PERTH, Australia: “Did you have to convince your wife?” asked a reporter.
Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Captain (CPT) Alvin Leow glanced over at his wife, Mindy Poh, and chuckled.
“Initially. The thing that was difficult was for her to temporarily give up her career to be here,” he replied.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the RSAF’s 25th anniversary of training in Pearce Base on Monday (Nov 12), the Singaporean family of four recounted their decision to make the move to the RSAF Flying Training Institute (FTI) in Pearce for CPT Leow’s two-year detachment in August last year.
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His two young children and wife had followed suit – but not without having to make sacrifices: His wife had to leave her job in banking and his son Reyes, five, and daughter Reanne, two, their grandparents and friends at school.
The Pearce detachment, which belongs to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), is home to the RSAF’s 130 Squadron, which trains trainee pilots, and the Standard Squadron which trains the instructors who train pilots-to-be.
The FTI operates in a training area that is 14 times larger than Singapore’s training airspace, allowing for RSAF to undergo realistic training.
As a QFI, CPT Leow trains the younger generation of pilots in not only achieving the flying skills required to graduate but also “building them and moulding them into future leaders of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)”.
Almost every RSAF pilot and Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) has to walk the hallowed halls of Pearce Detachment for their 30-week long Basic Wings course, before they are streamed to different platforms such as Fighter Wings Course, Rotary Wings Course or Transport Wings Course for more training.
Some 1,600 pilots, WSOs and QFIs have graduated from the Pearce Detachment since it began operations in 1993.
“We were given a choice and I took up the offer. Being an instructor is a different ballgame compared to just flying the aircraft by itself. Other than just flying, we play the role of a mentor and coach as well to build the next generation, which is very meaningful,” said the 35-year-old CPT Leow, himself a graduate of the Standard Squadron’s Flying Instructor Course.
“At the start, the kids suffered from a little bit of relocation anxiety. But we tried to call home regularly – in fact, almost every night – so that they feel more comfortable here,” said Mindy, now a homemaker.
A STRONG SUPPORT COMMUNITY
The presence of some 200 other RSAF personnel and families stationed in Pearce has also helped the Leows with the move: A “strong wives support community” of sorts has sprung up, said CPT Leow.
“(After) the kids go to school, most of the time, we meet up with the other wives for lunch. After yoga, we go to each others’ houses to cook food that reminds us of home,” said Mindy.
“Any time we need help, we don’t have a problem getting help. Everyone is more than willing to extend a helping hand to us.”
Within a few weeks of relocating, with the help of the community and the RSAF’s start-up allowance to help families acclimatise smoothly, the kids settled in and started to adapt to their new environment.
CPT Leow pilots and is instructor for PC-21 planes – an advanced tandem-seat turboprop aircraft.
With nine months left to go to the end of his detachment, CPT Leow believes the uprooting was worth it.
“Life is less hectic here … the time spent with the family, the bonding that we get, you can’t exchange it for anything else,” he added.
Mindy agreed, saying: “I think it is also a bit of a privilege and (I’m) fortunate that I can forego working for a while and watch my kids grow – hitting certain milestones, chances I probably would not have if I was a working mum. To a certain extent, it’s quite satisfying for me.”
CELEBRATING 25 YEARS AT PEARCE BASE
Although five-year-old Reyes shook his head firmly when this reporter asked if he aspired to be a pilot like his father, he was all smiles when his father took to the skies later that day for the silver jubilee celebrations of RSAF’s training at Pearce.
Flying in a diamond formation, four turboprop PC-21 aircraft – two from the RSAF and two from the RAAF – soared over the celebrations in a combined flypast.
Hosted by Commander of the RSAF’s Air Force Training Command Colonel Kevin Goh, the event was attended by Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How as well as RSAF personnel, their families and senior Australian defence personnel.
Mr Robert Chua, the first Commanding Officer (CO) of 130 SQN when it moved to Pearce in 1993, was also in attendance at the commemoration.
Speaking at the ceremony, Mr Heng said: “This anniversary is a strong symbol of the deep friendship between our two defence establishments, and indeed between Australia and Singapore.
“Fifty years of commitment to this detachment by both our countries sends a very clear and powerful message – which is one of enduring friendship and trust that is truly exceptional.”
It was in March 1993 that the RSAF signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the RAAF to establish the flying training detachment at RAAF Base Pearce.
Last year, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen and his Australian counterpart then, Marise Payne, signed an upgrade to the MOU, extending the RSAF's training access at RAAF Base Pearce for another 25 years until 2043.
A LONG HISTORY OF MILITARY COOPERATION
Mr Heng, who was earlier in Rockhampton to participate in the commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the RSAF’s Helicopter Training detachment in Oakey and witness Exercise Trident and Exercise Wallaby operations, enthused about the long history of military cooperation between the SAF and the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
Noting Singapore’s constraints as a small country, Mr Heng acknowledged the “valuable and generous opportunity offered by the Australian government” to the RSAF to train in Pearce.
He also conveyed his appreciation of the local community, adding: “I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to the local community in Pearce for welcoming us into their midst and for the hospitality that you have shown to the RSAF and its personnel for the last 25 years.”
After witnessing the first-ever joint flypast by the RSAF and RAAF, Mr Heng unveiled a commemorative plaque as well as tail flash on a PC-21 plane, before participating in a symbolic tree planting ceremony.
Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Lim, Commanding Officer of the 130 Squadron, attested to the “special relationship” between the two forces.
“The 25th anniversary itself is as a testament of the friendship between the two countries of Australia and Singapore,” he said.
“For a country of Singapore’s size, and the geopolitics that we live in, we want to have as many friends in the region as possible. Australia and Singapore share a very important bilateral relation that dates back to post-World War Two as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangement.”
His counterpart, RAAF Wing Commander Brett Mitchell, declared that the flypast was “wonderful” and demonstrated the “closeness and the friendship between the two nations”.
He also echoed LTC Lim’s thoughts, adding: “The 25th anniversary is very significant for both air forces but more important, it symbolises the relationship we’ve had with Singapore for the last 25 years. And today just presents an opportunity to reflect on that and celebrate that opportunity.”