PHOENIX: It is a picture of calm at the Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field in Arizona. Night has fallen and all is quiet, save for a few Republic of Singapore Air Force personnel milling about with mini torchlights.
In a modified trailer beside a dark, empty stretch of runway, Second Lieutenant (2LT) Luis Lo is calm too, but focused. The Heron-1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilot, on his first overseas exercise, is readying his craft for take-off.
There are three Heron-1 UAVs involved in this year’s Exercise Forging Sabre, which the Singapore Armed Forces has been conducting in the US. The drones provide eyes on a target, giving a clear picture for air and land shooters to finish it off.
2LT Lo is a full-time national serviceman (NSF) – the only NSF who can operationally fly the Heron-1 UAV. But the 21-year-old is far from being a novice, as he confidently rattled off flight jargon to his pilot-in-command, who was seated to his right.
In front of him were multiple screens showing a real-time view from the drone, its fight parameters and radar information. His hands lingered on a joystick and a mouse.
It might sound like a gaming set-up, but flying a UAV is serious stuff, 2LT Lo said earlier. “It’s a vocation where mistakes are not easily forgiven.” Every stage of flight is a slip-up waiting to happen.
So, every stage completed is celebrated. “The time that we actually do take off – that’s the first milestone,” he added. “That means you did your job well. You managed to get the aircraft airborne on time.”
Now that the craft is in the air, it is a case of multi-tasking with both hands and eyes. Flying is “more of a click and drag type of thing”, 2LT Lo said. “But we give manual inputs to the aircraft as well.”
This means that the pilot has to ensure that flight parameters like airspeed and altitude are consistently optimal, something that counts as the “bread and butter” of the job.
“Flying a UAV, we are stuck in the station, so it’s not like driving a car, where you can feel the reaction of the car,” he added. “The only part we can breathe is when the aircraft has established a flying altitude.”
Next up is actually seeing a target on the screen, which 2LT Lo said brings a wave of relief, because it shows he studied the terrain properly and now has eyes on the enemy. But this quickly changes to the anxiety of “I better not lose this target”.
“So, it’s a roller-coaster of emotions,” he added. “But the word focus comes back again because you would try to stabilise your hands and maintain your course on the target.” This is done while listening for instructions from commanders.
It is a taxing job, but 2LT Lo is not alone. The pilot-in-command can operate the drone’s camera during crucial missions.
What’s next? “It depends on whether they want us to strike or observe,” 2LT Lo replied.
2LT Lo said the most satisfying thing is seeing a bomb go off on a target he successfully located and observed. “The moment is a bit surreal, that actually as an NSF, you get to do that.”
Still, with great power comes great responsibility, and 2LT Lo is fully aware of this.
“I understand the magnitude of the tasks at hand,” he said. Simple things like noting down information must be done carefully too, he added. “If the wrong details are broadcast, the whole mission will turn upside down.”
The fact that success is so crucial for UAV missions means training is “pretty stringent”. When 2LT Lo was still a trainee at Officer Cadet School (OCS), a fellow trainee - and buddy - dropped out.
“Not everyone makes it through training,” he said. “This vocation demands a certain level of character and skill set. I guess it requires more determination and psychological cognitive skills.”
His buddy could not graduate because he failed to complete a specific number of sorties, something 2LT Lo compared to driving tests.
“Immediate failures include flying outside the boundaries or flying in an unsafe manner,” he said. “If you rack up enough minor failures like lights not being configured properly, you would fail the sortie as well.”
Naturally, 2LT Lo was sad about his buddy. After all, they were the only two in their batch to be posted to become UAV pilots. “He dropped out almost three-quarters of the way through, so it affected morale a bit.”
2LT Lo started questioning his ability, but family and friends pushed him on. His commanding officer told him to have faith because he was picked by a system that had “run you through its matrix”.
After a week, 2LT Lo and his buddy were already laughing it off. His friend told him to do his best. “After a while, you realise that you still have to go on,” he said.
It has been nearly three months since 2LT Lo became operational, and he has about eight months to go before he completes his NS.
But 2LT Lo has decided against signing on so that he can pursue an economics degree at Nanyang Technological University. While he had considered becoming a regular, he wants to complete full-time studies first.
After that, who knows? 2LT Lo has not ruled out returning to the force, or working in the commercial drone industry back home.
“Singapore has a lot of talk about it, but things need to be firmed up first,” he said. “When more solid frameworks come into mind and there’s a need for such a skillset, I might consider it.”
After all, the Temasek Polytechnic graduate, who has a Diploma in Aviation Management and Services, has always had a passion for flying. This started young when he travelled a fair bit with his parents, who are long-time cabin crew.
When he got posted to become a UAV pilot, they were delighted for him. “My mum’s mentality was like, good for you – no need to go outfield,” he said with a laugh.
2LT Lo might belong to a pretty exclusive group of NSFs who can fly UAVs, but he said this is never the focus.
“I have very close friends from all the other services and vocations, so I feel that as long as we are all doing our part, it doesn’t make a difference because we are all serving our nation.”