Pilot lifestyle: Flying helos in China
One thing that pilots have in common with most people is that, from time to time, they wish they were doing something else in their chosen field. In the coming months, AIN’s rotorcraft editor will interview rotorcraft pilots in a range of flying jobs to find out how they got to where they are and, in their opinion, what’s hot and what’s not about the work they do. This month he starts in China.
Gordon Jones, 51, flies an MD 902 for Avion Pacific, an aviation service company based in Shanghai, China’s busiest port. Accompanied by a copilot and winch operator, he ferries marine pilots to and from merchantmen on their way into the busy harbor. He has accumulated some 9,000 hours in his logbook, many of them in the Sikorsky S-76.
Born near Ayr in Scotland, Jones joined the British Royal Navy in 1975 and earned his wings at the end of the following year. “A couple of us went to commando training in Somerset,” he recalls, “and after four more months of training, two of us were appointed to 814 Squadron, attached to the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.
“I won my Sea King captaincy ticket and, at the end of 1978, left to instruct on the Sea King simulator at Culdrose. I was promised that if I stayed there for a while, I would be sent on a formal instructor’s course. During the next 15 months I helped to give aircrew basic, conversion and refresher training and learned a great deal about the helicopter that would soon stand me in good stead.
“After the instructor’s course, I joined the Sea King training squadron. In the winter of 1982 I moved on to a front-line Sea King unit as its ‘in-house’ instructor. At the time, units from the squadron were being rotated on utility duties through the Falkland Islands–post conflict–and I spent most of my appointment shuffling between them, visiting the islands three times and building lots of hours. My final naval job–and certainly the most satisfying one–was three years at Culdrose as Training Officer Sea Kings. That was a great way to end my military career.”
With 12 years of service behind him, Jones had the opportunity to leave the navy with a tax- free gratuity. Eager to experience other types of flying, in May 1987 Jones, who had more than 3,000 hours and a British ATPL (helicopters) with an S-61N type rating in his logbook, put away his Navy lieutenant’s uniform. A logical step might have been for him to join one of the North Sea operators but, as he says, “I had already flown over quite a lot of sea.
“By then I was married to a Canadian girl so it made sense to see what was happening in Vancouver, her hometown. When we arrived I converted my license to a Canadian one and turned my military instrument flying experience into a commercial instrument rating.”
Helijet had just set up its scheduled service between Vancouver and Victoria, linking the commercial center with the provincial seat of government. It had acquired a single S-76A and it was looking for ex-military pilots with instrument ratings. Jones joined the company in July 1987.
Taking on a Leadership Role
“To start with I flew the line but we were expanding fast and, within a year, they asked me to become chief pilot,” he said. “Over the next few years we acquired five more S-76s and set up more schedules, flying them up to Whistler ski resort in the mountains and to Seattle. We also won an air ambulance S-76 service contract, on behalf of the government of British Columbia. Since I left the contract has been renewed and expanded.
“I really enjoyed the flying, which, despite its scheduled nature, posed its own set of challenges. We were flying IFR in internal airspace and using Rnav or loran and, more recently, GPS routes that took us between mountains. It was anything but an airborne bus driver’s job, especially at night or during the winter–or both.”
In 1994, Helijet promoted Jones to director of operations, which reduced his flying to fewer than 200 hours–but he enjoyed the responsibility and “the feeling that I was putting my own stamp on things.” He stayed until the beginning of 2002, by which time he was starting to feel that he wanted to get back to a “proper” flying job.
As it turned out, Canadian acquaintance Vic Corrie contacted Jones at just the right time. He introduced Jones to Avion Pacific and told him about the harbor pilot job, and was enthusiastic about the potential for helicopters in China. Jones had the right qualifications and his winch experience would be of particular value in Shanghai. “It sounded like an adventure so I made the move,” he said.
A Chinese company, Zhejiang Leasing, had struck a deal with Corrie’s Avion Pacific firm to supply an MD 902 to the Guangdong General Aviation Company (GGAC), which in turn had a contract with the Shanghai Port Authority to transfer marine pilots from shore to ship and vice versa.
Flying in China
Late in 2002 Jones moved to Shanghai and ferried the new MD 902 from Zhu Hai, ready for operations to start the following March. In the 18 months since it started work, the helicopter has carried out more than 600 transfers of marine pilots, to and from container ships. Jones and his crew, copilot Qu Qian and Bristow-trained winch operator John He, now make up to 45 hoist transfers per day.
Jones has formed a close bond with his crew. “John speaks excellent English and Qian is a skilled ex-military helicopter man who takes over whenever it is more comfortable to fly from the left-hand seat. He also takes care of the flight planning, which is a relief.
“I love flying the MD 902,” he said. “The visibility is superb, it has a nice tight disc and the control response is excellent. The Notar system is a great confidence-booster, especially if we have to thread our way between cranes and the steel cables festooning the container ships.
“The city is buzzing and the potential for growth is phenomenal, although it would be wrong to conclude that everything will happen overnight. A great deal of bureaucracy, largely put in place by the military, has to be swept away and the military is loath to relinquish control.”
Where, now, does Jones think the grass may be greener? “I’d quite like to do some flying back in the UK–when I left there were just offshore and air-taxi jobs but now civilians fly SAR, military training and public service jobs as well. It seems to be an expanding market.
“But I logged more than eight hours today and that’s not unusual, so guess what? I miss being a manager. I don’t know–some people are just never satisfied.”
If you have a varied rotorcraft flying background, and would like to be interviewed for this feature, contact Andrew Healey at andy@ ahink.com or call him in England at +44 1428 717722.