Flying to the rescue

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am

Former laboratory technician Ellen Yan faces numerous challenges in her role as a government helicopter pilot

At 6pm last New Year's Eve, Ellen Yan Suk-yin had more on her mind than what to wear or where to meet up with her friends for a night out.

She was instead in the midst of a complicated rescue operation, intent on manoeuvring her Dolphin helicopter into position near the site of an accident on the Sun Tin Highway. Darkness was fast approaching, and the overhead cables and lamp posts alongside the road meant landing safely as close as possible to the injured minibus driver required all of her skill and concentration.

Fortunately, with the assistance of the police and fire services, the mission was successfully completed, with the driver whisked in minutes to Tuen Mun Hospital to undergo emergency treatment.

'It was definitely the most meaningful New Year's [Eve] I've ever had,' said Ms Yan, who, as the only female helicopter pilot with the Government Flying Service (GFS), has carried out many hazardous assignments over the past few years. 'There is no greater satisfaction than helping to save somebody's life.'

Ms Yan's work with the rescue team is a far cry from an earlier job as a laboratory technician, but one which now tests her abilities to the limit and fulfils a strong desire to serve the community. That was first seen in 1992 when she joined the Royal Hong Kong Regiment, a part-time auxiliary force supported by the former colonial government. The experience introduced her to the values, fun and camaraderie of the disciplined services.

When the force was disbanded in 1995, in advance of the transfer of sovereignty, she overcame her disappointment by resolving to change her career and applied to the GFS. But getting accepted was by no means straightforward. It involved a challenging series of tests and interviews that stretched over 10 months.

'I didn't think I could really get the job, but I wanted to give it a try,' Ms Yan said. 'Luckily, I passed the tests one by one and could then see I was getting closer to my goal.' One factor she believes impressed the various interviewers was her determination to succeed. Together with coolness under pressure and an analytical approach to solving problems, this marked her out as an ideal candidate for work in what was bound to be a high-stress environment.

On completing her formal training in Britain, Ms Yan gradually assumed the diverse responsibilities of a cadet pilot. Clearly, the most important were the rescue missions, but there was also assignments for bodies such as the Environmental Protection Department, Lands Department and RTHK.

'They may need to get airborne images, for example, to check the illegal use of land or for television programmes,' she said. 'We might work with four or five different departments in a day and sometimes we will transport government officials who need to visit remote areas or outlying islands.' This more routine type of assignment usually occupies about a third of Ms Yan's time on duty. Otherwise, she will be taking part in training exercises or on standby, ready to react to any kind of emergency. That can include traffic accidents, the evacuation of casualties or critical cases to the nearest hospital, fighting fires by dropping 'water bombs', or playing a leading role in search and rescue missions on mountains or at sea.

In 2005, Ms Yan was called out to search for survivors from a fishing boat sinking in stormy waters in the South China Sea. After combing the area for more than an hour, her colleagues were forced to return to base as night descended and with further bad weather on the way. Things looked grim, but at first light, she was still in the skies and, after about 30 minutes, located seven fishermen, all of whom were hauled to safety with the help of her crewman.

'It was so lucky that I found them because search and rescue at sea is always one of the most difficult things,' she said. 'The waves were huge and, from the helicopter, the survivors just looked like black dots in the ocean. It is even more difficult after dark, even though we have night vision goggles, a spotlight and an infrared system to detect people in the water.'

For any such mission to be successful, Ms Yan must weigh up the risks and assess every possibility, often at lightning speed.

'If we want to rescue people, we must consider our own safety as well. When the weather is simply too bad, we have to take responsible decisions.' She emphasised that everything ultimately came down to teamwork and trust among colleagues.

'In our profession, that is vital,' she said, adding that it obviously took time for any newcomer to build the necessary level of instinctive understanding and co-operation.

One ambition Ms Yan has is to qualify as an instructor and coach cadets.

This is the seventh in our 16-part series on women and men who have entered career paths

In a spin

Ellen Yan still vividly recalls the buzz of excitement that came with taking the controls for her first solo flight. 'It was part of the [commercial pilot licence] course,' she said. 'I had done about 15 hours flying practice with an instructor sitting beside me. The next step, though, was to take the Robinson R22 helicopter to about 1,000 feet on my own, fly a rectangular course, and bring it in to land four times.' On each circuit, Ms Yan made adjustments to correct minor errors and felt her confidence surge as she put into practice all the lessons learned over the previous weeks. 'Obviously, I felt a bit nervous, but it was also very exciting,' she said. 'Overall, that first solo went quite smoothly and, of course, it was an unforgettable experience.'