Commentary: Noisy RSAF aircraft and annoyed residents - some compromises are needed
With more people working from home, military aircraft taking off and landing can affect residents but let’s not forget flight training is essential to upkeep operational readiness, says Mike Yeo.
SINGAPORE: The issue of aircraft noise from Republic of Singapore Air Force aircraft flying over HDB estates has reared its head again.
Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen responded to a question raised in Parliament by Potong Pasir Member of Parliament Sitoh Yih Pin, who asked if the RSAF would consider reducing the number of early morning training sessions of military aircraft near residential areas, given more residents work from home.
Responding in writing, Dr Ng explained the RSAF is already taking measures to reduce its noise footprint, with half of its flying training carried out with aircraft detachments based overseas in countries like Australia, France and the United States.
Locally, these measures include increased use of flight simulators and the use of overwater training areas for training, with efforts to avoid flying over Singapore except when unavoidable, such as during take-off, landing and the transit to the RSAF’s designated training areas.
The RSAF also clusters its sorties from Paya Lebar and Tengah Airbases as much as possible. This is to ensure the take-off cycle, where noise is loudest because the aircraft has to use higher power settings to accelerate, is kept as short as possible.
However, he stressed that while “we recognise the inconvenience and disruption to residents here”, RSAF pilots need to train adequately to maintain their skills and not let their capabilities degrade, noting that “it is critical for Singapore's survival to maintain a capable and operationally-ready RSAF”.
NOISE AND SPACE-STARVED SINGAPORE
Aircraft noise affecting nearby residential areas is a perennial bugbear for most air forces in developed countries. Unfortunately, in land-scarce Singapore, the issue is further supercharged by the proximity of our airbases to high-density residential areas.
The problem would be most acute at HDB estates like Sengkang and Punggol, which lie directly under the flightpath of RSAF fighter jets taking off from Paya Lebar Airbase.
Aircraft typically make a sharp 180 degree turn while climbing to avoid Malaysian airspace, which as Dr Ng noted in his reply, is a mere 6km away from the northern end of Paya Lebar’s runway.
Since the start of measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, more Singaporeans had to work from home. Singapore is more exposed to the noise compared to before when they would more likely to be at their offices and other workplaces further away from the flightpath when RSAF jets are flying.
It can be quite tough if you are in a Zoom meeting which starts at the same time as an aircraft’s take-off cycle. A typical air force take-off cycle may take up to 15 minutes, involving anywhere from two to eight aircraft, with one taking off every two to three minutes.
Dr Ng added that the RSAF made changes to flying activities considering more people are home. These include keeping the level of local flying activities to the minimum needed to maintain operational readiness, and spread the flights across the week and on selected weekends.
This is in addition to the RSAF adjusting its training tempo to accommodate sensitive periods, such as when national school examinations are held where he said that the frequency of flights will be reduced and night flying activities will end earlier.
MILITARY TRAINING ON HOLD
Like many other sectors, militaries have also been affected by the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to being drafted to assist in pandemic response like the SAF has, they have seen training activities curtailed or cancelled altogether, with potential knock-on impact on operational readiness.
A good example of this is this year’s iteration of the multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in Hawaii. The biennial exercise is usually held in June but was pushed back to August this year.
Instead of the typical naval, air and land exercise involving as many as 30 nations, 50 vessels and 25,000 personnel from around the Pacific Rim participating, this year’s event saw only 10 countries, 23 vessels and 5,300 personnel take part and only consisting of an at-sea phase, with barely any face-to-face interaction among the various national delegations.
Similarly, the RSAF has seen two of its biggest overseas multilateral air combat exercises cancelled for the first time in their over 20-year history due to the pandemic.
This includes the 2,000-strong annual air combat Exercise Cope Tiger with the Royal Thai Air Force and the United States military in Thailand, and the biennial, large-force employment multinational Exercise Pitch Black in northern Australia.
Also cancelled was an RSAF exercise involving its Peace Carvin V training detachment in Idaho earlier this year.
A US-based contractor was scheduled to provide adversary support for the event, which would have seen the contractor’s own aircraft act as the “bad guys” flying an advanced enemy aircraft, to provide a realistic threat vector against Singapore’s Boeing F-15SG fighter jets in an advanced air combat setting.
The cancellations mean valuable opportunities for RSAF pilots to accrue critical training hours in less restrictive and confined airspace and in realistic training exercises have been lost.
The loss in flying hours at these overseas exercises must be made up elsewhere, given that pilots will need a certain number of flying hours each month to maintain proficiency.
While some can be accrued flying in full motion simulators that come close to replicating actual flight time, this cannot replace the need for pilots to spend actual time flying aircraft.
Even the best flight simulators are unable to provide the stress of life-threatening situations, unprecedented combinations of events, and the potential life-changing decision making that are part and parcel of live-flying.
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
In his reply, Dr Ng cited the events of 1941 to 1942 to remind Parliament of the importance of having an air force able to dominate the air during a battle.
There are many reasons behind how a smaller, relatively lightly equipped Japanese force was able to advance more than 500km and capture Singapore from the British a mere 70 days after landing in Kota Bharu, but a crucial factor behind their stunning victory was Japanese dominance of the air.
While it was true that the Brewster Buffalo fighters deployed by the Commonwealth forces were markedly inferior to their Japanese counterparts, the Commonwealth pilots were also poorly trained. This left them unable to exploit whatever precious little performance advantages their mounts had over their adversaries.
This meant that in the final weeks of the battle for Singapore, Japanese bombers had a virtual free hand to rain death and destruction on the ground below, unchallenged by the British Royal Air Force, which had already been thoroughly defeated by then.
The effect of this lack of training was underscored by Finnish pilots a few years later, who with better training and more experience, held their own in combat against a vastly numerically superior Soviet Air Force while flying essentially the same Buffalo fighters.
These are indeed unusual and trying times, with massive disruptions to all walks of life due to the pandemic.
People, already frazzled by a new normal that is anything but and are understandably frustrated by yet another disruption to their work life. The noise of planes flying overhead can trigger these frustrations.
But perhaps the next time you hear the roar of a jet or the whirring of helicopters, think about how these men and women need their training.
And in tiny Singapore, this is a small sacrifice we need to make in order to have a well-oiled military machine.
Mike Yeo is a defence journalist and author who writes for Defense News and the Australian Defence Business Review. He is the author of Desperate Sunset: Japan’s Kamikazes against Allied Ships, 1944-45 and is currently writing a book about the air war over Malaya and Singapore.