Commercial airlines lure Flying Service pilots, leaving vacancies
GFS suffers talent drain as experienced crew, faced with mandatory civil service retirement at 55, join commercial airlines for better pay
Hong Kong Government Flying Service pilots have such a unique and hard-to-find set of skills that commercial airlines are luring them away with promises of better pay and a longer working life.
This has led to a severe brain drain at the GFS - which carries out the city's search and rescue operations and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year - that has worsened amid a booming aviation industry, according to its controller Michael Chan Chi-pui.
"We are facing a quite serious retention problem because the commercial aviation market is doing very well and the government is not offering an attractive enough package to retain pilots," he said.
Chan was in the first batch of pilots trained in the early 1990s before the GFS was officially formed in 1993, replacing the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force.
"They say the grass is always greener on the other side and it may seem that's the case, as the pay for Cathay Pacific pilots is about 30 per cent to 40 per cent higher than ours," Chan said.
While attracting staff was not a problem, a key hurdle was the mandatory retirement age for civil servants.
"Legally we can fly up to the age of 65, but in the GFS, we are required to retire at 55 so that's another reason for the early departure of our pilots," Chan said.
"We have no problem in recruitment because of our reputation, our varied operations and you might say, more meaningful work whereas flying for an airline is A to B, B to A, A to C then C to A; it's so monotonous.
"However, after about 12 to 15 years, our pilots compare themselves with their peers who are earning more money and having a more relaxed life. We cannot stop people comparing, and in the past five years we've had about eight to nine departures."
Currently, the GFS has 36 pilots, two of them female. "The full complement is 43 and we hope to fill all the vacancies as soon as possible," Chan said.
Typically, new trainees are in their early or mid-20s and they must commit to 10 years with the GFS. "At 34 or 35, they are free to go and they will look ahead and see a better-paid career and a longer working life," Chan said.
"These are very experienced pilots and the loss is really felt; not only in terms of the manpower situation, but also in terms of the money that we spent."
Basic training starts with a 15-month stint overseas, either in Australia or the United States, costing HK$1 million per pilot.
It then takes between 10 and 12 years for a helicopter pilot to become fully qualified, as the required 300 hours of flying can only be accumulated with about six to nine months of practice between each new skill.
Despite the talent drain, Chan remains optimistic about the GFS as an attractive employer. "We are the only organisation of this kind in the world," he said.
For instance, in the US the coastguard or navy carry out sea search-and-rescue operations, while anti-smuggling would be covered by the FBI or Homeland Security, but this was not so in Hong Kong, Chan said.
All GFS pilots must be skilled in search and rescue, but also firefighting, police operations, aerial surveys, air ambulance services as well as flying around visiting dignitaries.
"We support all the law enforcement departments, in particular the police, in carrying out their duties, which range from anti-terrorist operations down to aerial surveillance and using our helicopters as a command post."
This multitasking also includes flying into typhoons to collect crucial data to forecast their direction.
"There is no training school in the world that will teach you how to fly into a typhoon, so we accumulate the knowledge and learn along the way," Chan said.