Ready for flight into danger
WHEN GALE-FORCE winds lash Hong Kong, flights are quickly grounded. But for the aircrew of the Government Flying Service (GFS), ferocious weather means it is time to get airborne.
'When everyone else goes home or stays on the ground in a typhoon, we know we have to go to work,' said Captain Johnny N.C. Lee, chief operations officer for the squadron of pilots based on the fringe of Hong Kong International Airport.
When this crew of 70 get called, they know someone, somewhere is almost certainly in danger - and it is their job to rescue them.
A fleet of seven helicopters and two Jetstream jets awaits every emergency.
'Flying for an emergency service is nothing like flying for a commercial airline,' said Captain Lee, 57, a former military pilot with the Royal Malaysian Air Force, who joined as a volunteer more than 20 years ago.
'Commercial aircraft are like big buses you fly from one place to another with all sorts of computerised systems. You take off, press a few buttons, land the aircraft - and go to bed in the end.
'For us, it is very different. Every mission is an adventure and you don't know what you will find at the end. Flying conditions can be very difficult and we have a lot of exposure to danger. You really can't expect to rescue people from danger without putting yourself in it,' Captain Lee said.
It is often 'seat of your pants' flying in the most extreme sense.
Not long ago, the service attracted a lot of armchair public attention through the 30-episode TVB drama series, Always Ready. But few are ever close enough to the real-life dramas to witness the work of the GFS crew.
Many of the search and rescue operations, averaging between 400 and 500 a year, are out in the South China Sea, involving floundering tankers, fishing boats and yachts. The Jetstreams with their sophisticated radar and aerial surveillance equipment respond to appeals for help from as far as 1,100km south of Hong Kong, locate the emergency, and airdrop marked buoys and life rafts. Then, the Super Puma helicopters, the workhorses of the services equipped as ambulances, fly in to winch survivors to safety.
Conditions can be perilous. During a typhoon two years ago, 16 merchant seamen had to be winched from the deck of a container ship sinking into giant waves just 48km off Hong Kong. The log of a crewman recorded: 'Fifteen-metre waves, drowning sailor, five minutes of fuel, diesel from ship spilled around survivor. Got pushed under huge waves trying to grab the guy. Eyes full of oil. Could hardly see. Went under three waves before grabbing guy between my legs. Hung on as winched up.'
Captain Lee remembered saving another 50 people from an oil-exploration boat in a typhoon as the 'challenge of a lifetime'.
Closer to home, hill-fires are another familiar cause for 'action stations!' The service is called out to drop 800-gallon buckets of water on countryside blazes. In a well-known incident a few years ago, they winched four people to safety from the roof of the blazing Garley Building in Jordan.
On weekends, injured hikers often have to be airlifted from country parks. Ironically, it was on one such air-ambulance mission more than a decade ago - and not during a typhoon - that the service suffered its only loss of a helicopter. It crashed into a Lantau mountainside, causing the death of the pilot and the crew.
There are tamer aspects to the job. The service conducts photographic surveys to map Hong Kong from the air. Aerial surveillance was also used during the recent World Trade Organisation conference. The crew was able to keep an eye on demonstrators from the air, and relay details of the crowd's movements to security forces on the ground.
The helicopters are sometimes called to airlift casualties from road accidents, particularly when highways are jammed and ambulances have difficulty reaching the scene.
On occasion, they also fly foreign dignitaries and government guests on sightseeing tours - or transport government personnel to remote hilltops and outlying island facilities.
'A lot of services like us elsewhere in the world focus on one role, such as search and rescue, but we cover many,' said Captain Lee. He likens this broader scope of responsibility to being 'Jack of all trades, master of all'.
For all the risks, there is no shortage of applicants to join the GFS. Annual recruitment campaigns for aspiring pilots usually attract about 700 applications, although only two or three make the grade beyond the two-week interview process to go through exhaustive training, which is 'far more extensive than for commercial pilots' in Britain and Australia. While minimum qualifications are two Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination passes, and three HKCEE's (Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination), including English and Maths, aptitude tests are the toughest hurdle. Captain Lee said successful applicants generally tended to be university graduates.
The pay is not so glamorous, with cadets starting at $14,900 to $18,000 and newly qualified pilots earning from $25,000 to $53,000 as they progress through the ranks. The highest pay, for a chief pilot, is about $100,000.
The pure excitement was the attraction, Captain Lee explained.
'It is all an adventure. When you are in 50-knot to 60-knot winds in a typhoon, you need a lot of leadership skills, taking responsibility for your crew and not putting them at risk,' he said.
'A lot of risk management is also required, as our motto is always 'safety first'. As a result, we sometimes have to make hard decisions about attempting a rescue or not. You have to utilise these skills every time you fly.
'A lot of people are interested in this kind of job and a lot are not. You have the intense satisfaction of saving people, but you also often expose yourself to danger, which only suits certain people.
'It is so different from other forms of flying and never routine. The service is not for everyone, but you always find a group of people who prefer it to anything else,' Captain Lee said.
Number of fatalities GFS has lost one helicopter crew
Precautions Extensive training, continuous practice
Qualities needed Sense of adventure and public service, and love of flying
Rewards Saving lives is extremely satisfying. Salary is a secondary issue
Where do you go to learn to fly? You can sponsor your training at a private flying school, or get sponsored by an airline or air force. The GFS recruits trained pilots and also sends recruits for pilot training