Red Lions set for jump of a lifetime

Red Lions set for jump of a lifetime
Team leader Major Arnold Low (left) with his fellow Red Lions demonstrating some mid-air moves at the iFly Singapore wind tunnel, where they sometimes train.
PHOTO: Lianhe Zaobao

SG50 performance will be special for these freefallers who have been training hard

The Red Lions, those daredevil freefallers who have been a fixture at every National Day Parade since 1996, may not be able to land right in front of spectators when the Aug 9 show moves to the National Stadium next year.

Instead, they will have to look for alternative landing spots outside the iconic domed-roof arena.

The Straits Times understands that the venue's narrow roof opening may prove difficult for the skydivers to land inside the arena.

Acknowledging this possibility, Major Arnold Low, 39, who is leading this year's display team of six Singapore Armed Forces regulars, yesterday said they have not scouted the area or finalised next year's plans, but are "not ruling out jumping in the vicinity" of the stadium.

For now, the Red Lions are focused on ensuring this year's jump at the Padang goes without a hitch for the nation's 50th birthday.

Since April, the parachutists have stepped up their training, leaping from 10,000ft.

Besides jumping out of planes, the Red Lions also started using parachute flight simulators this year. These machines, equipped with harnesses, motion sensors and video goggles, allow the skydivers to practise their leaps indoors. They can also be put through parachute malfunction scenarios, such as a torn canopy, to fine-tune their emergency drills.

Although the simulators are primarily used by beginners, the Red Lions, who have clocked between 800 and 2,750 jumps, use them monthly to sharpen their skills, said Maj Low.

The team also trains in a wind tunnel, which opened on Sentosa in 2011. Called iFly Singapore, the facility helps improve body stability during simulated freefalls.

"But nothing replaces the actual jump," Maj Low stressed. "The more you practise, the safer it is."

Getting the landings right at the Padang is also more challenging.

Although the 120m by 80m stage is bigger than the one on the Marina Bay floating platform, the numerous buildings in the area deliver more air eddies.

During a parade rehearsal earlier this month, a Red Lion had to cut off his first parachute after it went into a twist. He eventually landed safely with a backup canopy.

Five-time NDP Red Lion Ivan Low, 41, who has 1,400 jumps under his belt, said this year's performance will be a "once in a lifetime" experience.

The First Warrant Officer added: "It's a significant year and I feel very privileged. I've done many jumps, but this one will be special."

Gone with the wind tunnel

I had the rare chance to train like a Red Lion yesterday, and though it looked effortless, it was anything but a breeze.

Stepping into the wind tunnel at Sentosa's iFly Singapore, I was immediately whisked off my feet by a mighty 160kmh gust.

We had practised the right posture to adopt - belly down, chin up, back arched "like a banana" and arms bent at eye level.

Easier than yoga, I thought.

I was wrong.

Trying to contort one's body in an aerodynamic fashion while flailing in mid-air proved tricky.

Thanks to the skydive instructor who held down my scrawny frame, however, I did not spin out of control or hit rock bottom.

Although I found myself floating like a cloud in no time, I could not help but think of First Warrant Officer Ivan Low's words.

The parade jump may seem simple, but many crucial thoughts run through a Red Lion's mind during the five-minute descent, he said.

Among other things, they have to worry about wind conditions, be aware of their altitude and coordinate their landings.

I soon learnt this the hard way.

Trying the parachute flight simulator at Pasir Ris Camp, I was strapped in like a baby in a sling carrier and hoisted off the ground as I leapt off the "plane". At 4,000ft, it was time to release my chute. But it took me three tries to yank it out.

The virtual view of the city was breathtaking. I tried to land at the Padang - but ended up beside the Civilian War Memorial Park.

Why had everyone else landed on target, but not me?

The answer, as Bob Dylan once sang, was blowing in the wind.

The exercises taught a novice like me many things. I can only imagine how helpful it must be for the Red Lions, who have to perform complex manoeuvres.

With all the work that goes on behind the scenes, it is no wonder they never fail to make the parade crowd roar every year.

This article was first published on July 29, 2015.
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