From a drop zone in pre-handover Hong Kong to the new fad of indoor skydiving

With flight chambers or wind tunnels popping up all over Asia, could Hong Kong be next in line?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 October, 2017, 2:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 10:56pm

One of the perks of Britain’s 99-year lease of the New Territories was that the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force could roam the Hong Kong skies as it pleased.

Squadrons of British-ruled helicopters would undergo reconnaissance and observation missions along the Chinese border right up until the Force’s disbandment in 1993.

As if that were not thrill-inducing enough, some personnel would skydive over the city’s only drop zone: Shek Kong Airfield. The British Army was quite literally flying free.

“They would jump and free fall out of helicopters in Shek Kong,” recalled Captain West Wu Wai-hung, chief pilot of the Government Flying Service (GFS).

“There was a landing zone and you would see the arrow and pull on the parachute string – there was limited control back then.”

Times were simpler in the ’80s. Nostalgic posts on outdated Hong Kong skydiving forums describe a long line of Boeing 747s taxiing for take-off at the airport, with a tiny four-seater Cessna 182 queuing up behind them. “We must have appeared like a little insect,” one said.

Captain Wu said such jumps were permitted due to the drop zone’s distance from the then Kai Tak airport.

“It was for anyone interested. There was a mix; some locals, some expats. I was in the air cadets and was offered to try it out,” Wu said, adding that he had made about five jumps in total.

GFS took over all non-military operations from the RHKAAF in 1993 and remains a Hong Kong government contingent to this day, dealing with vital aviation support services, including search and rescue, firefighting and police operations.

But what ever happened to the drop zone?

The handover marked the symbolic end of skydiving on Hong Kong soil. The Shek Kong drop zone closed just before Hong Kong’s sovereignty was returned to China on July 1, 1997. There is now a structure built over it.

“It was due to the new Hong Kong International Airport in Chek Lap Kok,” said Hong Kong skydiver and United States Parachute Association (USPA) instructor Gareth Lam King-shun.

“[The airport’s] northeast flying course is quite close to Shek Kong, so the height above ground level flying limit was blocked to 2,000 feet. We usually deploy our parachutes above 3,000 – it was not suitable for jumping any more.”

Lam, who has more than 1,500 jumps to his name, does not see the city opening any drop zones in the future. The reason is simple: space.

“It is not easy to develop skydiving in Hong Kong. The airport is busy with commercial flights and their landing patterns cover a lot of the sky. There wouldn’t be a clear sky for us to jump,” said Lam, who predominantly sky dives in Thailand.

“Hong Kong airspace is not conducive to skydiving,” Wu said. “You would need to be at a very high altitude to get away from the air traffic and airport.”

As a consequence, aspiring and experienced skydivers must turn abroad for their adrenaline fix. Common drop zones include Thailand, Japan, the US, and now – unsurprisingly – China.

“Since China started organising the World Wingsuit League [competitions for wingsuit proximity flying and base jumping], Chinese people are more interested in the sport. That’s why they are setting up new drop zones on the mainland,” Lam said.

But there is a new fad taking off around Asia, and it could hold the key to Hong Kong’s spatial predicament – indoor skydiving.

Flight chambers or wind tunnels are popping up all over the continent, with three in the works in China (in addition to the five in existence), according to an Indoor Skydiving Source.

In fact, the Indoor Skydiving Australia Group (ISAG) – which opened Australia’s first vertical wind tunnel – announced expansion plans in Asia, including one in Malaysia earlier this year.

The announcement, however, was met with controversy from indoor skydiving company iFLY, which believes the move was a “material breach of ISAG’s various agreements with iFLY” and its proprietary technology.

In the same public statement, iFLY revealed: “On September 4 2017, ISAG further announced that it entered into a binding memorandum of understanding with a third party for development, construction and operation of indoor skydiving facilities across China, including Hong Kong.”

Could this mean Hong Kong will have its very own wind tunnel in the future?

Fans of the sport will have to continue twiddling their thumbs until the companies can reach an agreement.

Yann Guiheux, CEO of Skydive Hong Kong – the only skydiving company in the city – welcomes the idea of an indoor skydiving site.

“There are more adrenaline junkies in town than you think,” said Guiheux. “As a skydiver myself, flying in a wind tunnel at a constant speed is a good tool to train your body position and free flying.

“So long as there is no drop zone in Hong Kong, interested skydivers have to continue travelling outside,” he said, adding that his company provides round-trip packages around Southeast Asia for its customers.

The ultimate question boils down to this: does Hong Kong even need an indoor skydiving facility?

In 2011, the iFLY franchise opened the world’s largest vertical wind tunnel in Singapore. The enormous structure can accommodate 20 fliers at once, and its realistic free-fall conditions are apparently one-fifth of the cost of a regular tandem jump. A location at tourist hotspot Sentosa definitely helps, too.

Skip to this year, and Singapore boasts the world’s fastest flier in 15-year-old Kyra Poh.

The teenage indoor skydiving sensation flipped to speeds of up to 230km/h, earning two gold medals at the Wind Games in Spain this year. She also bagged four golds at the Australian Indoor Skydiving Championships in August and defended her world championship title in Canada last week.

“I got into indoor skydiving after my mum [Carolyn] was helping iFLY with their advertisements,” Poh said. “They needed people to film so I tried it out and loved it.

“Indoor skydiving is considered a sport in many European countries, but it’s not in most Asian ones. It was a challenge to get approval from my school at first, but now they are very supportive.”

Watch Poh at the World Indoor Skydiving Championship

Watch Poh at the Wind Games (3:06)

Poh said she had not seen any Asian indoor skydivers – aside from Singaporeans – at her previous events, but revealed that Chinese teams would be competing at the next world championships in October.

“I definitely recommend Hong Kong people come to Singapore and fly, but there are many tunnels being built in China, so maybe they could try that, too.

“It’s very encouraging that people from Hong Kong are so eager to fly that they would go to other countries. I feel Hong Kong should have its own tunnel, too. Maybe I could visit and give it a try.”