Nok-him is a remarkably brave 10-year-old boy. In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and endured two years of chemotherapy and other medical procedures. It was tough, but thankfully, the illness is now in remission.
One of the main things that helped Nok-him get through the ordeal was his fascination with aviation – in particular, creating meticulous drawings of aircraft flight decks. His attention to detail was all the more impressive given that the closest he’d been to the real thing was a fleeting glimpse of the cockpit while disembarking from the plane after a holiday.
His fascination with aviation did not go unnoticed by hospital staff in Macao, where he lives. When they contacted Make-A-Wish Hong Kong, a charity that makes wishes come true for children with critical illnesses, it was a safe bet that Nok-him would opt for something aircraft themed. ‘As soon as you visit him at home, you can tell that everything for him is about aviation and flying. As well as his drawings, Nok-him’s father brings him back a model aircraft each time he flies’, says Jackaline Chow, Assistant Executive Manager of Make-A-Wish Hong Kong.
Equipped with Nok-him’s hopes for his ‘Wish-day’, Jackaline approached Cathay Pacific to see if they could create a special day with a session in one of the airline’s state-of-the-art flight simulators.
However, once Grace Cheung, Head of Public Engagement and Sustainability at the airline’s Corporate Affairs Department, got in touch with Flight Operations, the team not only said yes but wanted to do more, creating an unforgettable aviation experience in the form of an intensive two-day course to train Nok-him as the airline’s newest – and certainly youngest – pilot.
Grace says: ‘Lots of teams around the airline wanted to get involved and add surprises to make his day more special. It was really heartwarming.’
One of the first surprises for Nok-him was Captain Joe Fung, who is also a Deputy Flying Training Manager. He was part of the small team who drove to Nok-him’s house in Macao to collect him. Joe came armed with a formal ‘employment letter’ for Nok-him and, as a Cantonese speaker, became Nok-him’s pilot buddy over the two days.
The surprise worked, but perhaps too well… ‘He’s normally a very talkative boy, however, Joe’s surprise appearance left him a little tongue-tied,’ Jackaline recalls.
Joe says: ‘It took us a bit of time to warm up. But I saw he had a stack of sketches and thought it would be a good starting point, so we talked about his pictures and from then on it was easy.’
From there, the group drove back to Hong Kong and Cathay City – the airline’s headquarters close to Hong Kong International Airport. Nok-him and his family checked into the Headland Hotel, where overseas crew stay after flying into Hong Kong.
At a welcome reception with senior managers, Nok-him got his next surprise: a tailor-made pilot’s uniform, hat and name badge, courtesy of the Flight Operations team. If you’re going to be a pilot, you need to look the part, after all.
But the following day was going to be even better.
Safety underpins every aspect of flying, so after breakfast Joe led Nok-him to the Flight Training Centre, which houses the simulators, to learn some of the basics. One floor of the centre is dedicated to practical training on things like emergency slides, cabin simulators and aircraft doors. This is where pilots and cabin crew learn about the aircraft’s emergency equipment and how to use it. Nok-him had a go at opening aircraft doors, saw the emergency slides and life rafts fully deployed, and even extinguished a fire.
Then it was time for the pre-flight briefing, before a flight in one Cathay Pacific’s state-of-the-art simulators. Head of Flight Technical Services, Dave Lohse, had programmed a flight plan from Hong Kong International Airport to Macao – turning over Nok-him’s house – and then back towards Hong Kong, passing low over Victoria Harbour in a Boeing 747-8F simulator – Cathay Pacific’s huge freighter aircraft. Dave says: ‘It was great fun, and Nok-him proved to be a quick learner.’
Fears that he might get tired were unfounded, and with his parents and elder brother taking turns in the observer seat, Nok-him made two take-offs and three landings. News of the star pupil passed around the building, and as Nok-him left the sim, Cathay Pacific’s Director of Flight Operations Chris Kempis was waiting to pin pilot’s ‘wings’ to his uniform and hand over a commemorative certificate.
But as exciting as the flight simulator experience was, for an aviation fan, nothing beats getting up close and personal to a real aircraft. As they boarded a bus back to the airport, Nok-him thought they would be heading to an observation gallery to look at aircraft on the tarmac. But the team had gone one better. Cathay Pacific’s engineering partner HAECO wanted to play their part too – so the bus instead arrived at the hangars located on the far side of the airport where the company maintains the Cathay Pacific fleet. After a welcome – and more gifts, including a mechanic’s uniform – Nok-him was able to sit in a real cockpit and accompany Joe on the pilot’s pre-flight walkaround of an Airbus A350-1000. Nok-him described the experience as ‘Superb! There were a number of aircraft waiting for maintenance, and they are way bigger than I could imagine.’
It wasn’t just Nok-him who had a great day. Jackaline says: ‘I was really emotional and touched to see Nok-him’s wish come true. I’m very grateful to Cathay Pacific. The Wish-day is not just about the day itself; its effect can be life-changing. It’s also been amazing for the family and everyone inspired by him here today.’
None more so than Joe. ‘We are fully convinced that Nok-him has the potential to be one of our best test pilots,’ he says. ‘This is a 10-year-old who has been through a lot and has shown the resilience to face the challenges that have been placed in front of him and come out strong.
‘If you can do something to play even a small part in someone’s life, that’s meaningful and powerful. I don’t normally like to appear in front of a camera, but for him I’ll do it, and that picture of us together was the highlight of the day for me.’