The British Empire Library

Winged dragon: The history of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force

by Valerie Ann Penlington

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Donald Watson (Hong Kong. 1960-1997)
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 Prepared).

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.

British Empire Book
Valerie Ann Penlington
Odyssey Productions Limited


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