Flying the Singapore flag high, with the perfect NDP flypast

SINGAPORE - It was the first time a Super Puma helicopter carried such a big Singapore flag for a flypast in front of thousands of Singaporeans.

Measuring nearly 30m across and 20m deep, the flag that was flown at the 1987 parade was about 10 times larger than the ones before.

Although the spectators who were gathered to mark Singapore's 22nd National Day did not suspect a thing, getting the flag to fly that day was not all smooth sailing.

As the helicopter took off for the flypast, the flag failed to unfold fully.

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"I thought, I will have to resign," said Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret) Chia Sin Kwong, 65, who was the Super Puma pilot that day.

His co-pilot Major (Ret) Frankie Teo, 56, said: "Everything went smoothly during the trials, but on the actual day, the flag, after take off, wasn't flying very well."

The captain did a few turns to the left, but that did not help, he added.

Only his quick thinking saved the day.

 

"The crew chief said the flag was folded on the right side," said Maj (Ret) Teo. "So, I suggested making a turn to the right, and the flag unfolded beautifully. We went on to do the flypast," he added.

On Saturday (July 15), he was among seven retired pilots and air crew specialists who flew on a Chinook helicopter to escort the state flag for part of its route to the parade rehearsal in Marina Bay.

The NDP flypast segment has taken place almost every year since 1970 - except for three years in the late 70s, when the event was decentralised to different locations.

The hand-sewn flags are checked to ensure they do not tear. The flags are then bundled up with Velcro a few days before the event.

The flags have three ballast weights at the bottom. When the helicopter takes off in a vertical flight path and moves off, the Velcro snaps are released and the flag unfurls.

The work was done by hand in the past but these days, a truck helps with the release. The entire set-up is about 30m high -about the height of 10 storeys of a Housing Board flat.

There are numerous rehearsals to perfect the manoeuvre so that there are no hiccups on National Day, but still, the unexpected can happen, said retired pilots and air crew specialists who were involved in previous flypasts.

For instance, in 1990, not a single one of the three prepared flags unfurled properly during take-off. About 40 people had to rush and roll up one of the flags again for a fourth try.

Maj (Ret) Teo said: "We were really behind schedule, but we managed to make it on time." That year's parade was significant because it marked the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's last NDP as prime minister - Singapore's founding prime minister stepped down in November 1990.

Now, instead of just three flags, the crew prepares about a dozen flags.

Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret) Leo Tin Boon, 67, who was part of the first NDP flypast in 1970, said: "The only thing that can prevent the flag from flying is the weather."

Once, in the early 1990s, all the other aircraft formations were put on hold because of a thunderstorm. However, there was no stop to the preparations for the state flag flypast. The crew was ready to go ahead with the flypast if the skies cleared up at the last minute. It did.

The earliest flypasts used the smaller Alouette III helicopters. In 1980, a switch was made to the lightweight UH-1H Huey, which could carry 12 crew members, up from seven.

From 1986, the Super Puma, which can carry up to 27 crew members, was used, and since 2001, the job fell to the Chinook, which can carry 55 crew members.

Said LTC (Ret) Leo: "We were a young nation... The world was watching us." That was why the pilots and other crew members knew they had to complete their mission.

He said: "In 1965, when Singapore separated from Malaysia, people were quite pessimistic about Singapore's survival. I was part of that generation. We knew we had to make sure we put up a proper parade."