The history of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force in many ways mirrors that of
Hong Kong. Both grew from humble and, dare I say it, inauspicious beginnings to
become efficient and technically sophisticated entities much admired by those fortunate
enough to have come into contact with them.
Lest readers assume otherwise from the title of this book, it is no dry-as-dust
chronology filled with technical information of interest only to those with degrees in
aeronautical engineering. Let me say from the outset that it is a delightful account of the
RHKAAF's progress, from inception to disbandment, filled with numerous anecdotes of
incidents and personalities which put flesh and blood on what, in less sympathetic hands
than Val Penlington's, could have been much less interesting. It should be noted, however,
that the Author is married to Ross Penlington, a former "Volunteer" pilot with the
RHKAAF who rose to become the Unit's Commanding Officer and, ultimately its
Honorary Air Commodore. I can only assume that Ross's enthusiasm for his spare time
activity was infectious, because I gained the distinct impression from reading this book
that Val Penlington was, indeed, a convert to the cause.
Having enjoyed a long association with the Auxies myself, I needed little conversion,
but nevertheless I found myself engrossed, not only with the personal anecdotes but with
the story of how the RHKAAF evolved from a military-style organisation to one which,
by the time of its disbandment, fulfilled an essential role in support of the civil government.
The list of tasks which it was called upon to perform varied from search and rescue to
aerial photographic surveys, from fire fighting to heli-tours for visiting VIPs, and from
assisting the police in their anti-illegal immigration duties to teaching student air traffic
controllers to fly - and much more.
It says a great deal for the earlier generations of "Volunteers" that they were able to
shake off the image of a gentleman's weekend flying club and develop into such a professional organisation whilst maintaining a largely volunteer component. Val
Penlington rightly attributes much of this to the far reaching vision of one man, former
Commanding Officer "Dinger" Bell, who was largely responsible for persuading the
Hong Kong Government that the future of the Auxiliary Air Force lay not in fixed wing
aircraft but in helicopters. The introduction of these rotary winged aircraft allowed such
flexibility in deployment that the Auxies became indispensable and ensured that they
did not follow their naval counterparts, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves, into the
history books until much later.
Winged Dragon is very much a story of men and their flying machines. Without
either one of these essential components there really could not have been a story. Whilst
the machines provide the glamorous images which can be conjured up every time the
word "Spitfire" is uttered, or the sinister undertones of the Black Hawk helicopter, the
men provide the humour, the light-hearted pranks, the suspense, the heroics, the tragedy.
All the ingredients of a first-rate novel are here, but this is no novel. It is a history of
both the men (and women) of the RHKAAF and their machines. It is a history of which
all former members can be justifiably proud - as can the citizens of Hong Kong whom it
served so well, never once failing to live up to its motto. Semper Paratus (Always
With the forthcoming change of sovereignty the Hong Kong Government decided,
with great reluctance I am sure, that the days of the volunteer air force had come to an
end and so, on 1 March 1993, the RHKAAF was disbanded. This may not be the end of
the story, however, merely the closing of another chapter. In its place Hong Kong now
has a well-equipped Government Flying Service. Many of its personnel started in the
RHKAAF and it is to be hoped that the esprit de corps which built the Auxies will
survive and prosper in its successor.
Val Penlington has done a superb job of putting together this very human history.
Many more tales could have been told but that would have upset the balance she has so
finely drawn between the men and the flying machines.