First published on June 15, 2013
WHEN the chance came for me to write about the SAF's combat parachutists, I jumped at it.
This would involve observing, up close, trainees going through the army's Basic Airborne Course (BAC), then photographing and writing the story.
But there was another reason I was keen to take part - unfulfilled dreams of making a military parachute jump myself.
Back in 2001 when I was a fulltime national serviceman, I had written to the then Chief of Defence asking for a place on the airborne course.
Of all the confidence courses available then, I thought the one teaching soldiers to jump out of planes was the most interesting.
Alas, my request was turned down, but the letter said I should try again when I became an operationally ready national serviceman. Over the years, however, NSmen became ineligible to participate in the course.
Still, I have remained fascinated with military parachuting as a carefully choreographed, gravity-defying exercise.
So I asked to join the BAC as a civilian participant to write about it from a first-person point of view. But, you guessed it, my request was denied again.
The risk is too great, they said. The course is too gruelling.
What the army really meant, of course, was: We don't want you to die on us.
The army was, understandably, being ultra-cautious.
As I came to observe, the first priority in jump training is to minimise the element of risk.
During the intense three-week course, soldiers are rehearsed in their drills hundreds of times. Pre-flight checks, aircraft exits, emergency procedures and parachute landing falls are practised so often they become second nature.
On jump day, every parachutist is checked, checked again, and then checked a third time to ensure their equipment is in order.
There is no room for error, because once a soldier leaves the aircraft, he is alone, and everything must function exactly as it should.
And it was gruelling.
To photograph the training, I had to climb up and down a tower used for training jumps numerous times, run across fields to chase trainees as they glided through the air suspended from steel cables, fly aboard helicopters and transport aircraft, and jog across seemingly endless airfields.
Each time, I carried 15kg of camera gear and contorted myself into unusual positions under the blazing sun and in the pouring rain to get a picture.
At the end of each day, I was completely winded.
But all this was not good enough. I felt I could not write about jumping if I did not at least try it myself.
During the last phase of ground training, where the trainees confront their fear of heights by leaping off a 10m-high tower, I asked if I could have a go.
"Are you sure?" asked First Warrant Officer (1WO) Chan Teck Seng, the officer-in-charge that day. I had met him the previous year aboard a Super Puma helicopter when photographing the Red Lions, the SAF's display parachutists, performing at the National Day Parade.
Then, he told me in no uncertain terms that I was crazy for wanting to perform a tandem free fall with the Red Lions team leader. (I went ahead and did it.)
"Yes," I replied now. "And I want to do it exactly like the trainees do it."
He sighed, but asked an instructor to lend me a helmet, jumpsuit, parachute harness and reserve parachute pack.
I had just 10 minutes to suit up and practise the aircraft exit drill with the instructor, before jogging off to the tower to face my fears.
It is four storeys up to the jump exit, but by the second flight of stairs, I was gasping.
The instructors at the top guffawed when they saw me coming up. The trainees were delighted.
I must have looked a novelty - a grinning, geeky journalist, all suited up and eager to get down and dirty.
I was placed in a group of four jumpers and hooked up to the harness that would simulate a parachute opening and break my fall.
"Five seconds, stand in the door!" the instructor bellowed.
I nervously shuffled to the opening with my hands over the reserve parachute pack, looked down, and saw to my horror that the entire course, together with the instructors and the media relations officers, were watching.
I mentally rehearsed what seemed like an incredibly complicated series of things I would have to do once I stepped off the ledge.
"Green on, go!" cried the instructor.
In that instant, one half of my brain baulked at the thought of hurling myself off the building, asking: Are you mad?"
The other half shouted: "What are you waiting for? Go!"
I pushed off as hard as I could and leapt into space.
"Tuck in your chin," said my brain. "Start counting."
"One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, check!" I shouted as best as I could, my stomach stuck in my throat.
I vaguely recall my voice quavering with fear, and the subsequent twanging of the harness as it broke my fall and bounced me up and down a braided steel cable.
The trainees at the end of the line waiting to break my fall grinned broadly as I came in to land. When I walked past the training shed, the course erupted into applause.
I grinned and waved at them.
1WO Chan was not so pleased.
"You were so busy counting you forgot to keep your feet together!" he chided.
"I'll do it again," I volunteered.
This time, I was queued up behind a trainee who had not quite got over the reluctance to jump off a building.
After several minutes of patient persuasion by the instructors, he decided to take a break before trying again.
Such instances are rare, said 1WO Chan, and most trainees eventually conquer their fear of heights and make the tower jump.
As I stepped out of the tower the second time, it was no longer frightening. I could focus on the exit drills, keeping my feet together throughout.
"Much better," observed 1WO Chan, when I was safely on the ground and removing my kit, which was soaked in perspiration.
For some trainees, one tower jump is all it takes to pass this stage. Others make as many as eight jumps before the instructors are satisfied with their performance.
For me, experiencing a small but significant part of what the trainees go through was enough to make my day.