Rescue helicopter pilot Song Yin fulfils her destiny to be a captain
Song Yin was destined to become a captain of either a ship or an aircraft.
As a navigation major, she should have steered ships. But a campus recruitment meeting changed her career trajectory, and she became one of China's first two female rescue helicopter pilots. The other is her classmate and colleague Wan Qiuwen.
"I don't think it was my own choice. Instead, I was chosen for the job. It may sound cliché, but deep down I really think so," she said. "My cousin told me that as a child I had said: 'When I grow up, I will either go to sea or fly to the sky.' I don't remember it at all. If it was true, in a sense, I have fulfilled my childhood dream."
To date, Song, with her crew, has saved 218 people in 273 rescue operations. But every time, her emotions are running high.
"I just jump out of bed when I am called to action at night or in the wee hours," she said. "After all these years, I still think it is the best job in the world. I will never get tired of it. It's cool and challenging. But most importantly, it saves lives."
The 35-year-old Shanghainese describes it as "an accident of nature" that she became a rescue pilot.
When she was in third year at Shanghai Maritime University, the Donghai No. 1 flying rescue service came looking for female pilots. The news set the girl students astir.
"Almost everyone went to the recruitment meeting, but only Wan and me got in. After all, not every girl can meet the height and eyesight requirements," Song said, with a bit of pride.
Indeed, she was the hot favorite for recruitment. Tall, thin, good-looking, she was a big shot on campus. Also, she is good at sports, especially basketball that requires a considerable level of coordination – an important quality for pilots.
In December 2008, she was sent to Adelaide in Australia to receive 15-months training to get a commercial helicopter license. Back to China, she received further training in helicopter rescue. In 2014, she was among China's first batch of female rescue helicopter pilots.
However, when the job really got started, the reality was totally different to her imagination.
"At first, I thought it was cool and fun. What I knew about it just came from TV series," she said. "Like everyone, I thought the aircraft is the safest mode of transport. Airliners are safe, but helicopters are not, not to mention rescue helicopters."
After so many years, she can still remember her first time on a helicopter. "I felt a strong sense of weightlessness. I was so nervous that I closed my eyes," she said.
Her first rescue operation took place in December 2010 when, as a co-pilot, she was involved in saving a fisherman with leg fractures.
"Looking down, I found the boat was much smaller than I thought. It was just like a stamp floating with the wind and waves on the sea. For a moment, I realized we are infinitely small in this world," she said.
"But at the same time, I felt an enormous sense of mission and responsibility. As a co-pilot, I did very little, but I was still so excited."
On February 14, 2015, she had her first task as chief pilot.
"It was Valentine's Day. Four male colleagues accompanied me to share the holiday," she said with self-deprecating humor. "It was not very challenging. I had thought I was not nervous at all. But when I got back, I found my clothes were all wet. I realized that I was just outwardly calm."
Song Yin said rescue operations always come with danger.
"The weather may turn bad suddenly. When we fly over the sea, it may suddenly rain or turn cold. We have run into trouble, like rotors and windshields icing up," she said. "Sometimes when ships are on fire, dense smoke will swirl and billow, affecting pilots and rescuers."
One of her most dangerous missions took place in December 2016 when a boat was engulfed in flames in the East China Sea, leaving 10 fishermen at death's door. Song rushed to fly the helicopter to the scene.
Soon after she took off, she was informed that the boat was 20 nautical miles away from its previously reported location. It meant the available rescue time would be greatly shortened. Worse, when she arrived she was taken aback by the raging fire, and she felt the helicopter engine surging. And gas cylinders on the boat could blow up at any time.
"The superposition of various dangers made the rescue extremely difficult," she said.
In response, she managed to hover at higher altitude to keep away from the dense smoke. When the rescuers were winched down to the boat, one almost struck the mast. Fortunately, not one of rescuers was injured, and all of the 10 fishermen were plucked from the burning boat.
"We are not just saving 10 people but also 10 families," she said. "Yes, we are risking our lives to save others, especially rescuers. But we will continue to rush to danger to ensure others' safety."
After saving so many people, she was once also saved by others.
She was managing a sailing boat on Dishui Lake when it ran aground. "When I saw the rescuers hurrying toward me, a strange but warm sense filled my heart," she said.
Song and Wan are still the only two females in the team. In such a male-dominated job, Song said she doesn't feel any inequality or inconvenience.
"In contrast, it has made me more welcoming than my male colleagues. To some extent, it's kind of a gender advantage," she said.
During the summer fishing moratorium period, Song is not busy. Like any other sports fan, she enjoys watching the Tokyo Olympics, especially team games like China's women's volleyball and football.
"My idol is Chinese striker Wang Shuang. She's so great. Her performance during the Olympics is of world class," she said.
"When the Chinese team was many goals behind the Dutch team, she still didn't give up, and she encouraged her team mates to fight till the end."
She added, "If you give up, you must lose. But if you push on, you won't necessarily lose. It's just the same as my job."