Trailblazing Fighter PilotsShe's the Commanding Officer (CO) of a fighter squadron. He's a Malay F-15SG fighter pilot.
// Story By Benita Teo
// Photos courtesy of RSAF
Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Lee Mei Yi, 36, and Major (MAJ) Muhammad Iskandar Dzulfadhli Bin Abdul Raman, 34, are proving to young fighter pilots that dreams can come true, as long as they put their heart and soul into achieving them.
PIONEER finds out more about this pair of Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) trailblazers who are lighting up the way for future generations of fighter pilots.
Pushing himself to excel
Even as a child, MAJ Iskandar was certain that one day he would be flying a fighter jet and defending his country. He had been a member of the Singapore Youth Flying Club since he was in secondary school. There, he met many former RSAF instructors who inspired him.
"I liked that sense of mission and purpose (the RSAF offered). Becoming a fighter pilot would be best combination that married my passion for flying with my interest in the mission of defending our skies," he said.
However, his journey was not an easy one. At school and even when he chose to sign on, people around him would tell him that his dream of being a fighter pilot was "a good dream that was not realistic".
He worked hard to prove himself a worthy airman of the RSAF. And then he topped virtually all of his courses: at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he obtained his degree in Political Science with International Relations, he was the first Southeast Asian student to top the cohort. In Officer Cadet School, he was Air Wing's Top Graduate. He also clinched numerous top fighter pilot accolades in overseas flying courses.
"I was determined to excel in every single course and class, so that there was no reason for anyone to doubt my abilities," he said.
Working hard for a strong air defence
Like all fighter pilots, MAJ Iskandar has had to spend long periods overseas for flying training. His training and operational requirements means time away from his family, particularly his elder brother, who suffers from a chronic medical condition.
As the third of four children, he is saddened that he is not always able to share the responsibility of caring for his brother with his elderly parents and siblings.
But he understands the importance of his duties, even if sacrifices have to be made to cope with family and work. Currently a staff officer in the Air Operations Department, he reviews and develops policies for fighter operations, standards and training, in order to enhance operational readiness across RSAF operations.
"A strong air force is a necessity for Singapore, given our lack of strategic depth. As an aviation hub, we also see a lot of air traffic flowing through our region. Our air defence needs to be strong to instil confidence and security in Singapore."
When asked if he had any advice for younger pilots, MAJ Iskandar said: "Always be humble… To excel in areas not many have gone before, you need the support of your peers, commanders and juniors.
"And I'm glad that throughout my career, I was able to make friends and have their support."
Standing on her own abilities
LTC Lee had always wanted to be in the military. "My heart was set on joining the military, because I like challenges and I wanted to do something different. I also believed in serving the nation," she explained.
After enlisting and learning more about the RSAF, she realised that it was the right place for her to grow her career: "Becoming a fighter pilot became the most natural choice for me. It's a gender-neutral career – I could serve as a combat officer and be judged based on my skills and not physical strength alone."
Even though she was entering the military where there are more male service personnel, she was undaunted. She saw that all service personnel were held up to the same standards and judged based on their skills like psychomotor abilities, decision-making and leadership qualities. The playing field was level, regardless of gender.
Still, she worked hard to prove herself. "Many ladies in the force will agree with me: we tend to put extra pressure on ourselves (to do well). That's because we are a minority, so whatever we do, whether right or wrong, will go noticed. So I do put additional pressure on myself. It drives me to work harder and be flawless."
First female fighter squadron CO
LTC Lee is currently the CO of 140 Squadron (140 SQN), leading the men and women who fly and maintain the F-16 fighter jets. It is a position she is humbled and honoured to be in.
She never thought she would one day be the first female CO of a fighter squadron, but she is grateful for the role models who had paved the way for her: "As pilot trainees, we looked up to our commanders and witnessed the positive influence they had on the men and women under their charge. I aspire to be like them."
"I've met peers and instructors who helped me along. They were very encouraging and helpful, and didn't treat me any differently. My superiors also pointed me to other female pilots who were already in the force, and I was able to turn to them for advice."
Now it's her turn to be a role model to aspiring young female pilots, and she has these words of encouragement for them: "Have a strong sense of purpose, and it will guide you through. We've all committed ourselves to serving the nation, and that's what we hold ourselves to," she said.
"The training will be tough. Always believe in yourself and have big dreams, and do your best in whatever task comes your way. If you give it your best, even if you fail you know that you have done everything in your power.
"And don't let what others think get in your way."