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Why time in the cockpit is never enough for this F-16 fighter pilot
Colonel (COL) Sebastian Chai from the Republic of Singapore Air Force
Colonel (COL) Sebastian Chai from the Republic of Singapore Air Force enjoys the camaraderie he shares with his fellow fighter pilots as they go through thick and thin together. PHOTO: MINDEF

Each time this SAF Merit scholar takes to the skies, he is reminded that protecting S’pore and his loved ones is the reason why he goes to work every day

As a fighter pilot with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), there are a few things that Colonel (COL) Sebastian Chai would like to clear up about the iconic 1986 movie Top Gun.

One of the most famous scenes, where actor Tom Cruise’s character, Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, “buzzes” the control tower, is grounds for extreme disciplinary action. 

Such a low fly-by pass very close to the control tower at high speeds would likely even cost a pilot his wings, emphasises COL Chai, 38. 

“I always tell people that if they’re thinking of becoming a pilot because of that one scene, they’ve taken precisely the wrong message away from it,” he says with a laugh.

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Also, very few fighter pilots actually drive like they fly. He personally drives his car slightly under the speed limit, especially when his family is with him. 

He’s saving his speed for the cockpit, he likes to retort.

However, Top Gun did paint a surprisingly accurate picture of the camaraderie enjoyed by fighter pilots.

“You can see in the movie the sort of rapport that the team has, going through thick and thin and working hard together – it really bonds the team together,” says COL Chai, who is currently RSAF’s Head of Air Intelligence Department. “What really shines through is the sense of purpose.” 

The last thing that the RSAF needs is over-confident pilots who think they know everything, he continues. “That’s how people get complacent, and that’s how incidents can happen.”

COL Chai reckons 90 per cent of the best pilots are more like “Iceman”, Maverick’s counterpart played by Val Kilmer. Just like his call sign suggests, fighter pilots need to remain cool under fire and have excellent knowledge of their fundamentals.

Even from the very first training stages, every pilot engages in what COL Chai calls “mental flying”: Miming in-flight procedures as though they were in the cockpit, so the actions of pulling toggles and flipping switches become ingrained into their memory.

However, when the mission requires it, pilots need to channel their inner Maverick – to be aggressive, decisive and able to think out of the box.

This is why knowledge of fundamentals is so important, stresses COL Chai. “At any given time, you have to know exactly where your hands are, where your eyes are looking.”

This frees up a pilot’s mind to think critically in a stressful scenario, letting them approach a situation in a way that will allow them to come out on top.

Choosing the right path

COL Chai (with CPT Wilson Tan in the rear cockpit) is reminded of the millions of Singaporeans he has sworn to defend each time he takes to the skies in his F-16 jet. PHOTO: MINDEF

Most of COL Chai’s fighter pilot peers will probably cite Top Gun as one of the major motivations behind their joining the RSAF, he says. It certainly was one of his.

He takes every opportunity to watch it and its sequel. Even on overseas flights, he often forgoes the latest movies on the in-flight entertainment system to spend time with his on-screen buddies Maverick, Iceman and Goose.

So it comes as quite the surprise that the very model of a fighter pilot nearly became a doctor instead. 

“I was quite serious about becoming a doctor at first,” says COL Chai. He had even gone for several hospital internships between his secondary school and junior college enrolment to find out more about a medical career and where his passions lay. 

However, he found the call of the sky irresistible, especially after attending several Ministry of Defence (Mindef) engagement events, where he had the opportunity to talk to several pilots. 

Enthralled by their stories of working in different countries, training with air forces all over the world, and immersing themselves in different cultures, he made up his mind to apply for – and eventually receive – the SAF Merit Scholarship in 2004.

He went on to read mechanical engineering at Imperial College London, earning his master’s degree. 

“Pilot training really affirmed my decision to try for the scholarship,” he says. “It was the camaraderie that I experienced with my fellow airmen and women, the like-mindedness and singular dedication towards mission success that really drew me in. 

“I saw in the RSAF something that was purposeful, not profit-driven; a career in which I could be part of something larger than myself.”

A reason to keep pushing

COL Chai’s two years of pilot training as a cadet were possibly the hardest of his life. The training process took him across various countries, from Singapore to Australia, and later even to the United States.

On top of a heavy study load, including learning the basics of flight theory, air navigation, avionics and meteorology, he and his fellow cadets were also put through gruelling training that pushed them to their physical limits.

“I saw in the RSAF something that was purposeful, not profit-driven; a career in which I could be part of something larger than myself.”

Colonel Sebastian Chai, recipient of the SAF Merit Scholarship

Most notorious is the centrifuge qualification, which all fighter pilots have to pass in order to renew their certification every few years. 

Just the mention of it makes COL Chai shake his head. “It doesn’t matter how many hundreds or thousands of hours you have in the cockpit – many pilots dread the centrifuge.”

In a combat situation, fighter pilots may be subjected to high levels of acceleration – known as g-forces – equivalent to up to nine times earth’s gravity, depriving their brain of the blood necessary to function. This can result in a catastrophic g-induced loss of consciousness, which pilots colloquially call g-LOC. 

It is to combat g-LOC that pilots are made to undergo centrifuge training. By being spun in a centrifuge, pilots are subjected to the same tremendous g-forces they would feel in combat, testing their ability to stay conscious through breathing control and other physiological techniques.

However, being subjected to crushing acceleration force is not the worst part; it is returning to regular gravity that is.

Sealed within the centrifuge capsule, pilots are unable to see the outside world. As such, as the centrifuge slows, they have no visual reference with which to orientate themselves, resulting in a highly nauseating feeling as the centrifuge slows. 

Vomiting is not uncommon for the uninitiated, adds COL Chai.

That said, nothing – not even repeated sessions in the centrifuge – can keep him from getting his fighter pilot qualification.

Life in the skies

In his two-decade career within the RSAF, COL Chai has led over 100 men as the Commanding Officer of 145 Squadron – a fighter squadron – and represented the RSAF at the United States Air Force’s prestigious Air Command and Staff College. 

He has also worked in Mindef’s Defence Policy Office. Currently, as the Head of the Air Intelligence Department, he leads his team in strengthening defence relations with key partner air forces all across the world.

When asked about the proudest moment of his career, COL Chai does not hesitate for a second. It is, without question, his parents pinning his wings on his uniform when he completed his pilot training in 2012.

It was almost 20 years ago, but the memory is still clear in his mind. He is reminded of it every time he takes off from the airbase in his F-16 Fighting Falcon, watching the Singapore landscape race away beneath him. Along with these familiar sights, what comes to mind are his parents, his wife and two daughters, and the millions of Singaporeans whom he has sworn to defend with his life.

“Seeing Singapore beneath me every time I fly gives me a renewed sense of purpose,” says COL Chai. “It reminds me of why I do my job – to protect my loved ones and Singapore’s way of life.”

Of course, flying is its own reward too, he admits with a grin. COL Chai is a seasoned active fighter pilot, with over 1,200 flight hours clocked, and over 90 per cent of them in the cockpit of the F-16. 

“No fighter pilot will ever say they have had enough time in the air,” he says.

About MINDEF/SAF Scholarships
The mission of MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is to enhance Singapore’s peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor. MINDEF/SAF continually seeks talent who are willing to take up the challenge of defending our nation. Taking up a MINDEF/SAF scholarship is a lifelong mission to contribute to the peace and security of Singapore. Answer the higher calling. Defend what matters.

This article is brought to you by the Ministry of Defence.

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