James Yuen Yiu-keung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am

'There are three shifts: 7am to 4pm, 1pm to 10pm and 10pm to 7am.There is usually some overlap so you have more manpower at certain times and you can hand over the job to the next shift.

Between Monday and Friday we're busy with scheduled government tasks. For example, the Lands Department might want to take some aerial pictures; the Marine Department might have a station on an outlying island that needs a generator or fuel; a justice of the peace has to be flown to one of the jails; a country trail is being maintained and you'll have to take out some cement or wood.

Saturdays and Sundays are always busy for the search-and-rescue team, but that also depends on the weather. When the weather's not so good, not many people go hiking, so we're less busy. If there is a typhoon passing, perhaps we'll have to go long range for some search and rescue in the South China Sea, usually for a fishing boat. For our fixed-wing aircraft, that can be up to 700 nautical miles, which is about 1,400km.

It takes me about 30 minutes to get to work by bus from Tung Chung. I normally arrive 10 minutes early to familiarise myself with the weather forecast, then we have a joint crew briefing, where the supervisor tells you which aircraft is on standby, who are the standby crew for search and rescue, what the schedule for the day is and so on. There are usually 10 to 15 people in, depending on the day.

We change around, so I could be flying with anyone - it depends on who comes in. Each team has a pilot, a co-pilot and two aircrew officers. I'm a co-pilot on the Eurocopter Super Puma. We've also got a Eurocopter B1, which we call the dolphin because of its nose, plus a fixed-wing Jetstream for long range.

The briefing lasts about 10 minutes and if there's an early task, I'll immediately do the planning for the flight.

I'll have to calculate how much fuel we'll need, how long it will take, what the route is going to be, are there any passengers or any VIPs on board. We might be carrying an under-slung load, so the weight of that is critical and we'll need to know if it's dangerous goods.

There's a gym at the headquarters, near the airport, but we're expected to be familiar with all the operation manuals and air laws, so if I'm on standby, I'll study those. I might also get some secondary duties such as updating the aircraft manual, or some of the senior pilots may be asked to submit comments on a new landing pad or, if there's going to be construction near an existing landing pad, how it might be affected. Normally it's the captain who does the walk around the aircraft in the morning, checks the lubrication levels or does the start-up checks. But he might ask me to join him for the experience.

Lunch depends on what I'm doing. On the busy days, I'll probably take a sandwich to work but on an easy day, when I don't have many tasks, I'll have lunch around 12.30pm in the canteen. Sorties aren't long so we're not flying around eating sandwiches with a cup of coffee between our knees. That's not allowed.

If I'm on standby and eating breakfast, lunch or having coffee and the siren sounds I have to go straight down to the aircraft. If I know I'm going to be on standby, I'll make sure I'm not doing anything that I can't rush away from. I've been caught in the bathroom a few times - you just have to sort yourself out and get down as fast as you can.

I've been with the Government Flying Service (GFS) for three-and-a-half years and a co-pilot for two-and-a-half. I'm 28. I left the University of Science and Technology with a degree in computer sciences and worked as a satellite engineer with a telecommunications company. I applied to an advertisement in the newspaper because I had always wanted to be a pilot. I knew I could never afford to pay for my own training, so I was lucky to get sponsorship from GFS to realise my dream.

For the first year, we are sent to Cranfield [University Aerospace] in Britain to get our commercial pilot's licence. The first time I flew myself, the instructor took me up to about 460 metres. They show you how to fly in a straight line and do some simple manoeuvres such as turn, climb and descend. At first, it's a bit wobbly but afterwards, when you get it under control, it's very satisfying. You really are off the ground and you can see people down on the ground. I wasn't nervous; you're quite busy in the air so you don't have time to be nervous. All the nervousness is at the beginning, when you're doing the planning.

I went to Aberdeen in Scotland last November to ferry workers to and from oil rigs. It's important to get different types of experience because we're mostly working for the government, so we don't have much chance for offshore training flights. They send you [overseas] to get offshore experience and face the difficult weather.

I recently responded to a search and rescue that was 200 nautical miles to the east of Hong Kong. A fishing vessel had collided with another vessel and one of the crew sustained a neck injury. Because it was inside Taiwanese waters we had to get clearance before we left to pick the guy up. We had to arrange to refuel at an oil rig on route. It took about five hours to finish the whole mission. He was OK and we sent him to Eastern Hospital.

I want to be a fully qualified search-and-rescue captain on the Super Puma. I think it would give me the kind of satisfaction I couldn't get from any other job. I hope I can achieve that before I'm 35. My mother and father have always supported me and they raised me until university. Now I can do something I like and contribute to society.

I'd say they are really proud of me. My girlfriend's happy because I'm doing something to help people, but I also get to fly a helicopter.

The job can be demanding, so I might sleep when I get home to make sure I have my eight hours. I also like to go hiking, which gives me a general idea about where people might be when I go on a search and rescue.'