Flying Our Flag high in the heartlands

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03 Aug 2020 | COMMUNITY

Flying Our Flag high in the heartlands

// Story by Benita Teo

// Photos by Chua Soon Lye & Timothy Sim

The Chinook, escorted by two Apaches, carrying the state flag into the heartlands. [Photo: Deepan Nicholas]

Miss picnicking at the Marina Barrage this year to catch the state flag flypast on National Day this year? Fret not, because the you'll still be able to catch the flypast. The best part? You don't even have to leave your house!

The state flag flypast, a National Day Parade (NDP) crowd favourite, will be coming closer to Singaporeans, in a special Fly Our Flag segment at NDP 2020.

For the first time ever, while the national anthem is played during the parade at the Padang in the morning, two CH-47D Chinook helicopters carrying the state flag, each escorted by a pair of AH-64D Apache helicopters, will make their way to the heartlands via two routes.

The eastern route will see one State Flag Team fly past the Padang before making its way around the eastern border of Singapore, passing areas such as Marine Parade, Bedok, Punggol East, Seletar and Yishun, before landing at Sembawang Air Base.

The State Flag Team on the western route will cover Sentosa, Jurong East, Choa Chu Kang, Woodlands and Ang Mo Kio. It will also end its journey at Sembawang Air Base.

The flag party folding the state flag. It takes 25 men 45 to 120 minutes to fold the 30m-by-20m flag.

The flypast will begin at 10.30am and end at 11.25am. In previous years, the NDP flypast usually lasts about 10 minutes, when the Chinook and Apaches carry the state flag to the parade venue and then back to the air base.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the state flag being flown at the NDP. During its very first appearance in 1970, a 3m-by-2m flag was flown using the Alouette. The Chinook began flying the state flag from 2001.

The Chinook began carrying the state flag from 2001, making this its 20th appearance at the NDP.

Safety first

As this is the first time that the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF's) Chinooks and Apaches will be carrying the 30m-by-20m state flag to the heartlands, careful planning was required to ensure a safe and successful Fly Our Flag, said Deputy Flying Display Marshal Captain (CPT) Eugene Chua.

"Safety is important in all flying operations, so (planning for this was) no different from daily sorties. (However,) this time, when we bring the flag into the heartlands, there are other considerations pertaining to the clearance of the flag from the obstacles below and from the buildings. So we need to fly through a safe area that does not endanger the people on the ground, and ensures the safety of the aircraft," the 32-year-old explained. He added that the aircraft would not be flying among buildings.

As part of planning for the flight profile, spotters were dispatched to HDB blocks and open areas to fine-tune the routes and flight height, to make sure that the exposure of the flypast would be maximised and more residents in the heartlands would be able to see it.

CPT Chua’s experience in flying the Apache at previous NDPs has been beneficial to his current role as Deputy Flying Display Marshal.

CPT Chua is no stranger to the NDP - the Apache pilot has flown as part of the State Flag Team three times, escorting the Chinook as it brought the state flag to the parade venue. The experience was highly beneficial to his new role in controlling the aircraft, he said.

"My experience allows me to understand the aerial perspective and what goes on in the air, (so I know) what the pilots' considerations are while we are controlling them from the ground. I am also able to calculate the precise timing for them to appear at show centre. It makes it easier for me to communicate the instructions and shifts in timing to them."

Paying tribute to our frontline workers

ME2 Sukhdesh scanning the skies to make sure that the flight path is safe for the Chinook and escorting Apaches.

Like CPT Chua, Air Force Engineer Military Expert (ME) 2 Sukhdesh Singh Sandhu, 35, is an NDP veteran. He has participated in five other NDPs, and this will be his fourth time as a Chinook flight engineer. Flying the western route, his roles is to look out of the Chinook and ensure that the aircraft flying in formation maintain a safe distance, as well as check for unmanned flying aircraft and birds that may enter the helicopters' paths.

However, this year's NDP is a special one for him because it's a tribute to his health-care worker father. His father, Mr Satpal Singh Sandhu, 66, is a nursing duty officer at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, taking care of patients with COVID-19.

As they are living together, they had to make sacrifices so that their work in critical operations would not be compromised. "To ensure that we do not cross-contaminate one another, we deconflicted our schedules. My dad takes the night shift so that I can take on any shift in my duty cycle. This way, only one of us is at home at any one time," ME2 Sukhdesh explained. Father and son, who are close, have restricted their contact to Facetime calls and text messages.

Nevertheless, ME2 Sukhdesh was glad that the National Day celebrations are able to continue: "It's very meaningful that I'm able to give back to the front-line workers, including my dad, and others who are doing so much for Singapore (in the fight against the pandemic)."

CPT Tang conducting pre-flight checks on the Chinook. She is the RSAF’s first female Chinook pilot, and this year’s NDP is her first as a participant.

Bringing the flag closer to Singaporeans

Participating at NDP for the first time is Chinook pilot CPT Trixie Tang. The 31-year-old is also the RSAF's first female Chinook pilot.

She had volunteered to take part in the NDP last year, before plans for the parade had to be modified due to COVID-19. However, the current situation has only strengthened her resolve to fly the flag high for Singaporeans.

"This year, Singaporeans aren't able to go to the Padang to see the flypast. Hopefully, when we fly into the heartlands, they will be able to see us. It will help everyone to celebrate National Day together," she said.

"I'm honoured and grateful for the opportunity to give back to Singapore and contribute to Singaporeans. It's a testament to our training as this (flying the state flag at the parade) is one of the highlights for the Chinooks."

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