The pilot held a steady hand over the joystick. “1,000 feet until landing,” he says, pointing to one of the screens in front of him, which shows an aeroplane graphic aligned to a mark. “My job is to keep the plane centre. We must always be flying along this line here,” he explains to the group of students who watch his every move as he glides smoothly into Singapore.
It’s a rare sight to see four students crowded around a pilot during landing, but this is because they are in the cockpit simulator of Airbus’ Training Centre in Beijing.
The 10-minute simulator experience was part of the Hong Kong Airlines’ Embrace the World Airbus Tour, where 10 Hong Kong students who submitted excellent travel journals were treated to a three-day trip in January – a tour of Airbus’ aircraft-manufacturing base on the mainland.
Simulators are a crucial part of training. Airbus’ clients send their pilots to the centre to undergo around 30 days of transition training. The pilots usually have a private pilot licence (PPL) and need further training to learn how to operate specific models such as the Airbus’ A320. Once the training is complete, they need to pass a series of tests before they can become a co-pilot, after which they need around 2,000 hours of experience before becoming a captain. Trained pilots also have to go on simulators regularly to practise handling extreme situations, like typhoons.
For Micheal Chan Kwan-ho, a Form Five pilot wannabe from MKMCF Ma Chan Duen Hey Memorial College, the simulator experience was the best part of the trip. “I got to operate the joystick and the weight of it felt really different from the simple equipment I have at home to practise on. The whole cockpit moved, too, so it felt just like flying a real plane,” he says.
Another aviation fan, Watchman Fong Tin-puk, a Form Five student from CCC Kei San Secondary School, said he once paid about HK$2,000 for a 60-minute simulator experience in Singapore. Watchman became obsessed with planes when he was 10. He was on a flight to the US, and at his request, the cabin crew took him to the cockpit after they landed. “It was nighttime, and the view outside was spectacular. I remember there were tonnes of glowing orange buttons. And the pilots just looked so cool,” he recalls. “I wanted to be part of that.”
Since then, Watchman has been doing all he can to learn about aviation. He works part-time as a rugby referee, and uses the money to pay for about 10 trips a year just so he can be on a plane. “I like listening to the engine working; I take note of the take-off speed,” he says. He picks different planes from various airlines to fly; and over the years he’s become a Gold card member of Oneworld, Star Alliance and Skyteam, the three biggest airline alliances. Sometimes he flies to a place, takes a shower in the lounge, and heads straight back home. “I always ask to see the cockpit; 95 per cent of the time they let me,” he says.
When he isn’t flying, Watchman reads all he can about planes. “Some people freak out when they smell fuel on the plane, but it’s actually normal,” he says. “Also, people think there’s something wrong when they hear a loud ‘vroom’ during landing. But that’s just the engines reversing for deceleration.”
But Watchman says it’s hard to lay his hands on books about aviation in Hong Kong, and there’s also limits to what you can learn from a book.
A special part of the students’ trip was visiting the Airbus Assembly Line in Tianjin.The other two assembly lines for Airbus are located in Toulouse, France, and Hamburg, Germany. It was the first time Hong Kong students had been allowed to enter the “secret” manufacturing base: photos were strictly forbidden and they were only allowed to look at assembly stations from a distance.
The Tianjin final assembly line puts together A320 parts shipped from Germany (the tail end), France (the front) and Xiaan (the wings) joining them to the fuselages with rivets. Welding isn’t used for aircraft managing because the welded parts tend to become stiff and may break off during flights.
The aircraft is then moved to a multi-purpose bay for tests. For example, the doors are closed and the aircraft is pressurised to ensure it’s airtight; and the fuel tanks are filled with a special liquid to test for leaks. Then, the aircraft is painted and the engine is mounted. After a test flight, it is ready to be taken home by the client.
The whole process takes a week, and the Tianjin assembly line produced 50 A320s last year. General Manager Andreas Ockel says there are orders for about 6,870 Airbus planes – which means they already have 10 years of production ahead of them. “This is good news for people who want to join the industry,” says Ockel, who was a pilot himself for 12 years. “The China market makes up 20 per cent of our sales. If you are crazy about it, you can achieve a lot.”
He says the next big development for the Airbus Tianjin is the opening of a cabin completion centre, where aircrafts can be flown in to have their cabins installed. They are also working on a lean approach to increase productivity, such as reducing the distance workers need to walk around to get their work done, and utilising tech advancements to automate more of the work process.
Watchman hopes the development of the Chinese aviation industry will mean more opportunities for him. “Right now only Cathay Pacific and Dragonair take cadets, and it’s impossibly hard to get in. Getting your own PPL is also really expensive,” he says.
Learning about the production process also made Micheal realise that being part of the industry can mean more than being a pilot.
“There are also engineers and other roles – a whole team of people! It really opened things up for me,” he says.
Hong Kong Airline pilot Windsor Wong knows all too well the challenges of becoming a pilot. He earned his PPL in New Zealand, making a living by teaching badminton. After getting his licence, he couldn’t get hired as a commercial pilot. It was through a stroke of luck at a clubhouse one day that he helped an expat connect to the internet. He turned out to be a pilot, and ultimately helped Wong into the business. “I used to think things like that happen didn’t happen, but they do. I’ve actually seen several such cases. So sometimes when things seem hopeless you just have to stick with it,” he says.