‘Try talking to 21 pilots at the same time’: Air traffic controllers behind the NDP aerial display

SINGAPORE: The first and only time Captain (CPT) Paul Lim had watched the National Day Parade (NDP) live was when he was a Primary 5 pupil.

Back then, the airspace management coordinator was thrilled to watch fighter jets pull off acrobatic stunts and military helicopters fly in formation.

NDP Air Traffic Controller

“At that point of time, I believe I was still too young and didn’t really understand the complexity of how all these aerial displays can be done,” said CPT Lim.

“But now that I’m in this line of service, I think that this is actually not an easy task.”

The 29-year-old was referring to his job of coordinating this year’s NDP flypast as the parade’s overall exercise coordinator.

NDP Air Traffic Controller Paul Lim 2

“What people don’t see is that there is actually a team behind the scenes in the ops room. They are ensuring that all these aircraft are safe and well de-conflicted from each other,” said CPT Lim.

He is responsible for designing and translating a comprehensive plan for his team, 203 Squadron, which is made up of 10 air traffic controllers at five main control zones for this year’s parade.

His task is no easy feat, especially since this year’s NDP coincides with the Republic of Singapore Airforce’s (RSAF) 50th birthday. To commemorate its anniversary, the RSAF has promised an “enhanced” aerial display, which boasts one of the most complex aerial designs.

NDP Air Traffic Controller Paul Lim

It also happens to be CPT Lim’s first time as overall in-charge.

“One of the challenges would be translating the plans from the higher-ups back to the squadron and that usually has to be done within a short period of time,” said CPT Lim.

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“As a coordinator, I will have to translate these plans in a manner such that my controllers know and understand the plan. I’m also responsible for ensuring the contingency plans will be at their fingertips.”

Training for air traffic controllers began as early as May this year, with rehearsals happening three to four times a week and combined rehearsals taking place every Saturday.

RSAF Captain Seah Guo Jin, 26, is the main controller for the aerial display and is also part of 203 Squadron. He works closely with CPT Lim.

They are both stationed at the Singapore Air Traffic Control Centre in Changi.

NDP Air Traffic Controllers Seah Guo Jin Paul Lim

“My role requires me to talk to 21 aircraft in the air … and that’s the main excitement. Each pilot has their own demands, timings and targets to meet,” said CPT Seah.

“As a controller, I need to manage them and ensure that their demands are being met while flight safety is maintained. It is a job that requires quite a bit of mental capacity and a fair bit of confidence.”

Despite the sheer intensity of the job, which requires them to stay glued to their radar screens, both men say it is a “refreshing and fulfilling” experience.

“At the end of the day if I have managed to complete the entire aerial display and execute it perfectly, I will go home feeling satisfied that my family and friends get to enjoy a spectacular show,” said CPT Seah. “This gives me a very warm feeling in my heart when I make my way back and meet my family.”

“I will take pride and say that my job is definitely not boring. Consider the fact after this NDP, I can always pose a question: ‘Have you ever talked to 21 pilots at one point of time?’ If the answer is no, I’ll take it that I brought my point across.”

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NDP Air Traffic Controllers Paul Lim Sean Guo Jin

On a day-to-day basis, the team works with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and provides search-and-rescue operations when the need arises.

In less than a month, the 203 Squadron will be back to its usual business.

In the meantime, rehearsals for Aug 9 are underway and for CPT Lim, his wish to watch the parade "live" will not happen any time soon.

“Even though we are not physically at the show centre, I feel that we are emotionally there because whenever my friends are near Marina Centre, they will tell me about the number of aircraft they see, and the formations that fly past. I feel very happy when they tell me it was a good show,” said CPT Lim.

“And I will tell them, that’s my job.”