Reaching to the sky

Reaching to the sky

Students on the 'I Can Fly' programme get a glimpse of life in the aviation industry during a trip to Seattle

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Photo: Susan Ramsay
The plane banked slowly at first, its wings angling steadily against the horizon. But then something happened. The ground began to loom ominously and shrieks filled the radio waves. 'We're crashing. We're crashing!'

It was all over. Gravity had taken over and the plane plummeted to earth.

Nervous laughter and quiet embarrassment followed, but not for long. Soon squeals of delight filled the air, as the young pilots mastered the art of takeoff, turning and landing. It was a flight simulator after all and everybody walked away from the crash unscathed.

The junior pilots included 19 Hong Kong students. They headed to the United States as part of the Cathay Pacific 'I Can Fly' programme, arriving in Vancouver on August 16 to meet another group of Canadian students. From there, the two groups caught a bus to Seattle, where they joined up with more students from San Francisco.

This is the fourth 'I Can Fly' programme, which was launched by Cathay in 2003. It aims to give future aviation industry employees a hands-on experience of taking to the skies and to promote a sense of community spirit among the participants.

As always, competition for a spot was fierce, with 100 participants selected from around 1,000 entries. That is around 10 times less than previous years because the financial crisis has forced the airline to scale down the scope of the programme. The Cathay staff who work with the youths also do so on their own time and money.

The first night kicked off with a traditional American barbeque accompanied by some ice-breaking games, which, sadly, Hong Kong didn't manage to win. But the games did their job, and suddenly students who had been a bit awkward with each other found a common bond - aviation.

The following day the group toured Boeing's factory in Mukilteo, near Seattle. Tour guide Eileen Dickson showed them the workings of the world's biggest aircraft factory (by volume), from its onsite coffee shops to the massive new 787 on its production line. For 16-year-old Patrick Yeung Chi-fung from Law Ting Pong Secondary School, it was a Dreamliner come true. He's a member of the Hong Kong air cadets, and like most of the boys on the trip, he wants to become a pilot. The students were impressed by the 787 Dreamliner, which was due to be ready two years ago but has been delayed.

Saphy Han Hoi-ling, 15, from St Rose of Lima's College, isn't planning to join the industry, but she is fascinated by planes. 'They're man-made and they can fly,' she said. 'That's awesome.'

After Boeing, the group headed to the Museum of Flight, where more thrills awaited. US President Barack Obama was in town and his entourage could cause some delays to the group's strict timetable. But the students were compensated by the unexpected excitement of seeing a 787 coming into land - and later, after they had finally made it to the museum, seeing Air Force One take off. More than that: they even saw Obama's motorcade on the tarmac before the Boeing VC-25 took to the air with the president on board.

But that was not before the group got down to some serious work at the museum, learning the science behind flying and how to make a flight plan. They did a preflight check on a plane and finally honed their skills on a flight simulator.

The following day a tour of Alaskan Airlines put students in an airliner flight simulator. Alaskan Airlines is used to flying in terrible weather and is proud of its safety record. Students got to sit in a state-of-the-art simulator and see what it would be like to fly in a snowstorm. They also simulated an evacuation drill - the inflated slide was a big hit.

Then it was on to a local park for a spot of weeding before the final dinner and a trip to Seattle's famous Space Needle.

Everybody learned something, even if it was not what they had expected.

Astina Ng Chuek-lam, 17, of Hang Seng School of Commerce, for example, is rethinking becoming a cabin attendant.

'I'm just not that independent and those people have to be. I rely on my mum too much,' she said.

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