SCMP Saturday, March 10, 2001

Birds of a feather


It's 1600 hours and on the tiny tarmac remaining at Kai Tak, actor Michael Wong Man-tak looks at flags snapping in the breeze. A stiff northerly wind is blowing away the clouds. The clearing blue sky makes conditions perfect for flight.
At 1630 hours, Wong is at the controls of a four-seater Robinson R44 Clipper helicopter, rising through 500 metres and heading at 100 knots across the tip of the Sai Kung peninsula towards Mirs Bay.
"Isn't it wonderful," he shouts. His three youthful passengers, all members of the Hong Kong Air Cadet Corps, beam in agreement.
Wong is a member of a consortium of 10 enthusiasts who own two helicopters, half the entire private fleet in Hong Kong.
He loves flying. Even more, the amiable extrovert loves introducing young people to the delights of the wild blue yonder.
Anyone can own a helicopter; that sleek blue Robinson with its two drooping rotors costs $2.34 million and in California, you can virtually walk into an airport showroom, pay your money, and fly away. If you've got a licence, of course.
Buying one for use in Hong Kong is a little more complicated.
"There's an awful lot of paperwork," Wong explains.
When his consortium picked out their Clipper last year, it had to be test flown and checked at the factory in Torrance, near Los Angeles. Then it was disassembled, packed into crates and shipped to Hong Kong.
Once reassembled, the aircraft had to go through the rigorous and strictly enforced steps needed to satisfy the Civil Aviation Department to issue a certificate of airworthiness.
"A qualified test pilot had to be flown out from Britain to test fly the Clipper," he says.
The 10-man consortium, most of whom have fixed-wing pilot's licences as well as being qualified for helicopters, waited eagerly for the procedures to be completed before the first flight in the new aircraft on December 2. Since then, it has clocked 88 hours of flight time.
Wong smiles, part ruefully, part guiltily; he admits 35 of those hours had him behind the controls.
The syndicate already owned a two-seater version of the Robinson when he joined two years ago. Last year, they decided to expand, and bought the four-seater. He gestures to the Clipper standing outside the window of the Aviation Club at To Kwa Wan.
"It's out there. I can't help myself. I've got to take it up."
It's not a cheap pastime. Each of the 10 syndicate holders paid an equal share of the purchase price, then additional cost of shipping the machine to Hong Kong, reassembling it and registration.
Each month, they put $2,000 into a kitty to cover routine maintenance, parts and unexpected expenses. Initial registration costs $75, the first Certificate of Airworthiness is $33,800 and $270 for annual renewal and a private pilot's licence is a one-off $170.
Then, when they want to take off, it costs a partner $2,300 an hour, to cover fuel and usage.
One experienced amateur flyer is prominent businessman Robbie Brothers, who first bought a Hughes 300 aircraft in 1978. He now flies an MD500 made by McDonnell Douglas, which took over the aviation arm of Hughes. Tycoon Michael Kadoorie has a helicopter made by the same company.
"Usually, I have a set destination in mind when I take off," Brothers says. "But it is sometimes therapeutic just to fly alone over Hong Kong's more spectacular scenery on a clear and windless morning."
Options on where to land are limited. Living in a remote part of Sai Kung, he sometimes makes the seven-minute flight from home to the Central helipad. Other landing spots are at Sha Tin Racecourse or the large gardens of friends' homes. He has also flown to Macau, Zhuhai and Xiamen.
Basically, within the constraints of Chek Lap Kok and the borders, Hong Kong follows British practice and allows flights to any area, as long as the owner of the landing site gives approval, Brothers explains. A flight plan always has to be filed in advance, for safety and control purposes.
The 11-year-old MD500, owned by the company in which he has an interest, has a value of about $1 million. To replace it with a new model would cost close to $5 million.
Ask if he flies for work or fun, and Brothers jokes: "If you have time to spare, go by air." The journey may be swift, but overall the time is longer because of the preparations. The honest answer is that he flies for pleasure.
"Hong Kong's terrain and local conditions are ideally suited to the use of helicopters, rather than fixed-wing aircraft," he points out.
Taking to the air is a bit more complicated than going for a spin in a car, although Wong says the skills involved are not all that different.
If he wants to fly, there's a set discipline. First, he has to switch on his laptop and click into a special program to see if anyone else has booked the aircraft. If there's a slot free, he books it.
Then it's routine to listen to the special weather information for pilots broadcast from Chek Lap Kok control tower.
Safety always comes first; the next step is to go over the aircraft with a rigorous eye to check all is safe. Then he files a flight plan, explaining where he is, what he's flying and where he wants to go. This is faxed to the control tower.
While air traffic controllers examine his request, the pilot goes through the careful procedure of starting the engine, letting it warm up and preparing for flight. He calls the tower, confirms that he has permission, engages the rotor and takes off.
Is it worth it? "Absolutely," says Wong.
He would like a lot more people to be able to enjoy the fun of flying, but in addition to the cost, official indifference to flight training and a lack of facilities for small aircraft make it difficult. The Hong Kong Air Cadet Corps, founded 30 years ago, has 1,816 cadet members, but the chances of them learning to fly in Hong Kong are almost non-existent.
The Robinson is an efficient piece of flying beauty. Lean, sleek and handsome, its 260hp Lycoming engine can push it along at 130 knots and as high as 39,000 metres.
As a boy in upstate New York, Wong loved to see aircraft landing and taking off at local airports.
"I was fascinated by flying," he admits. But he did nothing to satisfy that ambition until 1998, when he was involved in public appearances promoting a watch with Gene Cernan, the American astronaut who was the last man to walk on the moon.
The pair became friends and Wong kept asking the aviator about flying adventures. Over dinner one night, Cernan said: "You say you'd love to fly. Why don't you learn?" A month later, between acting and other jobs, Wong signed up at a flying school outside Toronto. He did 100 hours on a Robinson R22, the two-seater small brother of the Clipper, but never got around to taking his licence.
Work called him back to Hong Kong. As soon as he returned to Los Angeles, he clocked an additional 50 hours flying, much classroom work and study and then passed the tough American Federal Aviation Administration examinations for his commercial pilot's licence.
On his next trip, he plans to further his qualifications; he's now studying for his instructor's licence which he will sit when he is next called to Los Angeles for movie work.
That will enable him to take a limited number of Air Cadets on flights, as a first step in their aviation training.