Into the eye of the storm is all in a day's work: flying with Hong Kong’s storm chasers

The storm-chasing pilots of the Government Flying Service talk about taking calculated risks in search and rescue, and scientific observations

Wong Tsui-kai |

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To Cheuk-pong gets comfy in the cockpit of the Jetstream 41 aircraft.

People don’t fly into storms on purpose. This is something we take for granted. But for the pilots of the Government Flying Service (GFS), flying into storms is a part of the job. Young Post went to their headquarters at the Hong Kong airport to learn just why would they do something that sounds so dangerous.

The programme started as a request from the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO). Originally, they wanted to collect data about wind shear – the “corner” where a strong wind changes direction – at the airport.

“An issue we run into in weather forecasting is the lack of weather stations on the ocean southeast of Hong Kong,” said Scientific Officer Hon Kai-kwong. “By flying a plane into a storm and collecting its wind speed, wind direction, pressure, humidity and temperature, we can get a better picture of a storm and make better forecasts.”

But the wind shear study was only the beginning. According to Hon, “during Typhoon Molave in 2009, the GFS had to send a rescue flight near the storm area, very close to the eye [of the storm]. We reviewed the data from our probe on the plane and realised there was some valuable weather data there. After some discussion, the Storm Reconnaissance Flights officially started in 2011.”

Government Flying Service Jetstream 41 at Chek Lap Kok.
Photo: Edward Wong/SCMP

Captain Eric Leung Man-chiu, Senior Pilot for the GFS, describes an average flight. “We get a request from the HKO and a preliminary flight plan on the day before or the morning of a flight, and update the plan as the flight time gets closer,” he explains. “Our pilots then check the plan and discuss the flight details with the civil aviation department. We also [set up equipment on] the plane if needed.”

“We prepare for poor weather obviously,” adds To Cheuk-pong, Pilot 1 (Acting). “Generally we fly with minimal crew to minimise risk. We make sure we have a good idea of the conditions we expect to meet: wind, turbulence, clouds and so on. And we prepare a backup airport in case the conditions at the Hong Kong airport worsen and we can’t land.”

To also lists off the things they often have to face when flying into a storm. “Winds stronger than 90 knots (166km/h), turbulence so bad you can’t even write. Rain, lightning – even hail and icing.”

Leung adds: “Normally icing is a small concern for flights in Hong Kong. But flying into a storm at 10,000ft where it’s 20 degrees [Celsius] colder than ground level, and with ample humidity for ice to form – then it becomes a very large concern.”

For the GFS pilots, bad weather is something they are very familiar with. Leung says: “It’s a good opportunity for our new colleagues to get experience with handling poor weather. This prepares them for our bread and butter: search and rescue missions – and search and rescue isn’t something done in fair weather.”

Leung Kwai-kong (left) and Hon Kai-kwong go to the source.
Photo: HKO

Leung emphasises that whenever they take a risk, it is always a calculated one.

“I can firmly say we only have close calls in simulations,” he says. “As pilots, safety is always number one. All we do is push the limit a little. We’re not better pilots than commercial pilots. We don’t do heroics.”

And it’s not just the pilots facing the action; the weathermen at the observatory don’t just sit in their offices and read screens. Leung Kwai-kong, Scientific Assistant at the HKO has been flying with the GFS more than once.

“We want to make sure the data we collect is valid and accurate,” he says. “It’s a rare experience. And despite the few hours of hardship, it’s worth it.”

If the job sounds exciting to you, then good news! The GFS hires from all walks of life and your background is largely irrelevant. Just have a clear understanding of the job, do your research and show interest.

For the HKO, a science background is a definite requirement. “Physics, maths and statistics, and certain engineering disciplines are good,” Hon says. “But if your teacher suggests geography, don’t believe them.”