From jumping off a plane to leading 1,000 cadets: RSAF officer among top US Air Force Academy graduates
SINGAPORE: In all her life, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Lieutenant (LTA) Christabel Chai, 24, had never jumped out of a plane.
So when she was required to do so by herself, not once but five times, while attending the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado, fear naturally set in.
To overcome this, LTA Chai thought of the numerous road marches she endured as a recruit during Basic Military Training (BMT) back in 2015, carrying heavy packs and trudging for kilometres in the sweltering heat.
These marches "definitely gave me an edge in my US Jump Wings experience in terms of mental resilience and not giving up even when I was afraid, tired, and unsure", she told CNA in an email interview on Friday (May 1).
LTA Chai said she eventually mustered the courage to do the solo jumps, relying on her training and building her confidence to make decisions in unpredictable weather conditions.
"While this may seem like an individualistic activity, teamwork was extremely crucial in every step of our preparation and training in order to eventually earn my US Jump Wings," she added.
GRADUATING WITH FLYING COLOURS
But the coveted badge LTA Chai got last November was not the only accolade to come out of her four years at USAFA.
She also graduated in the top 10 per cent of her cohort of close to 1,000 cadets from around the world, including from countries like Georgia, Japan and Macedonia.
Cadets are assessed on their academic excellence, military performance and athletic ability.
The Singapore Embassy in Washington DC, in a Facebook post on Apr 21, congratulated LTA Chai for being honoured as a distinguished graduate. The post also featured a photo of her holding up a Singapore flag at the graduation ceremony.
According to the US Embassy in Singapore, LTA Chai is also the first woman from Southeast Asia and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to be selected for the prestigious programme.
Cadets applying to the programme must be nominated by a congressman, and even then the acceptance rate is a meagre 10 per cent.
To be clear, it is like Singapore's Officer Cadet School (OCS) and a university education rolled into one.
"It is not merely an academic college programme, but also incorporates many aspects of professional military training," LTA Chai said.
"This includes dedicated focus on character building and leadership training, an understanding of the rules and regulations within the military to maintain good order and discipline."
LTA Chai said the programme also exposed her to Air Force operations such as flying planes and gliders, launching satellites into space and solo free-fall jumps.
Cadets graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree and are commissioned into the US Air Force or US Space Force.
LTA Chai, already a commissioned Air Warfare Officer (Air Battle Management) directing RSAF aircraft during air combat missions, said she was initially hesitant to apply for the overseas programme.
But she decided to go for it with the encouragement of her uncle, an F-16 fighter pilot in the RSAF.
"I think that the military academy programmes ... produce a very elite corp of individuals and commissioned officers for the military, who will dedicate their lives to serving their country," she said.
Getting accepted wasn't easy.
LTA Chai got recommendations from her commanders, submitted numerous applications and tackled three rounds of interviews to first get nominated by Singapore.
Then she went through the USAFA selection and a series of interviews with the US Defence Attaché in Singapore. She believes the process also assessed her leadership experiences, academic and training course grades, as well as fitness tests and extra-curricular activities.
LTA Chai recalls running on the treadmill one afternoon when she got the good news.
"Honestly, I am very honoured and humbled that I was trusted with the opportunity to represent not just the SAF and Singapore, but also the female population at large," she said.
LTA Chai started her programme in 2016 majoring in behavioural sciences with a focus on sociology, but it wasn't all smooth sailing through the four years.
She admitted it was not easy being away from her family and friends in an unfamiliar culture and environment. She also put "immense pressure" on herself to "fly Singapore's flag high" while she was there.
On the ground, she had to juggle the rigours of her academic schedule with the need to keep exceptionally fit.
She also had to balance other responsibilities, from holding leadership positions, like when she became Squadron Commander or Group Director of Operations taking charge of more than 100 and 1,000 cadets respectively.
LTA Chai said her training in the SAF, including her experience in leadership roles at OCS, taught her how to manage her time well, pay attention to details and prioritise the needs of others above her own.
"Those experiences allowed me to make certain decisions that benefitted the Squadron and Group that I would not have made, if I did not have prior experience in the SAF," she said.
On a personal level, she relied on the support of her family, friends and SAF commanders back home, as well as her US sponsor family and USAFA friends and commanders.
These bonds "were pivotal in my ability to find comfort in a challenging and unfamiliar environment", she said.
FLYING THE FLAG
At the graduation ceremony, LTA Chai brought a Singapore flag along to show how proud she was to be a Singaporean international cadet at USAFA.
She said the moment made her cry tears of "pride, joy and gratefulness", a reflection of four years of "blood, sweat and tears".
"I did not plan for that photo but was actually too overwhelmed by emotions," she said, dedicating her achievement to everyone who supported her on her journey.
"I wanted to show the world the Singapore flag, which caused me to stand up on the chair while waving the flag proudly."
READ: Away from family to defend the skies: Some RSAF crew live on base as part of COVID-19 adjustments
But it was only when LTA Chai was leaving the US for Singapore that she discovered she had graduated with flying colours.
"Since I first came to USAFA, I knew that I wanted to always try my very best to be the best version of myself at all times, and to achieve as much as I could, so that I will not disappoint the people who supported me," she said.
"I definitely felt a huge sense of accomplishment and relief that I was in the top 10 per cent of my class, as this has been a goal that I have been striving toward since my freshman year."
NEXT CHAPTER BECKONS
For now, LTA Chai is already back in Singapore and will continue her operational training in the same role for RSAF.
"I am very excited to go back to my squadron to learn and hone my competencies as a controller, as well as my leadership skills as an officer, and continue to do my part to defend Singapore’s skies," she said.
"I hope to utilise my skills, leadership and knowledge gained over the past years to better lead the airmen and women under my wings."
It is just the next step in a career that began when she enlisted in 2015, after graduating from Anglo-Chinese Junior College, where her interest in history spurred her decision to join the military.
"I was offered the SAF Merit Scholarship and thought it was a good opportunity to be in an unconventional and unique career field, while serving my country and protecting everything I value," she said.
LTA Chai advised young Singaporean women looking to forge a career in the military to always be humble and hungry.
"Never forget the people who helped you to get to where you are, and become the person you are today," she added.
"Never lose the drive to improve and learn from those around you, as well as from your own mistakes."
Indeed, this drive pushed LTA Chai through her time at USAFA.
"The opportunity to just be able to represent Singapore in an overseas military academy, and donning the Singapore flag on my uniform, makes it worth every single sacrifice," she said.