Based: Hong Kong
“We are one of the most difficult government departments to get into,” says Michael Chan, better known as The Captain among his 250-plus colleagues at Hong Kong’s Government Flying Service. Unlike desk-bound, suited state officials, the 55-year-old controller always sports an olive jumpsuit. The vehicles parked in his lot are a fleet of 11 aircraft, including a Bombardier Challenger 605 and Eurocopter AS332 L2 Super Puma.
Operating as an arm of the city’s Security Bureau, in 2017 Chan’s team got called upon more than 2,600 times for missions ranging from collecting meteorological data from the middle of a typhoon to evacuating workers from an oil rig. But the team’s work stretches well beyond the city limits – as far as 1,300km – and covers an area that’s equivalent to one sixth of the size of China. “The public perhaps associates us with picking up lost hikers on the local mountains,” he says. “But we are the best civilian air task force in the region.”
Inside the airfield’s hangar, a troop of engineers and mechanics outfitted in blue overalls are busy with the regular upkeep of turbo jets and helicopters. “We are in an industry that relies on high-level experts rather than manpower,” says Chan referring to the rigorous training that each pilot undergoes to become qualified.
After beginning his career as an air-traffic-control assistant in 1983, Chan trained as a pilot in the 1990s. Nowadays he keeps a close watch on the selection process for new recruits: only a handful of candidates are picked from more than 2,000 applicants every year. “Academic [results] and previous background are not our primary concerns,” he says. “When we are in the middle of the rough ocean we have to rely on a team made up of trustworthy and composed staff.”
Michael “The Captain” Chan is the only pilot in his department who’s able to fly both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. He began his career in the Civil Aviation Department as a student officer, spending time inside the air-traffic-control tower in the 1980s. After a decade of training he qualified as a professional helicopter pilot in 1992. His silver and bronze medals for bravery are testament to the many rescue missions he’s carried out and to his thousands of flying hours. This summer he is going to welcome seven new Airbus h175 gfs Guepards to his fleet and a batch of seven trainees to his team – five of whom will be women, a welcome step towards gender parity.