The idea of becoming a pilot holds an intrinsic appeal for most young boys. The excitement of flying, a respected profession, a chance to see the world - the attractions are many and obvious.
But Karl Chan, operations manager with Hong Kong's Government Flying Service (GFS), has a role which offers even more. For him, the greatest satisfaction undoubtedly comes from being able to save someone's life as the outcome of a successful rescue mission. "It is challenging and meaningful work and provides some unforgettable experiences," Captain Chan says.
Unlike their counterparts with the international airlines, GFS pilots work in a comparatively Spartan environment and must often take to the skies in very bad weather conditions. Their primary role is to provide flying services for search and rescue, air ambulance, firefighting, and police operations. The area for which they are officially responsible extends 700 nautical miles south of Hong Kong, though most search and rescue operations take place within a range of 200 nautical miles.
"Since there is an element of danger in the job, it requires a strong mission to serve," says Captain Chan. Both during and after a typhoon or other natural disaster, the GFS is kept extremely busy. For example, it may be necessary to transport government officers to survey areas of flooding or damage to property and crops, as well as to airlift supplies and fly casualties to hospital.
On other occasions, the unit provides air ambulance services to less accessible villages in outlying areas. In addition, they will assist the Lands Department with aerial photography projects and are available for hire by the private sector for a variety of survey services.
The techniques and duties are very different from the requirements of commercial airlines
Designated as one of the government's disciplined services, the GFS began operations in April 1993 when its predecessor, the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, was disbanded. Captain Chan has experience with both units, having first entered the service in 1990. He signed up after completing studies in business administration at what was then the City Polytechnic mainly because he was interested in a career which promised excitement.
"A friend gave me the ad and said the job would suit me perfectly," he recalls. "I could meet all the basic requirements, including good eyesight, so I applied for the cadet pilot programme." After several rounds of tests and interviews, he was accepted and offered a 10-year contract. "I did have some doubts about my own abilities," says Captain Chan, "but decided to take up the challenge and saw it as a great opportunity."
All GFS cadet pilots undertake basic training overseas to learn to fly fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and do more advanced training locally. To prepare them for later duties, the programme includes flying in adverse weather conditions, landing in rocky and inaccessible areas, and manoeuvring close to ground level. "The target is to train 'all-weather' captains who can fly day or night whatever the prevailing conditions," explains Captain Chan. "The techniques and duties are very different from the requirements of commercial airlines."
Specialist training on aircraft employed in the GFS fleet is done in Hong Kong. The fixed-wing Jetstream 41 is currently used for initial search and rescue in all offshore operations. They act as on-scene commander and guide helicopters to locate casualties and winch them to safety. These Eurocopter helicopters also carry out inshore operations and the frequent searches for lost or injured hikers.
"All pilots train continuously and have regular assessments," Captain Chan emphasises. "We are in the air every day and a helicopter pilot may take up to seven flying tests a year."
The GFS is now looking to recruit post-secondary candidates with A-Levels in English and mathematics as cadet pilots. A background in engineering or science is an advantage and a good command of English - the language of international aviation - is important. Applicants must pass a pilot aptitude test, medical examination and eyesight test in accordance with International Civil Aviation Organisation standards.
Besides that, the GFS expects candidates to be outgoing, confident and, given the nature of the work, decisive and able to work well under pressure. "But good pilots should never be overconfident," notes Captain Chan. "Our biggest challenge is to recognise our limitations and not try the impossible in a difficult rescue situation."
Flying services including air rescue are still in their infancy in mainland China. However, Captain Chan expects demand for specialist pilots to increase and that contacts and exchanges between mainland and overseas services will become more frequent.
Because some operational practices in China differ from international standards, additional conversion training is a prerequisite for anyone who has thoughts of taking up a position across the border.