On 7 January 2007, the fishing vessel Zhanjiang 00029 radioed an SOS that it was sinking some 87 kilometres southwest of Hong Kong. Immediately the Hong Kong Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre requested a search and rescue operation from the Government Flying Service (GFS). Nine crewmembers were plucked from the stricken vessel and whisked back to safety in Hong Kong.
Such dramatic rescue missions are only part of the GFS' daily operations. Captain West Wu, senior pilot (support helicopter) has many stories to tell. "Every mission brings a different flying experience," he says. "For example, two years ago we had to fly into the eye of a typhoon to locate a missing boat. The wind speed dropped from 50 knots to 10. Whichever way we turned, we found ourselves facing a wall of clouds."
One of the first locally-trained pilots for the GFS (formerly the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force), Captain Wu has accumulated over 5,700 flying hours in his 19 years of service. Besides flying emergency missions, his duties also include administrative work such as meetings, compiling reports, and the design of new operational and training procedures.
Today, he takes a new role as instructor and carries major responsibilities in training cadet pilots and assessing their progress. "It gives me great satisfaction seeing our newly qualified pilots accomplish a mission successfully," says Captain Wu.
Captain James Sze, a graduate in maths, was taken under Captain Wu's wing five years ago. Now a pilot II (helicopter) and working up to attaining full qualifications, he is certain about his career development. "As a start, cadet pilots will focus on developing flying skills, airmanship and technical knowledge, and learn to prepare themselves for the various missions," he says. "They then move on to handle necessary paperwork as well in times."
Captain Sze has already accumulated 2,000 flying hours. As a GFS helicopter pilot he notes the difference from flying a passenger airliner is the sense of mission and great exposure to vastly different flying conditions. "Our service covers rescue, casualty evacuation, fire fighting and many more," he says. "There are different alarms signifying different emergencies. When the bell rings, we're ready to fly."
Recalling his first flying experience, he says, "It was amazing. And when I flew a helicopter on my very own for the first time, I really felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility."
During a rescue mission, communication is important and no individuality or heroic behaviour can be tolerated. "We don't have levels of hierarchy but work as a team and trust one another's strengths," says Captain Wu.
He also points out that during a rescue mission, the most dangerous thing is to get emotionally involved. "It could jeopardise the safety of the entire crew. What we learn to do, from experience, is to manipulate unfavourable situations," he adds.
Captain Sze agrees, "What you do affects not only the crewmembers but potentially people on the ground as well. Every decision you make triggers what's going to happen next."
Another notable feature of the GFS' work is that it often involves great changes in weather, or in difficult situations such as hillside fires. Such situations require flexibility and the ability to put things into perspective. "We need to think ahead, make sensible decisions and comprehend risk. One has to be confident and prepared for alternative actions when encountering adversities. This is a very clear message that we send across to our cadets," Captain Wu emphasises. "A sense of mission is a must because what we're doing is not just a job."
In line with the GFS' succession plan and allocation of resources, only two cadet pilots will be admitted this year but thousands of applications are expected. Aspiring fliers are encouraged to thoroughly prepare for the layered interview process.
"Good eyesight is necessary," Captain Wu explains. "Leadership skills and social etiquette are tested via a number of exercises and group discussion. The bottom line is that we don't focus on finding the heroic type but those who can work as part of a team yet possess the ability to think out of the box."
On average, it takes six to eight years to become a fully qualified pilot in the GFS, depending on the individual's aspiration and ability. Apart from working on a licence, cadets are sent to unfamiliar environments for six months during which they may spend about five hours a day on flying duties whatever the weather conditions. Captain Sze did this part of his training over the North Sea oilfields off the UK where he was required to interact with people from all walks of life. "That's why we have to be adaptable and energetic," he says.