Late on a Thursday night, the Monash foyer bustled with activity, with Engineering rep, Terry Lee, bellowing out roll-calls while his colleague Jun Mann efficiently registered a line of students and a small crowd milled around, dragging their trolley bags and doing some last-minute packing. At half past ten, the bus arrived, and the 37 students trundled up and settled in for a long ride up north.
For some, it was a shot at taking a weekend vacation in the middle of the semester, to others, a chance to fill their bags with duty-frees good, but to all, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. We were headed to Langkawi Island, for the Engineering School field trip to the biennial (biannual?) Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA). Coming in the middle of the study period, it was to be a flying visit (except for the flying part). The bus ride on the night of the 23rd took us to Kuala Perlis by 6.30 the following morning, where we took an hour-long ferry ride to the island. From the ferry terminal, a tour bus was to take us directly to the air show. But, being typically Malaysian, despite already running a bit late, when Rep. Jun Mann asked the group, “Breakfast or LIMA?” … well, you can guess the response.
After half an hour at the nearest hawker center, the expedition set off again, with our local tour guide helpfully pointing out historic sights along the way, such as Langkawi’s first traffic light, and a night-long karaoke joint named “Little Hatt Yai,” where he mysteriously warned us “not to enjoy ourselves there until morning.” Through the window, as the bus neared the venue, the first flybys were already visible. Jets in formation darted in and out of view between the pristine green hills, the atmosphere in the bus still as the group mentally urged the driver to get us there faster.
The engineers finally made it onto the airfield at around 11.30. Unfortunately, we got through the gates just as the morning aerial demonstrations were ending – the final Rafale jet finished its display and came into land just as most of us made it out of the queue.
That was not much of a damper, though, as there was another session scheduled for the afternoon, and plenty to fill the time in between. On the tarmac were arrayed roughly 40 aircraft from all over the world, ranging from sleek drones to massive military transports. The planes from the stunt squadrons were cordoned off from the public, but visitors were free to get up close and personal with the rest of the craft. To avoid boring the socks off the non-aviation nerds, this writer will not go through every single plane he saw, but some were worthy of notice.
One of these was the refueling tanker KC-135, flown in by the US Air Force. Known as the Stratotanker, it has a trailing boom which is used to refuel other aircraft mid-flight. It is also equipped with its own probe on its nose, which it uses to refuel itself in return. However, its real claim to fame is that it was first built in 1956, and has not left service for 60 years.
The Americans also brought along one of their Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – known as drones to the rest of us. The particular model was the MQ-1 Predator, the first deployed “battlefield” UAV, which basically means it wasn’t around just to take pictures. The model on display was not armed, but despite being more than 20 years old the Predator still looked like bleeding edge stuff.
There were several large transport planes on the tarmac, including the Russian Air Force Illyushin Il-76, whose huge drooping wings would later block the view during the evening air display. But the real behemoth of the bunch was the Australian C-17A ‘Globemaster’. It towered over the rest of the planes and posed severe difficulties for photographers, who could not ever back away far enough to get the whole aircraft in the frame. A friendly RAAF Mechanical Engineer, Lac N. Goulding, rattled off some impressive statistics for this plane, and none more impressive than the fact that it can carry, not one, but three Apache attack helicopters in one go. The C-17 can weigh 465,000 lb on takeoff and carry 77 tonnes of cargo. There are only 8 of them in the Australian air fleet, but this particular plane was no stranger to our shores, having regularly participated in excercises at Butterworth, Penang. Eng. Goulding described its deployments on humanitarian missions to disaster zones in the Phillipines, Nepal and elsewhere.
Like Eng. Goulding, the air crews in attendance at LIMA were extremely friendly and eager to tell the visitors all they needed to know about their aircraft. There were many fascinating conversations to be had, though usually with ground staff and engineers, as the pilots were caught up most of the time posing for selfies. There were several aviation nerds in the Monash group, including Fahad Zayden, who could identify most of the planes by sight and was eager for a chat with the air force personnel. Among those we met was a 27-year veteran of the Singaporean air force, Eng. K. P. Ang. Our island neighbours had flown in an F-15 fighter, as well as a vicious-looking Apache Longbow helicopter. Despite his aircraft appearing to be armed to the teeth, Eng. Ang insisted, “We don’t ever want to use them.” Such a mild-mannered man as he was, we took him at his word.
This was all a prelude, though, to the main event, which was the air display scheduled for 2.30pm. However, at the appointed hour, the crowd witnessed, not the Blue Angels, but two Air Asia jets hurriedly clearing the runway. With that done, the real show began.
This writer lacks a sufficient vocabulary to properly describe the feats we witnessed, but he will say that he would not have dreamed that airplanes were capable of the maneuvers we observed. First off the runway was a Rafale fighter. The single-engine jet twisted and turned with amazing precision, at one point coasting past the crowd while almost standing on its tail. The Malaysian jet which followed more than held its own, and earned resounding cheers as it dropped flares before the audience.
Next up were the squadrons – a grouping of 6 Indonesian propeller planes, and 9 South Korean stunt jets. The planes took off, two or three abreast as they powered down the runway one after the other – and then, flew into the distance and disappeared behind the surrounding hills. Wandering if they had decided to pack it and fly back home, the crowd then diverted its attention to the four Russian ‘Knights’ taxiing onto the runway. These four Sukhoi Su-30SM’s, were, in this writer’s opinion, the stars of the show. The maneuvers they performed were, at times, terrifying, the planes passing each other with just a few feet of separation at near-supersonic speeds. It was a marvel to witness the vapour cones forming around the planes as they approached the sound barrier. Even without the sonic booms, though, the roar of the engines was deafening. The jets staggered their landings, and as each landed, the others performed more and more dangerous stunts. The final plane, obviously piloted by the best of the bunch, was at his most impressive when he seemed to stall his plane and spin it laterally on its nose, like a chopper blade, as it fell straight down, pulling up only when he was just a couple hundred feet off the ground.
When the Russians were done, the earlier squadrons reappeared from behind the hills in a joint formation of 15 planes. The crowd were treated to a majestic flyby from the combined squadron, following which the Indonesian planes broke off, performed a few short maneuvers and landed, clearing the sky for the South Korean Black Eagles.
Being the largest squadron at the show, the Koreans gave the best demonstration of formation flying. The sleek black jets seemed to move in total unison, their maneuvers so graceful that at times you wondered how 9 pilots at such high speeds could be so totally in sync. In fact, on reflection, the physical strength needed to endure the kinds of pirouettes, rolls and high-velocity turns which all the planes carried out seems almost superhuman. The forces acting on their bodies at times approaches 9 g’s, more than twice the level that can cause blackouts and even death in ordinary people.
When the Korean squadron landed, the air display was over, and with that, our time at LIMA altogether. By now, the tour group was swimming in perspiration, and made its way back to the bus and thence to our hotel. The ferry back to the mainland was only scheduled for the next day at 5 pm, meaning a late night was on the cards. Langkawi’s trademark being its *ahem* cheap beverages, and Engineering students knowing how to party, the rest of this story cannot be put into writing. Suffice it to say, that, somehow, the next day, all 37 students made it safely onto the ferry back to Perlis. After a brief dinner at the only McDonald’s in the state, we hopped back on the bus and settled in for a long ride back to Sunway, reaching the campus at 5am on Sunday the 25th.
As much as LIMA had been about seeing great machines in action, it was the human encounters which really made it memorable. Whether it was the USAF engineers enthusiastically talking up their hardy Stratotanker, the Russian staff grumbling at having to take pictures with the nosy visitors (eventually, they disappeared permanently into the bowels of their Illyushin), or the Malaysians telling us the best spots to catch the stunts from, it was a potent reminder of the men behind the machines. Encouragingly, there were many female pilots and personnel in attendance, especially among the American and Australian contingents. There was also the crowd of attendees, some of whom had come from pretty far away, just for the show. A mixed group of Germans, Austrians and Swiss, some of them clearly veterans, had flown in for just a couple of days to watch the squadrons in action. Overhearing our confused discussions, they helpfully identified all the planes and aerobatic teams for us, even though they struggled slightly with the English.
Whilst awaiting the air display, this writer even managed to negotiate with the promoter for a French VIP jet to get us a tour of the off-limits private plane, making good use of his editorial credentials. Unfortunately, at the scheduled hour, the writer was too distracted by the aerial display and forgot his tour. When we returned, a less-gullible employee had taken over, and sussed us out immediately. He said we couldn’t get on the plane but could ask him any questions we wanted for our ‘magazine article’, to which this writer responded with a series of embarrassed stammers that gave the whole scheme away.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience for everyone, whether they knew what they were in for or not. In fact, judging by their enthusiasm, don’t be surprised if some of our Engineering trip-goers make it behind the cockpit one day, too.
Words by Visvamba Nathan
Photos by Andrew Peter Lim & Desmond Chin