How helicopter pilots helped build Hong Kong

From cleaning high-voltage insulators to airlifting coffins, there's rarely a dull moment

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 October, 2014, 10:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 October, 2014, 10:28am

Few people realise that except for scheduled flights to Macau, fire fighting and search and rescue, all helicopter work in Hong Kong is handled by one company. What's more is it's done by a team of four pilots whose assignments run the gamut from taking visitors on panoramic sweeps across the city to lifting heavy construction equipment to remote locations, even stringing up overhead power lines. So perhaps it's not entirely advertising spiel when the company's pilots claim "Heliservices built Hong Kong".

"You know every one of these power lines through the country parks have been built by us? There're 120 [transmission towers] between Castle Peak power station and Sha Tin and we built them all," Inge Baggaley, Heliservices' chief training captain, says with evident pride. "Look at every big infrastructure project in Hong Kong ... we've been part of it."

The range of projects means that the pilots face diverse challenges. There's also the flying environment in Hong Kong; because the city is so built up, pilots can rarely relax.

Winds here can also be really fierce, Baggaley says. "We have small mountains with the type of weather conditions you have on big mountains."

Winds may form a vortex when they brush up against the steep sides of local peaks, creating a lot of turbulence. That means pilots have to be especially conscious of where the wind is a help or hindrance. Conditions become trickier when winds get up to between 25 and 35 knots, typically in bad weather or before or after a typhoon, pilots say.

Baggaley is something of a trailblazer. She was 19 when she joined the Canadian air force under a trial programme for women, and went on to become its first female helicopter pilot as well as the personal pilot of its chief of staff. And when she moved to Hong Kong with her husband in 1992, she also became the city's first woman helicopter pilot.

With 33 years of flight experience behind her, Baggaley is the only pilot in Heliservice certified for every type of flying in Hong Kong: The Civil Aviation Department requires pilots to qualify to fly each type of helicopter in service in different conditions, at night, for instance. However, training and testing for specific tasks such as cleaning power lines are conducted in-house.

One of the assignments Baggaley enjoyed the most was the construction of the Ngong Ping 360 cable car, when she spent "dozens and dozens" of hours zooming around the slopes of western Lantau.

"The flying was challenging, and working on top of Lantau we had an absolutely fantastic view. It was just great flying," she says.

Yet as spectacular as the views can be, the type of flying Baggaley enjoys most is the high-risk variety - washing live line insulators.

This requires steering a small helicopter close to overhead power lines so that a trained technician on board (someone from a specialist agency in Australia) can spray accumulated dirt from insulators using a powerful water cannon. It is potentially some of the most dangerous flying because a small slip could mean contact with a high-voltage wire.

"These here in Hong Kong are 400,000 volts ... and we are quite close to them. We're talking 20 feet [six metres]."

That's why she approaches each section in a series of cautious manoeuvres.

Through the years, the pilots have often been busy helping to put up the power lines that keep the city humming.

Chief pilot Russell Davis' first job with the company was to help string transmission lines in major projects across the New Territories that took almost six years to complete.

They were involved in virtually every step of installing the lines, Davis says. First, they helped contractors conduct soil stabilisation tests; then flew in machinery to drill holes for the foundation along with other equipment. The concrete had to be brought in next, followed by steel girders, and derricks used to assemble the transmission towers.

Look at every big infrastructure project in Hong Kong ... we've been part of it
Inge Baggaly, chief training captain

They even helped to assemble the towers before bringing in the insulators and running the lines.

The large-gauge cables used in power transmission are too heavy to be lifted by a helicopter; so pilots would string a rope along miles of transmission towers, before attaching it to the power cable and using a winch to pull it through.

There's a lot of precision work involved, says fellow pilot Dominique Simoneau. Helicopters carry loads of up to one metric tonne, and pilots are required to be able to place it within a specific area of, say, one square metre, even in high winds.

"We must be very stable and precise so the load is not too heavy on the ground crew. The only thing we have difficulty with is swivelling the load. With long loads we bring them within one metre of the ground, and have the guys on the ground turn them, communicating using hand signals," he says.

Davis began flying helicopters in 1987 in his native New Zealand, where he would take visitors over the glaciers in South Island and fly missions to hunt wild deer for export - known in the business as wild animal recovery (War). "I flew and I shot," he says.

As a young man, he viewed helicopter flying as his ticket to see the world: "The travel side really interested me. I wanted to find a career I could use for travel."

It has certainly taken him off the beaten track. Between stints in New Zealand working in heli-skiing and mountain search and rescue services, Davis spent two years flying exploration teams across the jungles of Papua New Guinea in search of mineral deposits, and another nine years in Indonesia, where he helped fight fires caused by plantations and slash and burn farmers.

In 2004, Davis decided to settle in Hong Kong for good, so he's back working on the lines that he helped build. His focus is the company's largest contract at the moment - upgrading the network operated by China Light and Power in preparation for a super typhoon.

Of course, flying tourists around - VIP guests from The Peninsula, for example - is fun too. "You get to meet people and you're doing something a little bit different."

Heliservices pilots often cite the lifestyle and exposure to cultures in various countries as being among the biggest attractions of the job.

The cultural difference has sometimes come as a shock for Simoneau, whose earliest jobs in Hong Kong included airlifting a coffin to a mountainside cemetery in Tsuen Wan for burial. "The cemeteries are so compact and the stairs to the grave are so narrow that they cannot walk, and it's too far for a regular crane," he says. "The only option to carry the body in a dignified way is by helicopter."

Among the tips he received from the ground crew was not to look directly at the coffin because that would bring him bad luck; his jangled nerves were made worse when he flew over the grave to see a crowd of mourners dressed in white, filming his approach and snapping pictures on their smartphones.

Few flying environments are more different from Hong Kong than the far reaches of northern Canada, where Simoneau worked. The Quebecois initially flew small planes between remote Inuit settlements but switched to helicopters, ferrying personnel and equipment into even more forbidding terrain.

That meant stocking his chopper with survival gear: a sleeping bag, fishing pole, and even a shotgun for protection against bears. Once, while bringing a plumber back from a field job, the suddenly deteriorating weather forced them to land and spend a freezing night on the tundra.

In Canada the danger is remoteness, whereas the challenges here are just the opposite, Simoneau says.

"The problem in Hong Kong is that everything is so dense. We have less space to work in. With buildings popping up everywhere it gets harder to fly," he says.

Even in the countryside, they must keep a lookout for hikers because helicopters carrying a suspended load are not allowed to fly over people.

Poor visibility, which interferes with flight everywhere, creates particular problems for helicopter pilots here. When they have to fly low to avoid cloud cover, for example, there is also the concrete jungle and forests of power lines to negotiate.

Of their many assignments, perhaps none is more glamorous that zipping through the air with film crews taking location shots for movies.

Baggaley, for example, has been instrumental in many of the most memorable Hong Kong scenes in blockbusters such as Transformers 4 and The Dark Knight. She gets excited when talk turns to the films.

"You remember the trailer for the Batman film where they had Christian Bale sitting on the top of IFC Two? I was flying the helicopter when they took that."

Even gung-ho pilots, who don't blink at the prospect of hovering next to 400 kilovolts of electricity, can get just as dazzled as any other movie fan.