Pilot who flew Singapore’s state flag at NDP says this is the key to a successful mission

Lieutenant Colonel Liao Ming Hao (second from right) together with the flight crew involved in the state flag flypast for National Day Parade 2017.

He has the glorious job of flying the state flag across the Marina skyline in front of a whole nation, but in reality, the demands of Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Liao Minghao’s job requires unimaginable effort.

As commanding officer of the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) 127 Squadron, LTC Liao was part of the crew tasked with completing one of the most exciting highlights at the National Day Parade (NDP) in 2016 and 2017.

Needless to say, it isn’t easy to pull off such a big feat. Flying a flag across the sky for one minute looks easy on TV, but there’s a lot at stake when the pilots are carrying out their mission.

Just getting the 18.2m by 27m hand-sewn flags prepared is tedious enough. Flag preparation requires the teamwork of around 300 people, LTC Liao told Business Insider over the phone.

And the whole process doesn’t involve just one flag. The team also needs to prepare flags for numerous rehearsals carried out over a few months and on the ground at various sites. There are also two more back-up flags in the air during the performance.

Just because he has gone through the experience once doesn’t mean the second time will be a breeze.

“It’s different every time because each (mission) profile is different,” LTC Liao says.

Last year, the flypast happened over the National Stadium, and LTC Liao and his team had to time their flypast according to the live video feed broadcast to the audience.

On Wednesday, however, the flypast was held over the floating platform at Marina Bay, where the audience was able to see the state flag glide across the sky.

While the challenges for each of these situations were different, the same flawless precision was required of the pilots each time.

High pressure moments

When asked to rate the level of stress he feels on a scale of one to 10, LTC Liao says: “Honestly, the stress level, if not a 10, is at least a nine”.

“The difficulty is not in flying the flag over the floating platform. The challenge is to do it in plus-one or two seconds (from the stipulated time),” he says, adding that real-time conditions can affect the ability of the pilots to be on time.

In fact, every move the Chinook makes is planned right down to the second.

And if that’s not stressful enough, he also needs to prevent the flag from collapsing or tearing in front of the nation.

“I need to maintain my speed between a range of 35 knots to 55 knots. Because if the speed is too slow (or fast), (the flag) will collapse… or even tear.”

For this year’s flypast, the squadron waited at the Labrador Park area to re-assess real-time conditions.

“It’s not like I can plan everything on the ground,” he says, emphasising that the team needs to react quickly to unexpected weather conditions or delays in the programme’s timing.

Another uncertainty, LTC Liao says, is that “there’s no guarantee the flag will always successfully deploy”. Although he says he has been lucky so far, there are many factors that could cause the flag to get stuck or fail to unfold properly.

Practice makes perfect

While there is no doubt that some luck helps, LTC Liao credits his ability to complete the mission to the many rehearsals he has had to go through.

“I think the amount of preparation we put into this flight helps to reduce a lot of the uncertainty,” he tells us over the phone.

Photo: The Straits Times

Discussions to coordinate the flypast this year began as early as March. During these discussions, the squadron had to come up with countless contingency plans well ahead of time.

And these plans need to be changed according to the experience of the crew at each rehearsal.

Rehearsals, he says, are the best opportunity for the crew to experience and prepare themselves for the “very special mission”.

One lesson he has learned from his experience with the state flag flypast is that things are not as simple as they seem.

Not many people know how much effort it takes to make the flag fly majestically in the sky.

“What seems simple and like clockwork actually takes a lot of effort,” he says.

“You can try something on the ground that you thought was fine, but when you actually fly, you realise it doesn’t work.”

As it is with all kinds of disciplines, every chance to practise is crucial to the success of what one is trying to achieve.