Helicopter parent

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08 Sep 2023 | PEOPLE

Helicopter parent

To his trainees, he's like a father showing them the way. For ME3 Anthony Gilbert – who's saved lives and flown the Singapore flag high at NDP in his 42-year career – it's all about helping young flight engineers find meaning in their work.

// Story by Benita Teo / Photos by Kenneth Lin & courtesy of ME3 Anthony

ME3 Anthony (left) hopes young flight engineers like trainee ME1 Wong (right) will find their passion for their jobs, just like he has.

"I'm the oldest person here in Sembawang Air Base to be flying!" Military Expert (ME) 3 Anthony Gilbert Vincent declares proudly.

At 59, he goes where few his age dare venture – overcoming the physical and mental rigors of flying to operate on board the Chinook helicopters as an Air Force Engineer (Flight Engineer). And now, he's looking forward to passing on the mantle to a new generation of flight engineers.

King of choppers

ME3 Anthony is pretty much a walking encyclopedia for the RSAF's helicopters. Since joining the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) in 1981, he has worked on the UH-1H "Huey"; Bell 212; Super Puma; and now, the CH-47D, CH-47SD and CH-47F Heavy Lift helicopters.

ME3 Anthony's job has taken him around the world, including a stint in Oakey Detachment (pictured here) in Australia in February.

These different helicopters have carried him through many important missions. When Hotel New World collapsed in 1986, he was part of the UH-1H team deployed to swiftly evacuate the casualties to Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Singapore General Hospital. Then an Air Force Technician, he carried the casualties from the stretchers onto the aircraft.

He became a senior technician in 1989 and later joined the then-newly inaugurated AS-332 Super Puma squadron.

In 1991, Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 was hijacked and Special Forces troops were sent to neutralise the perpetrators. He was deployed to Changi Airport with a Super Puma helicopter, where the team stood by to carry injured passengers to hospital.

He remembers the day clearly: "We scrambled early in the morning and were deployed near the SQ plane. We waited as the Special Forces stormed the plane, in case there were casualties. Thankfully, no one was injured."

Even after 42 years, ME3 Anthony continues to be fascinated by the mechanics of helicopters.

A life-saving mission

In 1997, he became a flight engineer, thus beginning his flying journey. He joined 127 Squadron (SQN), which operates the Chinooks.

Drawing on his experience working with the Super Pumas to fly the Singapore flag at the National Day Parade (NDP), he trained the Chinook crew for their maiden National Day flypast in 2001.

He was called on again in 2012 to evacuate a civilian on board a merchant vessel in South China Sea. The Greek national was suffering from a heart attack, and the CH-47 Search-and-Rescue team, together with 1 Medical Squadron, were activated.

"This was a mission close to my heart," he revealed. "It was a challenge because the weather was bad and there was no proper place for us to land, so we had to winch the doctor and Air Crew Specialist to bring him up. 

"It's a good mission when you know you saved a life," he said. Because of this mission, he wears a patch that bears a little cross, denoting the life he had saved.

ME3 Anthony (left) and ME1 Wong conducting pre-flight checks on the CH-47SD. He believes in guiding his trainees to find solutions and not spoon-feeding them the answers.

Reason to wake up every day

ME3 Anthony has also spent the last two decades nurturing new flight engineers. His personal philosophy is not to spoon-feed the trainees; instead, he believes in guiding them towards finding the answer.

But the learning doesn't stop there, he added. "Don't keep the information to yourself; share it! When you share your experience and exchange what you've learnt, it's faster than learning in your own."

ME1 Wong Liguang from 127 SQN has been learning the ropes under ME3 Anthony at Flight Engineer Ground School.

"When I first came in, I had very little knowledge. Encik would get me to do critical thinking, and told me: 'You must be curious about what you want to find out (about the aircraft)'. So when I find the answer, I commit it to heart. It's better than just memorising information."

ME3 Anthony's passion for helicopters has carried him through a very fulfilling 42-year career.

Finding his passion

To 23-year-old ME1 Wong, ME3 Anthony is not just a teacher but a mentor: "He is very fatherly and caring. When I'm demotivated by setbacks, he will ask me what my purpose is and what I want to achieve."

This is the same advice he gives his own children, says ME3 Anthony. His own passion for his work is palpable – when he was a trainee, he once pinned the pages of a system he was learning all over his room and spent 20 minutes every morning and night studying!

"I'm the first heli-operator to be flying till I'm 60. I do this to stay physically fit and to prove that I can. I want to be an inspiration to my kids – do what you love and be happy!"

ME3 Anthony (second from left) with the Chinook crew who flew the Singapore flag over the Padang at this year’s NDP.

A high-flying career

This National Day, ME3 Anthony flew the final flight of his career: carrying the national flag across the Padang on the CH-47SD as Majulah Singapura was sung. He plans to retire from the RSAF when he turns 60 this November.

Although he has lost count of the number of NDP flypasts he's been in, this year's was a special one, especially with the aerial display to celebrate the RSAF's 55th anniversary.

ME3 Anthony hopes to be an inspiration to his children, for them to find passion and meaning in what they do. He is pictured here with his wife (second from right) and children at RSAF Open House 2016.

"People on the ground don't know the level of professionalism we take it (the flypast) to. It's not about being kiasu; it's the pride we take in doing this for the nation because it's our birthday. It's a wonderful feeling that words can't describe.

"That's why I say I will close this chapter (of my life) with the NDP flight. I know I've sealed my career in the best way possible," he said with a smile.

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