infrastructure based on the solid foundations left behind by Singapore's former colonial masters had paved the way for a robust air transportation network for cargo and passengers, and the take-off of a credible national airline. Singapore's fledgling aviation was flying high in the world.
The big move to Changi
Singapore Changi Airport opened for operation on July 1, 1981, replacing Paya Lebar Airport as Singapore's international airport.
It was the biggest 'house-moving' operations Singapore had seen, taking over three nights to complete. More than 2,200 pieces of aircraft servicing equipment and at least 1,000 airport personnel had to be moved from Paya Lebar Airport to the new Singapore Changi Airport. Some roads were closed to traffic for the long convoys of airport vehicles, from 5-ton aircraft tow tractors to 6m-wide main deck low-loaders.
The move began on June 29, but the crucial night was June 30 when the bulk of the aircraft ground servicing equipment scattered all over Paya Lebar would be moved along the 20-km route to Changi Airport.
On June 31, the last aircraft landed at 11.30pm. The last 26 aircraft flew to Changi in preparation for the next day's flights, and Paya Lebar Airport was closed at midnight. Seven hours later, Singapore Changi Airport began operations.
A Singapore Airlines' Boeing 727, Flight SQ101 from Kuala Lumpur, was the first scheduled commercial flight to land at Changi Airport on July 1, 1981, touching down at 7.10am with 140 passengers.
There were 34 airlines using Changi when it opened, with 1,200 scheduled flights each week connecting Singapore to 67 cities in 43countries. Costing $1.3 billion, Changi Airport began operations with one passenger terminal and a cargo complex which was gazetted as a free trade zone.
In the first year of service, it handled 8.1 million passengers, 193,000 tonnes of airfreight and 65,054 aircraft movements. A new $30 million Joint Air Traffic Control Centre had earlier become operational in October 1980. Operations were better streamlined as most of the routine tasks handled manually at Paya Lebar Airport were computerised in the new centre.
Although Phase I was barely completed in 1981, the Department of Civil Aviation embarked on Phase II, the next stage of development, which included a second runway, adjoining taxi ways, 23 aircraft parking bays, a second fire station and a third cargo agent building.
The taxiway bridge was an engineering marvel, and the first in the region - it allowed jumbo jets to cross a dual carriageway without interrupting traffic below. The opening of the crossing on Dec 5, 1981 signalled another landmark to the airport, and on Dec 29, 1981, Changi Airport was officially opened.
With the move to Changi, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) took over Paya Lebar Airport. This takeover would more than compensate for the loss of Changi airfield, which the RSAF had been using since 1971 - the new runway at Paya Lebar Airport was twice the length of the old military runway at Changi, and the new airfield was also equipped with spacious buildings and more parking spaces.
The first squadrons to move into Paya Lebar were those from the Flying Training School. Strikemasters and SF-260 trainers flew into Paya Lebar on July 1, 1981, and resumed their flying training sorties two days later.
The only flying unit left at Changi was 121 Squadron with its Skyvans, which stayed back so it could be near the Department of Civil Aviation's Rescue Coordination Centre in Changi to support search-and-rescue operations.
The book is available at the Singapore Airshow and major bookstores at $60 (GST included).