While pilots may represent the more visible face of any service involving aircraft operations, the team of engineers working behind the scenes plays an equally pivotal role. They bear responsibility for carrying out detailed maintenance checks and inspections, spotting defects, and ensuring that any problems are fixed so that the fleet can remain airborne.
According to Johnny Yee, senior aircraft engineer for the Government Flying Service (GFS), the bottom line for those in the profession is to uphold aviation safety. However, they must also work closely with other units to ensure sufficient equipment is always ready for deployment and that servicing needs never interrupt day-to-day operations.
Mr Yee explains that the two major tasks for any aircraft engineer are base maintenance and line maintenance. The former includes checks of the airframe plus major structural, avionics and cabin modifications or refurbishment. The latter covers activities ranging from aircraft priority setting and daily maintenance inspections to technical log release certification. For the GFS, it may also be necessary to modify aircraft and install special equipment, such as radiation detection systems supplied by the Hong Kong Observatory, aerial survey cameras used on behalf of the Lands Department, infrared detection systems for the Police Department or additional equipment needed to fight fires.
Safety is our core value and engineers are 100 per cent responsible for this
Standard procedures require regular inspections based on the number of hours an aircraft is flown. For example, the EC-155 B1 helicopter must be thoroughly inspected after every 100 hours in the air and the Super Puma helicopter after every 75 hours. There are also many additional checks undertaken as a matter of course.
Unlike a major commercial operation such as that run by HAECO (Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company Ltd), in which employees may have very specialised roles, there is only a small GFS team. Consequently, each engineer is expected to be multi-skilled and to handle a wide variety of duties. These may extend to technical support, planning, training and development, and logistics.
Mr Yee started out as an engineer apprentice with HAECO and now has almost 30 years' experience behind him. After more than 10 years in the commercial sector, he joined the GFS in 1990 because he felt it was a good opportunity to learn about other aspects of aircraft engineering while being able to serve the community. The government package was also attractive.
Since joining, he has had the chance for personal growth in a diverse environment requiring expertise in both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. At supervisory or management level, there is also the challenge of planning and allocating resources, which is critical to the budgeting and cost effectiveness of the whole operation.
Currently, the GFS fleet consists of nine aircraft and a team of 24 engineers has responsibility for supporting all operational and engineering activities. Inevitably, this means a heavy workload and, as Mr Yee points out, a commitment to serving is therefore essential. In general, aircraft engineers must also be able to work well under pressure. "You have to get used to the pressure and still achieve stringent maintenance standards," he says.
Engineers must adhere closely to all aviation standards and requirements. They have to rely on their knowledge and expertise to anticipate and fix problems so as to ensure all equipment is airworthy. "Safety is our core value and engineers are 100 per cent responsible for this," says Mr Yee. "Besides that, they are expected to undertake their duties with care, accuracy and efficiency."
In terms of formal qualifications to get into the field, a valid aircraft maintenance engineer's licence issued by the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department is a prerequisite for joining as an engineer. A key part of the training process is to gain practical knowledge and hands-on experience. All trainees are required to continue studying to obtain their basic aircraft engineering licence and the respective licences to work on different types of aircraft.
Mr Yee stresses that, since aircraft are highly complex machines, the work is not easy and it takes real dedication to succeed. As a result, the demand for trained aircraft engineers still outnumbers supply. Despite the challenges involved, the job has always given him great satisfaction and a feeling of achievement. "My motto has been to continue to learn and to adapt," he says.
Since mainland China has its own standards for aircraft engineering and a different system of licensing, the chances of a Hong Kong-trained engineer being offered a position across the border are limited. However, Mr Yee notes that Hong Kong does share the same system with other countries including Singapore, the Middle East, Canada, the UK and elsewhere in Europe, which may provide good job opportunities for those interested in trying their luck overseas. He also mentions that engineers trained in Hong Kong have a good reputation around the world and should, therefore, be confident of their ability to compete.