Paya Lebar Airport
Paya Lebar Airport officially opened on 20 August 1955. With its associated taxi tracks and aprons, it was considered a Class B3 Airport based on the 1953 standards of the International Convention for Civil Aviation.1 Operationally, Paya Lebar Airport was described as the finest in Asia at the time.2 It was equipped with the latest approach and runway lighting, as well as modern radio navigational aids and surveillance radar that would make it “useable in almost any weather conditions by the largest civil aircraft”.3 Paya Lebar Airport was built to replace Kallang Airport and served as Singapore’s commercial international airport for 26 years until 1981, when it was converted into a military airbase.4
Before Paya Lebar Airport began operations, all commercial air services in Singapore were handled by Kallang Airport. Officially opened on 12 June 1937, Kallang Airport was located on reclaimed land in Kallang Basin. Despite improvements made by the Japanese during the Occupation and subsequent upgrading by the British after they returned, the advancement of aviation technology during the war had resulted in the production of much larger and heavier aircraft that Kallang Airport was inadequate to handle.5
An expansion of Kallang Airport was deemed impractical, as there was insufficient space and any expansion would have to cut into Geylang.6 The government decided, instead, to build a new airport in a different location. The Public Works Department (PWD) initially chose Changi, but it was dismissed in 1949 after soil tests revealed that the bearing strength of the subsoil was insufficient. Tengah was considered next, but it was also deemed unsuitable as the site was too small.7 Finally, in 1950, it was announced that Paya Lebar, located only 8 km from the town centre, would be the site of the new airport.8 In an ambitious master plan, the PWD proposed an airport with two parallel runways, connected in the middle by a terminal building, hangars and administrative buildings, forming the shape of the letter “H”.9
Construction and test flights
Before construction could begin, the government had to acquire the necessary land in the districts of Paya Lebar, Serangoon and Teban. The acquisition, which amounted to 1,033 acres (0.4 ha) of land, was announced on 14 March 1951.10 It affected thousands of people and about 300 families, many of whom were resettled in housing built by the government in Bedok.11
Construction of Paya Lebar Airport began in August 1952 but encountered some problems. On 24 April 1953, workers found five live Japanese shells 2.5 ft (76 cm) below the surface. When army bomb disposal experts went to the site to remove the shells, they found many more in the area – some buried but some above ground.12 Heavy rainfall also hampered construction, especially where earthworks were involved.13 Another major problem was financial. The government had initially estimated in 1951 that the airport would cost $20 million to build, but this swelled to $37.7 million in 1952.14 Some relief came in 1953 when the British government approved a grant of $10 million from the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund to help defray the additional cost.15
Despite these obstacles, construction progressed steadily and the airport was ready for test flights by mid-1955. A series of flight trials was carried out to test the airport’s operational facilities. The first was conducted on 23 July 1955. Two landings were made on that day by a Malayan Airways plane piloted by First Officer Chan Soon Kim, the first Asian to be trained by the airline. On board the plane were more than 20 passengers, including G. J. Warcup, director-general of the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), other officials from DCA, Captain R. Mollard, managing director of Malayan Airways, and PWD engineers. The test, which Warcup described as “most satisfactory”, was a success.16
Opening and subsequent expansion
Paya Lebar Airport was officially opened, albeit with an interim terminal building, on 20 August 1955.17 Originally envisaged as having two runways, the completed airport was equipped with a single runway measuring 8,000 ft (2,438 m) long and 200 ft (61 m) wide.18 Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd officiated at the opening ceremony. Attended by more than 10,000 people amid a “carnival atmosphere”, the event was marked by “a fanfare of trumpets and the hoisting of 16 airline company flags”. Programme highlights included a ceremonial fly-past featuring 24 planes from the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the Malayan Auxiliary Air Force. There was also an exhibition of the heavy machinery used for the construction of the airport, an aerial show by the Royal Singapore Flying Club, and a world-record two-minute short flight from Kallang to Paya Lebar by a Super Constellation.19
By noon the next day, 21 August 1955, all commercial flights were completely transferred from Kallang Airport to Paya Lebar Airport. A Garuda flight from Jakarta was the first to land at the new airport.20 Following the closure of Kallang Airport, the area in Kallang Basin was redeveloped to create new public spaces, including playing fields, gardens and parks.21 Meanwhile, work at Paya Lebar Airport continued, as part of a “long-term plan of continuous development”.22
After the airport’s official opening, the immediate work to be done included the completion of taxi-ways and aprons.23 In April 1961, a $2.25-million, five-storey administration and operations block was completed, allowing the airport’s various operations functions to be consolidated under one roof. To accommodate large jets, the 8,000-ft runway was extended to 9,000 ft in February 1962 at a cost of $3 million, making it one of the longest runways in Asia at the time. A new $1.6-million parking apron was completed in July 1963.The $3.5-million permanent passenger terminal – the final phase of the airport development plan – officially opened on 2 May 1964.24
Conversion to a military air base
Despite the expansion of facilities at Paya Lebar Airport, it was becoming clear by early 1970 that the airport was operating at capacity. Passenger and aircraft volume had increased so rapidly that the airport handled 1.7 million passenger movements and 51,000 aircraft movements by 1970.25 In 1971, prompted by the sharp increase in passenger volume, the government expanded the existing terminal, which was originally built to handle an annual capacity of 1 million passengers.26
However, realising that such piecemeal expansions were inadequate, the government decided in 1975 that a new civil airport had to be built on a much larger site, and the location chosen was Changi. As an interim measure, a second arrival hall was opened in 1978 to cope with the increased passenger volume.27 Changi Airport was completed in 1981 and took over all air services from Paya Lebar Airport on 1 July that same year.28 Paya Lebar’s last scheduled commercial flight was SQ 28 to Abu Dhabi and Frankfurt, which left at 11 pm on 30 June 1981. At approximately the same time, the Republic of Singapore Air Force started moving in to open a new chapter of Paya Lebar Airport’s life as a military air base.29
1. Department of Civil Aviation Singapore, Annual Report 1955 (Singapore: Printed at Govt. Printing Office, 1956), 7. (Call no. RCLOS 354.595700877 SDCAAR-[AR])
2. “High Praise for Paya Lebar,” Straits Times, 16 December 1955, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Department of Civil Aviation Singapore, Annual Report 1955, 7.
4. Public Works Department Singapore, Annual Report 1955 (Singapore: Govt. Printing Office, 1956), 39. (Call no. RCLOS 354.59570086 SIN-[AR]); “Goodbye Paya Lebar, Here We Come Changi,” Straits Times, 1 July 1981, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Peter Hutton, Wings Over Singapore: The Story of Singapore Changi Airport (Singapore: MPH Magazines, 1981), 23, 25. (Call no. RSING 387.736095957 HUT); Department of Civil Aviation and Archives & Oral History Department Singapore, Singapore Fly-Past: A Pictorial Review of Civil Aviation in Singapore, 1911–1981 (Singapore: MPH Publishers, 1982), 53. (Call no. RSING 387.7095957 SIN)
6. Colin Cheong, From Ground Up: Stories from the CAAS Experience (Singapore: SNP International, 2006), 29. (Call no. RSING 387.7095957 CHE)
7. Hutton, Wings Over Singapore, 26.
8. “Airport Move at Paya Lebar,” Straits Times, 17 September 1950, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Hutton, Wings Over Singapore, 26.
9. Cheong, From Ground Up, 29; “London Okays New Airport Plans,” Straits Times, 27 April 1951, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Airport Land Acquired,” Straits Times, 15 March 1951, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Govt. To Buy Land for Evicted Men,” Straits Times, 29 September 1951, 7; “Airport Plan Forces Homes Out,” Singapore Free Press, 11 June 1954, 5; “Bedok Problem,” Straits Times, 14 December 1954, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Hutton, Wings Over Singapore, 26; “Shells Found on New Airport,” Singapore Free Press, 25 April 1953, 1; “Squatters Are Living in High Explosive Dump,” Straits Times, 26 April 1953, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Public Works Department Singapore, Annual Report 1953 (Singapore: Govt. Printing Office, 1954), 27. (Call no. RCLOS 354.59570086 SIN-[AR])
14. “Airport Cost Up $17 Mil,” Straits Times, 30 October 1952, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Britain Gives $10,000,000,” Straits Times, 17 March 1953, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Asian Lands the First Plane,” Singapore Free Press, 23 July 1955, 1; “First Plane Down: ‘Well Done, Mr. Bryan’,” Straits Times, 24 July 1955, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Department of Civil Aviation and Archives & Oral History Department Singapore, Singapore Fly-Past, 53.
18. Department of Civil Aviation Singapore, Annual Report 1955, 7.
19. “Carnival Time at Opening of $37M Air Gateway,” Straits Times, 20 August 1955, 5; “The Door to Singapore,” Straits Times, 21 August 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “The Big Switch Completed,” Straits Times, 22 August 1955, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Public Works Department Singapore, Annual Report 1955, 34.
22. Department of Civil Aviation Singapore, Annual Report 1955, 7.
23. “Airport Ready in 3 Years,” Straits Times, 14 August 1955, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Paya Lebar – The Final Phase,” Straits Times, 24 March 1962, 9; Lim Kit Siang, “Airport Geared to Meet Supersonic challenge,” Straits Times, 3 June 1962, 12; “Development Measured in Months Now,” Straits Times, 27 July 1963, 14; Soh Tian Keng, “Opening of New International Passenger Terminal Building,” Straits Times, 2 May 1964, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Department of Civil Aviation and Archives & Oral History Department Singapore, Singapore Fly-Past, 53.
26. Hutton, Wings Over Singapore, 31; Department of Civil Aviation and Archives & Oral History Department Singapore, Singapore Fly-Past, 53.
27. Hutton, Wings Over Singapore, 31; “Changi to Be Future Civil Airport,” Straits Times, 3 June 1975, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Changi to Be Future Civil Airport.”
29. “Goodbye Paya Lebar, Here We Come Changi,” Straits Times, 1 July 1981, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
Dahlia Shamsuddin, “The Forgotten Murals of Paya Lebar Airport,” BiblioAsia (Jul–Sep 2021)
Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, Paya Lebar Airport, 20 August 1955 (Singapore: Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, 1988), videocassette. (Call no. RSING 387.736095957 PAY)
Xin Jia Po Guang Bo Ju 新加坡广播局, Guo jia ji shi ba ye li ba ji chang 国家纪事 巴耶利峇机场 = Diary of a nation Singapore Paya Lebar airport (Singapore: Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, 1990), videocassette. (Call no. Chinese RSING 959.57 DIA)
The information in this article is valid as at 10 November 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading material on the topic.
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