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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Operator Profile Hong Kong GFS

Hong Kong invokes different images to many people, especially if you’ve not had the chance to visit this beautiful place. The terrain is as striking as it is diverse with steep, green mountains, blue ocean and numerous islands intermingled with a breathtaking ultra-modern urban landscape of glass and steel, not to mention having its own Disneyland. What’s the best way to get around? There are no shortage of wide-body aircraft, including the new A380s, flying in and out of Hong Kong day and night. Locally, people travel by car, high-speed trains, ferries, double-decker buses and, of course, helicopters!

By Chris Baur

Protecting the citizens and many visitors of Hong Kong—heavily populated and dispersed among many islands—is a formidable task. Hong Kong has a unique flying operation that traces its origins to an Auxiliary of the British Royal Air Force. Formed in April 1993, the Hong Kong Government Flying Service (GFS) is based at the busy Chek Lap Kok Hong Kong Intl Airport (HKG), located on Lantau Island. Led by controller, Capt. Michael Chan, the Government Flying Service consists of approximately 225 members across five divisions—Admin, Training/Standards, Operations, Engineering, and Quality & Flight Safety.

Hong Kong Government Flying Services operates four
Eurocopter EC155s and three AS332 Super Pumas as part
of a mixed fleet. Photos by Chris Baur
During a recent trip to Hong Kong, I received an invitation to GFS headquarters and met with several pilots and officers. Over a cup of tea, Capt. Tom Tang and Captain Victor Lau explained the formidable mission of the Government Flying Service, which is responsible for covering an area that extends out to 1,300 km, covering most of the South China Sea. The GFS provides airborne search and rescue using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. It has agreements in place to use a system of offshore helicopter platforms and airports for refueling to extend the range of all its aircraft. Currently the GFS fleet consists of the following aircraft: four Eurocopter EC155-B1 Dauphins; three AS332-L2 Super Pumas; two Jetsteam J41 turboprops and a ZLIN trainer.

The EC155s are the GFS multi-mission workhorse, providing air ambulance, SAR, firefighting and law enforcement missions. The Dauphine provides an internal security/counter terror mission, and can support surface vessel fast boat operations with airborne assault troops. The nimble twin-engine helicopters have the ability to land at a network of heliports strategically located throughout Hong Kong.

Long range SAR is accomplished by the AS332-L2s, which can also be equipped with a Simplex Fire Attack water tank and bucket system that attaches to the bottom of the aircraft. It can carry 2,270 kg of water for aerial firefighting. The helicopter is also outfitted with a primary and standby hoist system. The benefits of this backup are obvious whether operating in the South China Sea, evacuating an injured crewmember from a vessel, or rescuing firefighters from a burning hilltop.

The two Jetstream J41 fixed-wing turboprops also serve many roles for GFS, ranging from searching for survivors during maritime rescue operations to aerial monitoring of windshear and turbulence around the airport. During long-range SAR missions, the Jetstream aircraft can also scout ahead for weather conditions as an aid to determine suitability for helicopters hoisting or “winching” operations.

Capt. Victor Lau explains the mission
of Hong Kong GFS at the organization’s
Operations Center.

To support the wide range of missions, the Government Flying Service has developed a system of equipment trolleys that are outfitted with mission-specific gear. This allows the aircraft and crews to reconfigure quickly for various assignments. GFS does not use a SAR “basket” device for hoist operations, preferring to use either a collar or litter device. I was impressed with their communications protocol, supported by the delivery of a two-way hand held radio, protected inside a shock and waterproof container with simple instructions for use. Once delivered, the radio allows the vessel or survivor to communicate directly with the GFS aircraft. The safety benefits of expedient and direct communication between the vessel and aircraft are significant, reducing the probability of hoist-related injuries or a fouled/sheared cable due to misunderstanding and confusion. It can also reduce the amount of time the aircraft spends in hover flight over the vessel during tag/trail line operations.

In 2008, GFS assisted the mainland rescue and recovery efforts following the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the Sichuan Province in China, resulting in the deaths of more than 68,000 people. On May 17 of that year, a five-member team consisting of Jetstream 41 pilots and aircrew deployed to Chengdu to assist in the air relief operation. Six days later, a SAR-configured GFS Super Puma self-deployed the 1300-km trip from Hong Kong to Guanghan. It was a pivotal decision as the benefit and utility of including helicopters in the response to this disaster helped save lives. GFS crews were able to deliver essential supplies, water, and medical evacuation services to the sick and injured from the mountainous region of northern Sichuan, including Beichuan, Maoxian, Qingping and Mianzhu. Much of these areas were completely inaccessible without the utility of the helicopter.

The operations challenged the deployed GFS crews as they found themselves working in an unfamiliar location with limited resources for mission planning and aircraft maintenance. Working long hours, living in tents and preparing meals over an open fire between sorties while enduring a 6.0 aftershock were just some of the difficulties that the GFS team faced. There had been two occasions where other relief forces were sent by the control center to recover casualties from a 100-foot-deep valley covered with collapsed cables. They attempted this formidable task but failed, so the GFS team was called in. By applying some special techniques, the crew flew the helicopter backward and made their descent foot-by-foot through spider-web like cables before lifting all stranded survivors to safety. Since these two incidents, the team is always entrusted with difficult rescue missions. This is indeed a manifestation of their position in the air relief operation, as well as recognition of professional skill and quality performance.

Government Flying Service helicopters
sitting on the tarmac at Hong Kong
International Airport (HKG).

The GFS team was also tasked with preparing a list of recommendations, based on their experiences:

• Obscure environment. Maps were no longer reliable as the topography of the earthquake areas had changed.

• Numerous aircraft. Air traffic was heavy over some of the search areas.

• Perilous terrain. Most of the rescues took place in deep valleys covered by almost invisible cables, sometimes even along steep slopes and cliffs.

• Thin air at high altitude. All rescue operations were carried out over mountainous regions at 7,000 feet asl.

• Changing weather. Clouds and fog formed rapidly in the mountainous regions due to extreme weather.

• Inadequate support. As facilities and equipment were limited, the engineering staff responsible for inspections before and after each flight worked under enormous stress and challenges.

Hong Kong GFS played a prominent role in the entire air relief operation in Sichuan. Despite taking on the extra duty, the GFS mission in Hong Kong was never compromised. During the first 21 days following the earthquake, the deployed team flew 26 missions in the battered Sichuan Provence, recovering a total of 96 survivors and transporting over eight tons of food and essential supplies to the affected victims. This was accomplished with a cadre of 16 flight crews and four aircraft engineers. This could only have been accomplished by a team of professionals dedicated to the art and fraternity of SAR.

Capt. Tom Tang has conveyed that the “actions taken by the GFS has far-reaching and profound meaning, we have, on behalf of the seven million residents in Hong Kong, conveyed the earnest care to those in distress in Sichuan. Though the support rendered is limited, the heart for it sees no bounds.”

Given the variety of complex missions, aircraft differences and area of responsibility, GFS requires a state-of-the-art communications system. GFS has an impressive Operations Center, staffed 24/7 by pilots and flight officers. It features a host of electronic message boards, providing quick and easy access to scheduling, maintenance, aircraft status and mission tracking. The electronic flight and maintenance system provides information throughout the facility. This includes a sophisticated real-time aircraft tracking system that can be accessed from any workstation.

Avionics equipage of the AS332-L2 Super Puma consists of the standard Eurocopter avionics suite, with the addition of a CMA 3000 multi-sensor navigation system. This provides the mission-specific SAR mode with mark on target, transition down and automatic hover functions was included in this system. Like the Super Puma, the avionics package for the EC155-B1 consists primarily of the Eurocopter-provided avionics suite. Besides the standard VHF navigation unit, a Trimble 2101 GPS unit was also installed for improved navigation.

The pilots are a close-knit mixture of mostly local and some ex-pat pilots. While attrition is very low, GFS created a Cadet program for future pilots. Typically, more than 4,000 applicants are competing for a handful of positions. Although it is not required, successful pilot applicants typically possess a university degree, and successfully complete a rigorous screening process consisting of a battery of tests and interviews. Once selected, cadets spend 18 months away from Hong Kong for basic flight training. The newly hired cadets incur a 10-year commitment to the Hong Kong government for the highly specialized flight and mission training and also receive generous pay and benefits from their date of hire.

Pilots are tracked towards either the helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. Helicopter pilots typically fly both the Dauphine and Super Puma, while the Jetstream pilots are focused on fixed-wing flying. In order to enhance operation flexibility, several pilots are both fixed-wing and rotorcraft qualified. But normally, they would not maintain simultaneous currency in both types. Pilots are tracked as both co-pilots and captains through four levels of qualification— day non-tactical, day tactical/SAR, night non-tactical and night tactical/SAR. After a copilot successfully completes all four levels, they begin the process of qualification as a captain from Level 1 through successful completion of Level 4. This rigorous training program has supported GFS’ demanding operations tempo and challenging missions with highly qualified pilots and a low accident rate.

Recognition of GFS’ excellent SAR capabilities is reflected in the many awards it has received over the years, including the Sikorsky Aircraft Rescue award; Rotor & Wing Helicopter Heroism award; and the Igor Sikorsky award for Humanitarian Service.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Hong Kong, you won’t be disappointed by the warmth of the people, culture and beautiful scenery. The capabilities of GFS offer a tremendous value to the residents and visitors in and around Hong Kong, and serve as a model of public service aviation for other federal, state and local governments. The Hong Kong Government Flying Service, unique as Hong Kong itself, continues to grow and provide a much-needed service.

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