The rigger: No room for error in packing parachutes

PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - In a large, well-lit hall at Pasir Ris Camp, several women lean over long tables, meticulously working bundles of olive-green nylon canopies with bare hands.

With infinite care, they gather each pleat of a parachute and stack it, folding to perfection the umbrella large enough to carry a person back to earth.

The ambience is somewhere between that of a cloister and a dressmaker's shop.

Each posture is purposeful, every movement precise. There is no room for distraction, for every parachutist places his life in the hands of 20 women who are the SAF's parachute "riggers."

Members of this small, specialised unit are recruited mostly through word of mouth, and occasionally through career fairs. Hopefuls require at least a GCE N-level certificate.

The Basic Riggers Course lasts 10 weeks - but it takes five years for a regular to attain the Class 1 Advanced Rigger qualification, which comes with the added responsibility of inspecting the parachutes packed by junior riggers.

To drive home their motto, "I Will Be Sure Always", every rigger must make a jump with a parachute she packs herself.

"This makes the rigger understand the emotional anxiety of a parachutist during a jump, and gives them confidence in their parachute-packing skills," explains Master Sergeant Sandy Wong, a 14-year veteran who has logged 85 jumps, 50 of them free falls.

When Master Sergeant Dawn Lee, 39, joined the riggers 18 years ago, the static-line parachuting course was one of the perks she looked forward to.

"It's the only job like this in Singapore," says the mother of two, who has made 10 static-line and five tandem free-fall descents. "Where else do we get to go overseas for training and to make jumps? It's very different from the nine-to-five office job that many other girls have."

Aside from parachuting in countries such as Australia, Thailand and the United States, some riggers have even completed the Military Freefall Course usually reserved for male-only elite units, where jumpers learn to exit an aircraft at heights of 3km or more, opening their parachutes manually as they approach the ground.

By their 10th year in service, many of these women will be decorated with enough wings on their uniforms to rival a Commando.

However, the achievement that the riggers cherish most is their unblemished safety record.

Since the unit's establishment in 1974, the riggers have packed more than 1.75 million static-line, free-fall, tandem and reserve parachutes, without a single one failing to open during a jump.

Such relentless pursuit of perfection keeps the riggers on their toes.

"We feel special," says MSG Wong, "because lives depend on us. We are the women behind the successful men."

This article was first published on Jun 17, 2013.
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