‘Inspiration’ in the skies: first Hong Kong-made plane prepares for epic world tour

Plane built by Hong Kong pilot and students is back in the city after test flights, and will embark on a journey across 50 countries in August

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 8:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 November, 2016, 11:09am

Hank Cheng was never a star pupil in school, but that did not stop him from becoming a pilot.

Next month he will embark on an epic three-month trip around the world in the first Hong Kong-made plane.

“I was really bad at school [growing up] in Hong Kong,” he said. “I was bad at English and Maths; all the crucial elements you need to be a pilot, but that never deterred me from trying to train in aviation.”

Cheng, who trained as a pilot on Cathay Pacific Airways’ cadet programme after emigrating to the US as a teenager, will fly across 50 countries between August and late November.

INTERACTIVE: see the route the Inspiration team plans to take around the world

His plane, Inspiration, returned to the city last Saturday from Kilcoy, Australia, where it completed 40 hours of flight tests ahead of its expedition.

The aircraft was designed and created in Hong Kong over a seven-year period as part of a collaboration between Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company (HAECO) and St Paul’s Convent School.

Cheng and his crew are still seeking HK$1 million to fund his ambitious trip across the globe. The trip, costing a total of HK$4 million, is being sponsored by Cathay Pacific Airways and HAECO was well as Shell Hong Kong.

Cheng’s team, comprising engineers and technicians, worked with groups of about 40 students from the school over five consecutive years.

The students were among more than 500 people who contributed to the project, which yielded the construction of a kit-built RV-8 single-engine aircraft, designed by Van’s Aircraft Incorporated.

Cheng said he was inspired by a crew in the US to take up the challenge.

“It was a personal thing that I wanted to do,” he said. “If we can do this, it will put Hong Kong in a very interesting situation. It will be difficult but not impossible. For me, building it is special but not that special. It is a hobby. Flying will be the part that is challenging.”

Up, up and away: Hong Kong’s first homebuilt aircraft has successful debut flight

If it successfully completes its trip, the Inspiration plane will join a list of 14 amateur-built planes to have flown around the world, according to international aviation society Earthrounders. It would also mark the first time a Hong Kong-based crew has achieved such a feat.

Inspiration will take off for its first destination in Clark, Philippines on August 28. One of the longest leg of Cheng’s trip will be a 13 1/2 half hour journey from Hilo International Airport in Hawaii to Reid–Hillview Airport in San Jose, California. Other challenging stretches include Jordan to Abu Dhabi, and a US journey between Washington and Wisconsin. His plane is equipped with all the normal technological features of a mainstream jet, including an autopilot mode.

Things have not always gone smoothly. When Cheng, who collaborated on the project with chief engineer Gary Tat, first approached the Civil Aviation Department about the trip, he received a less-than-positive response.

“They said it would be next to impossible and that there would be a lot of hurdles,” he said. “It was a back and forth paperwork game. If I had not met Gary, I might have given up. It has been a teamwork thing,” he said.

Tat, a quality manager for Cathay Pacific, said he joined the project after reading in a local newspaper about Cheng’s ambitions to build a home-made plane in Hong Kong.

He originally thought he would only have time to attempt such a project in retirement, he said.

“It all goes back to my passion for aviation, but I don’t really know where that came from. When I was young, I wondered ‘how can these big birds fly?’ I started studying it because I really wanted to understand it.”

It’s not all about the big aircrafts
Hank Cheng, pilot

Tat also said some friends he spoke to about the concept initially seemed confused by the idea they were flying the plane purely for enjoyment.

“It is not all about the big aircrafts,” he said. “Aircrafts are not only designed for transporting people.

“But in Hong Kong that is how people see it. People initially thought we were building a 747.”

The pilot and the engineer approached several Hong Kong schools about a potential collaboration to build the plane. St Paul’s Convent School was selected, although many pupils had never been taught basic construction skills, such as how to use a hammer.

“It was a very engaging activity. They never got bored,” Cheng said. “Seeing the plane fly was very satisfying for them.”

Cheng said it was rewarding to teach his students about the aircraft and engineering despite them having no previous technical education.

Crystal Tse, the project’s quality assurance engineer, compared building the plane to constructing Ikea furniture.

The most challenging part will be running the operation centre
Crystal Tse, quality assurance engineer

“It is like a mini version of a 777 plane”, she said. “You just follow the instructions and put all the parts together. The most challenging part will be running the operation centre.”

The operation centre dedicated to the plane will be run by nine students from the Hong Kong Youth Aviation Academy.

Tse said the project looked likely to solidify the city’s position in the world of aviation technology.

“We are all very excited to make history in Hong Kong,” she added.

The department said it would issue a permit for Inspiration to fly under Hong Kong registration after all the assessments were done.

Cheng said his team had been actively discussing their local registration permit with the department.

“It seems we’re at the end of the tunnel now,” he said. We’re not expecting any major hurdles [from them].”

With the department’s registration approval, Cheng can begin to apply for landing approval at 50 airports in 25 countries.

Additional reporting by Jessie Lau and Naomi Ng