National servicemen keep RSAF flying at Ex Pitch Black

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05 Sep 2022 | PEOPLE

National servicemen keep RSAF flying at Ex Pitch Black

Story by Koh Eng Beng

Photos by Kenneth Lin & courtesy of RSAF

English 华文

These national servicemen have been working tirelessly to keep the RSAF's operations going at this massive multinational air combat exercise in Australia.

Pilot MAJ (NS) Chew (left) and Air Force Engineer ME1 (NS) Ee are among the NSmen taking part in Ex Pitch Black 2022.

Over 400 Republic of Singapore Air Force personnel are taking part in Exercise Pitch Black 2022, a large-scale multinational air combat exercise in Darwin, Australia.

These include more than 35 Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) and Operationally Ready National Servicemen (NSmen).

F-15SG pilot Major (MAJ) (NS) Robin Chew is one of them. He has been training alongside various aircraft from different air forces, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

A typical day at the exercise usually lasts about 12 hours, including mission planning, flying and debriefing, said MAJ (NS) Chew. "Being deployed to this kind of exercise helps us to hone our capabilities, to better ourselves and make sure that we are kept up to date with the operations."

The exercise is being held from 19 Aug to 9 Sep, and involves up to 100 aircraft from 17 nations.

An RSAF F-15SG (right) flying alongside an USMC F-35B at Ex Pitch Black. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variant has been earmarked to replace the RSAF's F-16s after 2030.
Four F-35Bs are expected to be delivered to the RSAF around 2026, and deployed in the US for training and evaluation.
Participating air forces pit their combat skills against simulated threats in both day and night missions at Ex Pitch Black.

MAJ (NS) Chew had volunteered to take part in this year's exercise. On why it is important for NSmen to participate, he said: "NS is not just about showing numbers. We (have) to be a credible force out there, so we need to be able to come here and keep up our skills."

The 43-year-old, who has a 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, added that without the support of his wife and employer, it would not have been possible for him to be away from home for two-and-a-half weeks in Ex Pitch Black.

He left the RSAF in 2013 and now works as an outsourced F-15SG flight simulator instructor. As an NSman, he flies a sortie once every fortnight to keep his skills current.

The RSAF deployed eight F-15SGs, eight F-16D+s, a G550 Airborne Early Warning aircraft, and an A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft (not in picture) for this year’s Ex Pitch Black.
A RSAF F-15SG on a day mission at Ex Pitch Black.
An RSAF F-16D+ in action at Ex Pitch Black.
With a detection range of over 200 nautical miles, the RSAF G550 Airborne Early Warning aircraft provides greater air situational awareness for fighter aircraft at Ex Pitch Black.

Challenging work conditions

Another NSman who volunteered for the exercise is Military Expert (ME) 1 (NS) Isaac Ee, 30, an F-15SG Air Force Engineer.

Training has been challenging for the ground crew as they have to work in scorching heat for hours to maintain and prepare the aircraft for operation, he shared. "It really takes a lot out of us."

This is because, unlike in Singapore where aircraft are kept in sheltered hangars, aircraft at Ex Pitch Black are parked at the flight line, he explained.

F-16D+ ground crew working under the scorching sun at the flight line.
An RSAF personnel checking the tail of an F-16D+. Ground crew have to complete the aircraft checks quickly but without compromising on safety.
Ground crew readying the G550 AEW for an aerial refuelling mission.

To sustain the high-tempo operations through day and night, the ground crew must complete their aircraft checks quickly but without compromising on safety.

ME1 (NS) Ee, who described his job almost like a game of "spot the difference", has to concentrate hard to look out for slight, unnoticeable oddities such as a loose screw.

He said: "The training experience has been great. Our aircraft are very consistent (in their performance) and everybody's working very well together."

F-16D+ crew launching the aircraft for a night mission.
An RSAF F-15SG taxiing for takeoff.
An RSAF F-15SG takes to the skies for a night mission.

Enriching experience for NSFs

For the NSFs, working in a foreign flight line at a large-scale exercise involving 17 nations has been an eye-opening experience.

"Although it has been more fast-paced and (there's) more workload, my colleagues' guidance and the training I received in Singapore have helped to pull me through this exercise," said 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Navin Rai, 22, an F-15SG Air Force Technician.

3SG Rai helps to keep the F-15SGs in tip-top condition for flying.
Seeing the F-16D+ under his care take off safely gives SCT Sim a huge sense of satisfaction.

Fellow NSF Specialist Cadet (SCT) Sim Jin Xiang, 21, agreed, saying: "The weather in Singapore is hot but here it's even hotter. But I think it's worth it when our planes take off safely."

Interactions with ground crew from other air forces, he added, allowed him to learn different practices. "It's an experience for me because you get to see many different models of aircraft, and (personnel from) different countries together," said the F-16D+ Air Force Technician.

A pair of the USMC’s F-35Bs receiving fuel from the RSAF A330 MRTT (left).
SCT Mizuki checking on the A330 MRTT after a successful aerial refueling mission.

SCT Soh Hattori Mizuki is just glad to be given the chance to take part in an overseas exercise as an NSF. He helps to maintain the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Aircraft that is making its debut at Ex Pitch Black.

The 20-year-old Air Force Technician said: "I feel very proud that my work as a flight line crew is able to contribute to our mission success."

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