Meet Thailand’s Top Gun

Group Capt. Rawin Thanomsingha. Photo: Courtesy Rawin Thanonmsginha

KORAT — Group Capt. Rawin Thanomsingha was soaring nearly five kilometers above Thailand when the engine acted up.

Normally it wouldn’t be a big deal for the fighter jock with 20 years experience flying F-16s, but on that day in November, he was seated in the back with an inexperienced pilot-in-training up front where the engine start-up and kill controls are located.

“At 15,000 feet we had engine trouble,” Rawin said. “We had to shut it down.” Thailand flies around 50 F-16s, some built in the early days of the jet fighter’s production, so engine trouble isn’t unheard of.

The trainee managed to kill the engine and the unpowered plane started sinking. The F-16 is capable of gliding, but not for very long.

Rawin, 49, kept his cool and explained the startup procedure over comms to the trainee, who then proceeded to blow it. Pilots have a saying, “Speed is life, altitude is life insurance,” and they were losing both, very quickly.

Rawin considered ejecting to safety and ditching the multi-billion baht aircraft in an empty field, but with only 1,000 feet beneath the plane, he chose to talk the pilot through the process again. The engine roared to life and the rapidly falling F-16 shot upward with full afterburner.

Both pilots narrowly escaped a fiery death.

Rawin recounted their narrow escape from death with a perpetual grin in a small coffee shop behind the Wing 1 control tower at Korat Air Force Base earlier this month on Children’s Day, away from the deafening howl of the 103 Squadron’s jets.

\

Grp. Capt. Rawin Thanomsingha cruises around the tarmac on a bicycle.

 

Earlier I had been stuck in traffic heading toward the airbase when I first saw him – or at least heard him – and saw first-hand why he’s earned the nickname “Hollywood” for breaking all the rules with fearless, high-flying antics.

 

 

 

 

A hazy, fast-moving metal mass ripped through the sky low and loud over the row of red brake lights. Still being early in the day, I assumed it was one of the less showier jets – perhaps a Czech-designed L-39 Albatros or Northrop-engineered F-5.

Then came the unmistakable roar of a Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 engine, which only belongs to the loudest airplane in the Royal Thai Air Force's inventory. It could only be one aircraft: The Viper, officially known as the F-16. As it turned out, no time is wasted bringing out the crowd-pleasers for Children’s Day. It was only 10:30am.

After reaching the tarmac, I saw a small group of pilots under the wing of an F-16 while mechanics combed over the airplane performing post-flight checks.

Seated on a bicycle hiding from the rain under the wing of an F-16 wearing a flight suit and a toothy grin was Hollywood. His name is synonymous with the F-16, and he’s logged nearly 3,500 hours on the fighter.

Soon we were in the cafe, where I laid out some questions.

 

Your favorite aerobatic maneuver?

Anything prohibited. They say you can’t roll the plane with the landing gear down. That’s not true,” he said.

What of the mighty F-16?

She can do it all and she’s comfortable,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like she’s flying by herself, and I’m just along for the ride.”

Why become a fighter pilot?

When I graduated high school I decided to try to become a professional soccer player, but my father, a fighter pilot flying the F-86F Sabre, had other plans for me.”

How did you end up in Isaan?

“After I finished flight school in Bangkok, my instructor said I was going to be relocated to the 231 Squadron out of Udon Thani, where a fleet of F-5s was based,” Rawin said. “I graduated second in my class. I was a rabbit with one leg; I had no say in the matter.”

What was training like?

I trained on the F-5 for two years, putting in 500 hours of flying each year. 500 hours is too much for a pilot in training, we would never do that today. Udon became my home, I loved it,” he said.

 

\

An F-16 performs a low pass with landing gear down.

 

Just as Rawin was embracing life in Isaan, his captain approached with a choice: Stay in Udon or move to Korat to fly F-16s as part of the newly formed 103 Squadron. In the mid-1990s, Thailand had purchased the newer F-16s to replace its aging F-5s. Only the best pilots were recruited to fly Thailand’s newly acquired flagship fighter.

There wasn’t really a choice, after all. He was ordered to move to the F-16 and thus, Korat.

 

Wing Commander

Twenty years have gone by, and after thousands of hours in the F-16, Rawin has risen to group captain and Wing 1 commander.

\

In 2012 a special livery was applied to a RTAF F-16 to celebrate 100 years of Thai aviation. The plane is affectionately named the “Century Falcon”.

 

By now he knows Korat so well he can fly there without the help of any navigation. This proved fortunate last year during another system failure on another training flight.

“Suddenly the power cut out while we were cruising,” he said. Rawin was instructing a young pilot at altitude and flying high above cloud cover when they quickly lost track of where they were without the aid of electronic navigation systems or visual aid.

They guessed they were somewhere over Lopburi but couldn't be sure. Backup power only lasts for a short time, so they had to look for somewhere to land. Rawin ordered the novice pilot to get down below the clouds and have a look around. They saw a large river and military air base.

Bangkok!

The plane can’t use air brakes on backup power, and they couldn’t land at Don Mueang because it doesn’t have a brake cable, like that found on an aircraft carrier. So close but so far. Somewhere over Bangkok, a F-16 without any communication devices soared closer to disaster.

From Bangkok, the veteran pilot said he knew exactly how to get back to Korat.

“Sometimes we fly using ‘IFR,’” he said.

Assuming IFR referred to Instrument Flight Rules, under which a pilot can navigate using only cockpit instruments, I asked him how that was possible without power.

“IFR! I Follow the Road!” he spurted out between chuckles.

 

To reach us about this article or another matter, please contact us by e-mail at: [email protected].

Follow Khaosod English on Facebook and Twitter for news, politics and more from Thailand.

Follow @KhaosodEnglish

\