SING Mo-fat, 82, village head of Yung Shue O, can still recall the days when becoming ill in the far-flung Sai Kung village could prove a death sentence. 'It used to be really tough,' Mr Sing said. 'Most people couldn't afford to see a doctor. The sick were just left to die.' Those who could afford treatment had to walk more than two hours over the hills to the nearest clinic in Sai Kung, he said. And it was no easier for the ailing inhabitants of Hong Kong's other isolated settlements who needed to see a doctor before the 1960s. Today, however, Mr Sing and his ilk enjoy clinical services on a par with Hong Kong's more conveniently located residents. Every other Saturday, the residents of Yung Shue O, Tai Long Wan, Sai Wan and Lai Chi Wo - hidden in the remote countryside of Sai Kung - have their own clinic airlifted to their doorsteps. Unlike public clinics elsewhere in Hong Kong, there are rarely more than a couple of people in the queue. And for just $37 a consultation, Hong Kong's 'flying doctors' will hardly break the budget of even the less well-off villager. Hong Kong's Helicopter Medical Service came into being in 1960, and ever since has quietly attended to the medical needs of those living in remote villages inaccessible by road. Every fortnight, a team comprising a doctor, nurse, dispenser, porter and cashier climb aboard one of the Government Flying Service helicopters to make their rounds. They have their airborne consultations down to a fine art - often, their visits to the villages are finished within minutes. Dr Albert Woo King-wai is one of three doctors who provide the service. He plays down any glamour that might seem attached to the position - emergency rescues and medical services were left to police and Government Flying Service personnel, he said. The typical patient seen by the flying doctors was more likely to be an elderly resident whose arthritis or diabetes was acting up. 'We have regular patients for whom we take prescription drugs . . . mostly for hypertension, diabetes and asthma,' Dr Woo said. 'But we also take other medicines for unforeseen illnesses.' The medical supplies carried by the team fitted into a school-size rucksack and a medical case the size of a tool box. Dr Woo said the service was not cheap for the Government - it took a lot of $37 consultations to pay for the $15,000 to $20,000 cost of each mission. 'The cost-efficiency is pretty low, but it is a necessary service which the Government has promised to the villagers,' he said. By 9am the safety instructions from the Government Flying Service pilots have been issued and the helicopter boarded at Chek Lap Kok. Fine weather aids a smooth take-off, and within seconds Lantau unfolds from more than 1,000 metres above sea level. Barely a minute after passing skyscraper-congested Sha Tin, the chopper approaches the quiet seaside enclave of Yung Shue O, neatly hidden in an alcove on Sai Kung's northern coast. The trip has taken less than 20 minutes. Landing in a clearing just beyond the bay, the flight crew give instructions on how to disembark from the helicopter - which includes a stern warning to remember to duck. Despite the remote setting, Mercedes Benzes and other vehicles are parked in front of a tight cluster of modern three-storey villas. Some villagers walk out from behind one of the villas and greet the team enthusiastically. 'We come here all the time, so to them it's just like good friends visiting,' Dr Woo said. The second villa we come across hosts the temporary clinic every fortnight. The doctor's office consists of a table covered by a sun umbrella and four chairs. The team sit down at the table as villagers crowd around, chatting away. On this occasion, three patients are waiting to see the doctor. 'That's three per cent of the population,' Dr Woo joked. Yung Shue O was once home to more than 300 farmers. Today, most of the young and ambitious have moved to the city or emigrated, leaving behind about 100 elderly and children. The first patient is Lee Sui-po, 84, who needs more pills for his hypertension and asthma. He comes from Tai Po but is visiting a friend. He hands over his $37 and obtains another two weeks' prescription. Second in line is Tse Yee-lin, a regular patient in her 70s. She complains of fuzzy vision and, after examining her, Dr Woo confirms that she is developing a cataract in her left eye. 'But don't worry, you don't need an operation yet,' Dr Woo told her. He prescribes some eye drops and moves on to his next patient, the village head Mr Sing. He feels fine but wants a check-up. The nurse takes his blood pressure and tells him that it is quite normal. Mr Sing said it was he who asked the Government to consider sending doctors out to the village. 'They agreed straight away,' he says. Thus the 'flying doctors' came into being, serving Yung Shue O and six locations across Hong Kong inaccessible by road and sea. Although Yung Shue O is now served with a road which can transport residents to Ma On Shan in 15 minutes, there was no public transport nearby. 'Very few go into town by car,' Mr Sing added. He and his fellow villagers were very happy with the existing arrangement. The helicopter soon returns with a dentist and his nurse, who visit the villages every two months. After flying for a few minutes over hillsides scarred from forest fires, preparations are made to land in Lai Chi Wo. From the air a dozen or so traditional Chinese farm houses with tiled roofs sit tightly packed together amid lush greenery. As the helicopter draws nearer to the ground, about 10 people wearing traditional Chinese dress come out of the village temple and stare. Dr Woo was surprised at the numbers - the village was permanent home to only four or five people, he said. The porter said he could smell gunpowder, and the flight crew spot fireworks being let off. After circling a few times, the pilot decides it is too dangerous to land. Dr Woo said the villagers would have to wait for the next time. The nearest doctors to Lai Chi Wo were across the water in the mainland city of Yimtin. 'They have a speedboat. So in emergencies they can go across to the mainland and seek treatment there.' Several minutes later Tai Long Wan - famed for its pristine beaches and big waves - comes into view. The village consists of a dozen or so shabby farm houses, a store and a dai pai dong serving hikers and campers. Most of the residents are retired. An old man runs out and tells Ah Ming, the cashier, that there are no patients this week. So the helicopter heads for Sai Wan - which takes less than a minute. This time a sandstorm blows up as the chopper touches down on the beach. There are no patients at Sai Wan either - just the formidable dai pai dong owner, Mr Cheung. The sprightly businessman, who looked to be at least in his 60s, jumps up and grabs on to a beam, and does a pull-up. He was once a regular patient of the flying doctors, he said, but lost faith in Western medicine. 'You'll keep on taking that stuff until you die,' he said. 'I used to take Western medicine and it made me feel really lethargic. Now that I've stopped, I can run about and exercise without any problem.' He pointed at his wife's knees, which he said had some problem which used to keep her from walking more than short distances. 'The Western doctors told us that it was incurable,' Mr Cheung said. But he said that an unregistered bone-setter managed to heal it by squeezing areas around her knees for over a month. 'He squeezed it until it turned black. As black as your shoes,' Mrs Cheung said. Dr Woo said there was only one regular patient left in the village, who suffered from hypertension and diabetes. 'We used to have another patient here with a heart problem,' Dr Woo said. 'But he died in hospital several months ago.' Now that Yung Shue O has a road and the other three locations house less than 30 people, it is questionable whether the airborne service is still viable. 'The resources can be reviewed,' Dr Woo said. 'But at this time this is the only way.' Yung Shue O might be accessible by road but the other three locations lacked one and access by sea would be difficult and costly, Dr Woo explained. 'To start a new team by car for Yung Shue O would require extra resources,' Dr Woo said. 'And the public are expecting too much if they expect the team to go on foot [to the other villages].' Services to three other villages were phased out between 1991 and 1992 as improved transport links made medical services more accessible. New roads were built in the case of Pak Sha Wo and Sam A Tsuen, and in the following year the 'Medical Launch' (mobile medical unit by sea) covered Po Toi island. Dr Woo said he believed the 'flying doctor' service was necessary and should continue. 'It's a service orientated towards the person,' Dr Woo said, 'so if there is still a need, it is worthwhile to provide it.'