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RSAF may use eye ops in bid to boost pilot ranks


PERFECT to near-perfect vision is a 'must' for fighter pilots - and the air force is considering greater use of eye surgery to give short-sighted pilot candidates a chance.

The type of eye surgery - photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) - that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has in mind could significantly widen the pool of promising candidates to train as fighter pilots.

PRK - a procedure involving a laser to reshape the cornea - has already been used on a trial batch of RSAF pilots, said Brigadier-General Ng Chee Khern, Chief of Air Force yesterday.

He was speaking to the media on the RSAF's transformation drive, kicked off by its new Air Defence and Operations Command on Friday.

Four other commands are being formed within the next two years in the RSAF's biggest revamp since 1968.

The air force's study on corrective eye surgery mirrors moves by other air forces, such as that of the United States.

Fighter pilots in particular require good eyesight - it is vital, for example, for spotting the enemy first in aerial dogfights. Other traits include the ability to withstand gravitational pull, and quick thinking under pressure.

BG Ng said more studies were needed, because while this procedure could improve a person's daytime vision, side-effects included a poorer ability to see at night.

The RSAF is also studying its long-term effects. 'The study results are not out yet. When we're comfortable with that procedure, we may increase use of that procedure,' BG Ng said.

At present, only about 2,000 of the 20,000 national service enlistees each year meet the RSAF's physical and other requirements. Even so, for various reasons, many do not wish to become pilots.

In past years, the air force - in a bid to expand its pool of pilot trainees - had relaxed its eyesight requirements. It now accepts pilot candidates who wear glasses of up to 150 degrees as fighter and helicopter pilots, while transport pilots can wear glasses of up to 300 degrees. Its recruitment of women pilots has also increased.

These various measures have helped the air force meet its recruitment numbers, despite Singapore having one of the highest rates of short-sightedness or myopia in the world.

Meanwhile, following its recent revamp, the air force's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Command will be operational in about two months.

UAV Command will be the second to become ready. It will raise, train and sustain the SAF's capabilities in pilotless planes, or UAVs, for roles like battlefield surveillance.

Note from CMD
Researchers from DMERI are also part of the team involved in evaluating the impact of different types of laser eye surgery (such as PRK mentioned in the article, and LASIK) on the operational effectiveness of high-value military vocations, including pilots. This research study is done in collaboration with the SAF, together with the Singapore Eye Research Institute and Singapore National Eye Centre.