Trailing the Knights

Screaming through the air at 400 knots or 740kmh, six red-and- white fighter jets curve gracefully over the showground, flying barely 3m apart.

On cue, they break ranks, streaking out and up, painting a perfect bomb burst of smoke trails as their machines surge skyward.

"Smoke off… go!" commands the team leader. The billowing white abruptly ceases as they rendezvous for the next manoeuvre. These are the Black Knights - the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) aerobatics team.

First formed in 1973, the team pulls together some of the best fighter pilots in the service to perform at air shows, and this year in particular, at Singapore's Jubilee weekend celebrations.

Only flying instructors with at least 500 flying hours are eligible to make this year's team, the 14th in the RSAF's history.

Formed just six months ago, they train five days a week, practising over the Southern Islands.

Unlike many aerial display teams, such as the Royal Air Force Red Arrows and the Patrouille de France, the Black Knights are not a permanent or full-time show.

The eight aircraft (two spares), six pilots and 50 ground crew are drawn from combat-ready squadrons and can be returned to operational duties at a moment's notice.

Because of this, the Black Knights fly unmodified front-line fighters, the F-16C Fighting Falcons, but painted in red-and-white livery featuring the crescent moon and five stars - symbols on Singapore's flag.

To understand what these military aviators endure, I attended an aviation physiology training course (and passed the exam), experienced oxygen deprivation in a hypobaric chamber (solving maths questions took longer than usual), and attempted the Somatogyral Turntable - a rotating black box designed to make one lose all spatial perception when seated inside.

My biggest challenge, however, was riding the Human Training Centrifuge, a high-tech gondola whirled at speed to generate a continuous gravitational force.

For this, I wore a tight-fitting anti-G suit with air bladders that would automatically inflate during moments of high acceleration.

I also practised the anti-G straining manoeuvre - tensing all the muscles in my lower body and keeping my chest fully expanded while taking short breaths.

Both of these would increase my overall blood pressure and maintain circulation to the brain, preventing the G-induced loss of consciousness that could lead to accidents.

I pulled on a control stick and was pressed into the seat as the gondola accelerated. In the background, I could hear an instructor calmly counting off the numbers.

At 6.5Gs, I released the controls and was immediately overwhelmed by intense nausea as the machine decelerated.

In comparison, the Black Knights Lead and Opposing Solos endure up to 9Gs as they perform manoeuvres that will push the aircraft to their limits during the Jubilee weekend 25-minute display - one of the longest routines put up by the team.

After the final flypast come Aug 9, the aircraft will be returned to their grey paint scheme, and the crew will rejoin their operational squadrons. The Black Knights will once again disband, until the next big occasion.

The public can catch the Black Knights in action from tomorrow to Sunday at noon for their 25-minute performance in the skies just off the Marina Barrage.

This article was first published on August 6, 2015.
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