The duties of the Government Flying Service (GFS) are many and varied, involving brushes with danger on a regular basis and the chance to assist members of the public in genuine life and death situations. According to Jimmy Choi, senior air crewman officer with the GFS, that makes it difficult to give a concise description of what this branch of the government's disciplined services might be expected to handle on any given day.
"It's not easy to explain exactly what we do as our responsibilities are so diverse," says Mr Choi. "For example, when there are natural disasters or accidents, we will be called out on search and rescue missions, but we also play a role in fighting hillside fires and act as an air ambulance to transport sick or injured people from outlying areas." Besides that, the GFS may be called on to provide tactical police support and to perform regular patrols to detect drug traffickers, illegal immigrants, smuggling, and the sources of environmental pollution. When required, they might also be asked to transport special cargoes, ferry VIPs and government personnel, or perform aerial photography and survey services for the Lands Department.
It's all about being able to save people and serve the community
Amid these numerous tasks, the crewmen act as frontline operational staff, in charge of everything for a flight except flying the aircraft. This means they are responsible for cabin supervision and the safety of passengers. On search and rescue missions, they would act either as winch operator or winchman at the scene of an accident.
In this capacity, the crewmen must know everything about rescue techniques, safety drills and the use of in-flight equipment such as the rescue hoist, radar, infrared search system, life rafts and fire buckets. Understandably, the training is extremely thorough, covering rescue techniques, first aid, underwater escape, safety and emergency procedures, and the handling of dangerous cargoes.
Mr Choi explains that there are five levels of GFS training which take around five years to complete. This starts with how to move people who are sick or injured and proceeds to the most advanced level of carrying out search and rescue duties at night. Even for qualified crewmen, about 30 per cent of all hours on duty are devoted to training. Every month there are sessions with the different types of aircraft operated by the GFS, which include the Jetstream 41 fixed-wing and Super Puma and EC155 helicopters. "Each aircrew is required to be checked by the examiner annually to ensure the proficiency of flying skills is maintained, " he adds.
Mr Choi has been serving the unit for almost 30 years. He first joined the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, the predecessor of the GFS, as an auxiliary air crewman in 1977. Initially, he worked as a volunteer mainly because of his interest in flying. Five years later, when the auxiliary air force started to expand and take on more local recruits, he decided to apply for a full-time position. He was doing similar work, but found that being totally committed to it brought an even greater level of job satisfaction.
"It's all about being able to save people and serve the community," says Mr Choi. He adds that if he could choose all over again, he would make the same decision to join the GFS as a crewman or rescuer.
While Mr Choi finds his work very meaningful and is proud to serve, he also feels grateful for the opportunity he has been given. "There are 23 air crewman officers in the GFS, and out of the seven million people in Hong Kong, these are the only guys who can do this work," he says.
The most recent recruitment campaign was conducted in 2001, when over 780 applicants were competing for just two crewman vacancies. Candidates had to be physically strong, have good eyesight, pass a medical examination and an aircrew aptitude test, be able to swim unaided for 50 metres, and be able to speak fluent Cantonese and English. No additional hiring is expected in the foreseeable future because of the government's freeze on headcount.
Since the work entails an element of danger, Mr Choi stresses that courage and the ability to think and act decisively are also vital. "Out team's motto is to be ready to serve, and a strong sense of mission is crucial for this type of challenging work, he says."
According to Mr Choi, there may be opportunities for air crewmen in Hong Kong to be employed in China as the helicopter industry is expanding. The mainland government has outsourced some flying services to private enterprises, which may look to recruit experienced air crewmen with the necessary training from Hong Kong or overseas. In other circumstances, Mr Choi points out, there are unlikely to be openings for employment with mainland organisations. "That is because flying services like these are traditionally part of the duties of the armed forces and somehow related to national security," he explains.
Nevertheless, he thinks that GFS experience could be useful for other jobs that require the ability to pilot an aircraft.