GOING AIRBORNE: A PHOTOJOURNALIST'S BLOG

From The Straits Times archives: Green on, GO! for SAF's combat parachutists

SINGAPORE - Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen launched the Airborne Trainer System (ATS), part of the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) new Airborne-Trooper Training Facility (ATF), on Dec 1, 2014.

The ATF is comprised of both the Parachute Training Facility (PTF), which houses the ATS, and the Rappelling Training Facility, where troopers can rappel from heights similar to that of Super Puma or Chinook helicopters.

Last year, Straits Times photojournalist Alphonsus Chern was given unprecedented access to the SAF Commandos 210th Basic Airborne Course and followed participants through three challenging weeks as they train to become combat parachutists.

First published on June 15, 2013

ST 20130615 AIRBORNE 3700277m

"FIVE seconds, stand in the door!" roars a jumpmaster in the cavernous belly of a C-130 Hercules transport plane droning straight and level over the Paya Lebar Air Base.

Fourteen parachutists lurch forward, their right hands covering the handle of the reserve parachute packs strapped to their waists.

Clutched firmly in each man's left hand is a yellow nylon cord that tethers his main parachute pack to an overhead steel cable running the length of the aircraft cabin.

As the No. 1 jumper reaches the gaping doorway, he is deafened by the howl of four turboprop engines and buffeted by a maelstrom of wind swirling through the opening.

He places his boot at the edge of the sill and braces his arms against the frame. His eyes narrow against the beautiful sunrise spilling over the landscape.

The jumpmaster places a gloved palm on his back. It is not there to reassure him, but to keep his bright yellow cord - the parachute's static line - from anything that might entangle it.

On a panel above the door, a red light winks out.

"Green on, GO!" the jumpmaster bellows, and taps him firmly on the shoulder.

No. 1 steps out and is instantly sucked into the distance by the 230kmh slipstream.

This is the first-ever jump for these young soldiers - trainees in the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) three-week Basic Airborne Course (BAC) which teaches static line parachuting.

Unlike sport skydiving, where a jumper usually leaps from more than 10,000 feet and deploys his canopy by pulling a ripcord in mid-flight, a military static line parachutist exits the aircraft at just 1,000 feet - slightly higher than the 66-storey Republic Plaza - and his parachute is automatically hauled out of its pack by the nylon cord hooked to the aircraft.

The static line airborne course is recognised throughout the world's armed forces as a confidence-training exercise and a means of inserting troops behind enemy lines. It is also a rite of passage for those who aspire to a mark of courage - the parachutist badge.

Established in 1974 with the help of instructors from New Zealand, the Parachute Training Wing at the SAF's School of Commandos has since trained thousands of paratroopers.

Places on the course are limited and candidates must first pass a demanding fitness test.

The 160 who finally make it on board each time come from all over the SAF - commando trainees, who form the bulk of participants of this course, and career soldiers from other combat units.

So why do commandos, for whom parachuting is de rigueur, or their counterparts, for whom it is voluntary, queue for a coveted spot to throw themselves out of a plane?

"Because you are overcoming fear," sums up retired Lieutenant-General Winston Choo, Singapore's first Chief of Defence and one of the first parachutists trained by the commandos 39 years ago.

The founding father of the commandos, retired Lieutenant-Colonel Clarence Tan, 72, declares: "Parachuting is the best way to overcome fear."

These words may be of little consolation to No. 1 as he experiences one of the most terrifying forces of nature during his brief moment of unabated free fall. His stomach rises into his mouth and his face goes taut in an instinctive reaction against the unfamiliar effects of gravity.

Two weeks of intense and repetitive training, however, ensure that he automatically tucks his chin firmly into his chest.

His feet snap together, his elbows go to his sides, and his hands clasp the reserve parachute pack on his waist as he hurtles through the air in the classic L-shaped silhouette of the military parachutist.

Even while his brain is trying to cope with the sensory overload, it has begun a four-second countdown which he shouts forcibly: "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, check!"

If he looks up and sees a tangle of lines, a canopy impossible to inflate, he will have less than five seconds to pull a handle to deploy the reserve parachute.

All goes well, however, and he feels a forceful but smooth hauling on his body as the fabric catches air and blossoms.

Dangling in his harness, No. 1 looks up to see a perfectly formed canopy, translucent green under the morning sun.

He heaves a sigh of relief.

In the distance, other parachutes are blooming with what look like toy figurines hanging under them. He must be careful to watch that he does not collide with them.

Down below, instructors are counting the parachutes as they open, one by one.

There are 14 good canopies - another perfect score to the riggers' unblemished record.

No. 1 floats gently in a light breeze, enveloped by the stillness of the morning.

Vast estates of high-rise buildings and factories stretch into the distance. Cars make their way silently along roads below. A flock of starlings passes beneath his feet. His reverie is shattered by a metallic voice from a loudhailer: "No. 1 jumper, pull your left toggle!"

Instructors on the ground watching every move will correct the parachutists as they come in to land to make sure they do not end up perched in a tree or sprawled in a ditch.

He pulls his left toggle and turns to face the wind. As he descends at 5m a second, the ground appears to be rushing up at him.

Of the hundreds of times he has leapt off platforms and ramps to practise the Parachute Landing Fall at Hendon Camp in Changi, this is the one time that truly matters.

With a deep thud, he ploughs into the thick grass alongside the runway, scattering leaves, seeds and clods of earth.

He throws himself into a sideways roll immediately, to spread the impact, and comes to rest in a patch of soggy weeds.

Behind him, the canopy is collapsing into a shapeless heap.

On a windy day, he would have to quickly release his harness straps to deflate the chute before it drags him unceremoniously across the runway.

Around him, others are coming in to land. Some alight on the tarmac, others on the grass.

Most lie on the ground a little longer than they are supposed to, recovering from the rush.

But the voice through the loudhailer is already blaring instructions, clearing the area for the next lot of jumpers.

Parachutists, brimming with excitement, gather their chutes and swagger back to the hangar to await their next sortie.

Men and women from units across the SAF must complete three jumps in "clean fatigues" - without carrying any combat gear - before they can return to their units sporting the coveted Silver Wings, the parachutist badge.

Commandos, however, must make five jumps, two with a full load of combat equipment weighing more than 15kg. Their wings sit on a blood-red velvet backing, setting them apart.

For the commandos, the Basic Airborne Course is just part of the gruelling training they undergo to earn their red beret.

But for now, these soldiers are bursting with pride that they have just parachuted 1,000 feet out of the sky and are already looking forward to the next jump.

achern@sph.com.sg