ROCKHAMPTON (Queensland) - Compared with urbanised Singapore, the vast farmland, forests, and valleys in Oakey, Australia provide a more conducive training ground for helicopter pilots.
In the last 20 years, training in the Queensland area 17 times the size of Singapore has benefited more than 150 Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Super Puma pilots.
The air force marked 20 years of helicopter training in Oakey at a commemorative event in Warriors' Camp, Rockhampton, on Saturday (Nov 10).
It was attended by Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How and Australia Assistant Minister for Defence David Fawcett.
The Oakey Detachment, opened in August this year, operates the CH-47D Chinooks, while the Oakey Training Centre operates the AS332 Super Pumas - the first of which arrived in 1998.
They run courses to train pilots to become operationally ready, basic qualification courses for aircrew specialists, and refresher courses.
In his speech, Mr Heng said the anniversary celebration is yet another reflection of the deep and longstanding friendship between the two defence establishments and countries.
He added that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the Australian Defence Force boast a long track record of cooperation, with extensive bilateral and multilateral interaction, including joint deployments in the Middle East as part of the coalition to defeat ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).
"We have grown closer by exercising and deploying together," said Mr Heng, before unveiling with Mr Fawcett a symbolic mural of the Super Puma and Chinook helicopters as part of the celebrations.
Mr Fawcett said in his speech: "The fact that Singapore along with the United States are the only two nations that Australia allows to train unilaterally is an indication of the depth of trust we have."
He added that the fact that the RSAF has integrated well with the local community gave Australia the confidence to expand its relationship with Singapore.
The RSAF's history in Oakey began with an agreement signed by then-Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Tony Tan and Australia's then-Defence Minister Ian McLachlan in 1996.
The Oakey Agreement allowed the RSAF to deploy up to 16 helicopters to train its pilots in the area. The first training began in 1998.
A current agreement signed in 2012 by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and his counterpart, then-Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith, allows training in Oakey to continue until 2027.
In addition to Oakey, the RSAF also conducts flying training at the Flying Training Institute Detachment in Pearce, Western Australia, and the Air Grading Centre in Tamworth, New South Wales.
A Mindef statement on Saturday said the large airspace at Oakey allows the RSAF to conduct challenging and realistic training.
It also allows integrated training with the Army to sharpen the SAF's edge in air projection and air-land integrated operations, the statement added.
Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Roy Chew, 41, who is Oakey Detachment Commander, told reporters that the vast training area and natural terrain provides an excellent opportunity to hone the flying skills and core competencies of RSAF's air crew operators.
"It helps pilots understand the challenges in flying through terrain such as narrow valleys and circumnavigating high features. That allows us to sharpen our terrain identification as well," he said.
More than 200 airmen and their families live in the city of Toowoomba, about 30km from Oakey and 125km west of Brisbane. Personnel are posted to Oakey for two to three years at a stretch.
Along with volunteering in the community, RSAF personnel also meet land owners in the Oakey training air space every year to understand their concerns.
Said LTC Chew: "The farmers here generously provide their land for our training. We are able to land on their farms with no additional cost.
"So it's very important for us to engage the community, to let them know why this training is important to us, and further garner their support for future training."
He added that pilots often land on farmlands, as there is a need to simulate scenarios such as troop insertion and extrication.
Second Warrant Officer Premnath Chandran, 36, who is a Super Puma Air Crew Specialist with Oakey Training Centre, has been in Australia with his wife, 35, a seven-year-old son and a year-old daughter, for 20 months.
"The pace of life here is slower compared to Singapore. The people of Toowoomba are very used to having SAF personnel here. They are familiar with us, and are very welcoming and friendly."