Kevin Sinclair's Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am

A veteran SCMP reporter, Kevin examines the good, bad and ugly sides of life in the city. E-mail him at

From the tarmac at Chek Lap Kok, Brian Butt Yiu-ming casts his eyes onto the rearing peaks of Lantau and his saddest memories.

In August 2003, a Government Flying Service Eurocopter on a routine medical evacuation mission crashed a few minutes after taking off to pick up a sick person on Cheung Chau. The pilot and aircrewman aboard were killed.

Four years later, the controller of the Government Flying Service remembers his proudest moment. He saw 20 of his fliers receive bravery medals at Government House for risking their lives rescuing 91 people a year earlier from a wild typhoon.

'I felt like a proud father,' recalls the man who has headed the service for 11 years.

In a very brief announcement recently, the government said Mr Butt would be taking earlier retirement, starting in March next year. The veteran airman with more than 30 years of service leaves the official aviation unit in a superb state. But much more needs to be said apart from 'arrangements are being made to fill the vacancy'.

With a mere 220 staff, two long-range fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters, the service is a small but vital element in the city's security and economic structure. It allows us to cast a vast shadow in the field of protection over most of the South China Sea.

Every time the aircrews take to the skies, even on the most routine of missions, they dance with death. They are our saviours in the skies and make us proud.

Nobody is more aware of this than Mr Butt, which is one reason why he is stepping down earlier than necessary.

'I've got the best of jobs,' he messaged me yesterday from London, where he is collecting on behalf of the service a major international bravery award from the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators.

'I manage a team of true professionals who are devoted and motivated and I'm also able to fly as an operational pilot.'

There has been a lot of speculation about why he is leaving when he could serve up to four more years. Some rumours talk about eight senior staffers retiring or resigning in the past year.

Mr Butt muses that he has chosen the time to step down; the service has a strong and sustainable succession plan in place, he adds.

'There is a Chinese saying that I habitually tell my colleagues,' Mr Butt says. 'As aviators, I tell them we must not be a frog sitting in the bottom of a well. You cannot see the sky.'

Pilots can scan the far horizons when they do training with airmen on visiting warships from Britain, France, America and other nations. There are particularly strong links, naturally, with mainland military and civilian aviation services.

Within government, the service is noted as an agency with extremely high levels of morale. Comradeship is extraordinary, especially at the sharp end where the pilots and aircrew risk their lives in often horrifying and almost unbelievable conditions.

Imagine being 200km off the China coast in a full typhoon dangling from a cable above a 20,000-tonne vessel pitching and rolling in a force-10 gale trying to persuade terrified seamen one by one to put themselves into unfamiliar tackle that will lift them to safety.

The unforgiving deck is rising and crashing the equivalent height of a five-storey building in the unforgiving fury of the open sea. This is raw courage. It is part of routine life for this group of quiet young Hongkongers.

It is this routine vigilance and constant taut training that makes people, including myself, writhe in fury when thoughtless members of the public misuse the service.

That is a sin. Yes, a sin! It is sadly becoming more common. A bunch of ill prepared hikers find themselves stuck on a lonely mountain hiking track after dark.

They have no torch, no maps, no equipment. They are on a recognised path but do not know where to go. They want a lift home so they call 999 and ask for a helicopter as if they are in Nathan Road wanting to go to a karaoke bar.

These and other shameful people put extra strain on an admirable government lifeline that was set up to rescue people in need and to provide an air-sea rescue set-up that is the envy of much of Asia.

After decades of service, Mr Butt is about to take his hands off the cockpit controls. They will be taken up by a new generation of aviators whom he has helped nurture, train and discipline in a unique role.

We owe them our gratitude.