Song Yin is a trailblazer. The captain with Donghai No. 1 Rescue Flying Service, under the Ministry of Transport, is one of the first women captains on search and rescue helicopters in China. She has more than proven her competence; Song has more than 3,395 flying hours, including 1,085 hours of flying rescue missions, during the past 15 years. During that time, Song has participated in 318 missions, and she has helped rescue 225 people at sea. For her pluck and moxie, she has come to be referred to as the "Most Handsome Woman Captain in China."
Dream of Flying
Song is director and secretary of the Party (Communist Party of China) branch of the flight management department, under Donghai No. 1 Rescue Flying Service. A native of East China's Shanghai Municipality, she dreamed of flying a plane from the time she was child. In 2004, she was admitted to Merchant Marine College of Shanghai Maritime University.
At the end of 2007, cadres of the Ministry of Transport visited the university, to recruit women to be pilots. Song didn't hesitate to sign up to participate in the selection process.
After completing several rigorous tests and physical examinations, and after several rounds in the selection process, Song was chosen to be a pilot with Donghai No. 1 Rescue Flying Service, under the Ministry of Transport. She and Wan Qiuwen, the other woman recruited, were sent to Australia for 15 months of flight and search-and-rescue training.
In 2010, Song and Wan passed their final examinations, and both obtained their pilot's licenses. They then became the first women search-and-rescue helicopter pilots in China.
Many people consider flying a plane to be a cool job, but it is hard to fly a search-and-rescue helicopter. Given the often changing weather and the complex climatic factors at sea, search-and-rescue work, especially at sea, is full of risks and dangers, and it requires not only the professional abilities of the rescue workers, but also their patience and perseverance.
Song never thought about giving up, despite the countless difficulties she encountered. She has gained extensive flying and technical experience, and she has remained passionate about her flying career.
She always puts people's lives first. "By bringing people in need back from the sea, we are actually saving their whole families," Song says. She adds she is proud of being a woman pilot.
Song has participated in many rescues; as such, she has dealt with various dangerous situations during her decade-plus career.
Song completed her first rescue mission in November 2010. She and her team were tasked with rescuing a fisherman, who had broken his leg while working on a fishing boat. The boat was adrift and being tossed by the wind and waves.
Song remained clearheaded, checked relevant data, and closely monitored the situation at sea. In the end, she and her teammates rescued the injured man — within 10 minutes.
At the end of 2012, Song completed a difficult mission. It was a snowy day, and the temperature of the sea water was close to 0 Celsius. A fishing boat had lost power, and it was adrift. The 19 crew members had been trapped for 11 hours by the time Song and her team had arrived. Most of the boat's crew were exhausted.
The boat was swaying wildly, and its deck was wet and slippery, which made the rescue risky. To make matters worse, the helicopter's winch got stuck during the rescue operation. If the hook got caught, on some giant obstacles on the boat, the helicopter would be at risk of being pulled by the swaying boat, and possibly crashing into the sea. In the critical situation, Song chose to reset the power to the winch, and, luckily, the winch's function returned to normal. All of the boat's 19 crew members were eventually rescued.
In 2015, Song was promoted to captain, in recognition of her flight skills and rich experiences. Her promotion gave her a greater sense of responsibility. In November that year, a fishing boat capsized, with its bottom up. As the captain on duty that day, Song received a message, from the rescue command center of Donghai Rescue Bureau, saying a survivor was trapped in the boat, and that divers and diving equipment had to be transported to the scene by helicopters.
"During that mission, we flew five flights to transport all of the diving equipment. At last, the divers rescued a man, who had been trapped for 36 hours inside the overturned cabin," Song recalls.
Song completed her most memorable rescue mission in December 2016. On that day, a fishing boat caught fire, and 10 people were trapped. As Song and her team were flying to the boat, she received an update — high waves had pushed the boat more than 20 nautical miles from its previous position.
Song checked her fuel supply, and then decided to fly to the boat's new position. Helicopters usually carry a limited amount of fuel, so that meant Song and her team had to complete the rescue in less time than previously planned.
The harsh weather conditions, high waves and smoke from the burning boat made the rescue more difficult. To prevent the smoke from affecting the helicopter's engines, the helicopter had to hover at a higher altitude than normal. Song constantly adjusted the helicopter's operating position to make it easier for her team members to perform their tasks. Within half an hour, all the 10 fishermen were aboard the helicopter.
In 2021, Song Yin Innovation Studio was established. Song and her team have innovated their ways to carry out missions in a more efficient manner. For example, one day, in November 2021, a man hurt his eyes while he was working on a boat. To save precious time, and to ensure the man received timely treatment, Song flew the helicopter directly to Shanghai Ruijin Hospital after the man was rescued, instead of transferring the man on ambulance. The whole process took less than an hour.
"Give the hope of life to others, and leave the danger of death to yourself." That is the creed of Song and her team members. Even though every rescue at sea is dangerous, Song has never flinched. "In the course of each task, I always keep calm and stay focused. It's professionalism, and it is also our responsibility," Song says.
When talking about her career with family and friends, Song often says being a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot is the best job for her, and that saving lives has always been her intention.
As a captain, Song has made the utmost effort to bring hope of life to people in danger. Although the job is often full of risks and difficulties, Song always maintains a positive attitude toward life, and she always has a sunny smile on her face.
She has developed many interests, such as running, rock climbing, photography, and playing basketball. Song also shares photos and short videos of her training programs on social-media platforms, such as Weibo and Bilibili, to help people better understand her occupation. Her positive energy and healthy and sunny image have caused many people, especially netizens, to refer to her as the "Most Handsome Woman Captain in China."
Sometimes, people wonder why women engage in such a dangerous and painstaking career. Song says she has been asked that question many times. "I think there is no difference between men and women in rescue flying. What matters only is the pilot's comprehensive quality. Being a woman is neither a barrier nor a privilege," she says.
"More than 50 years ago, NASA had three outstanding black women employees, who made irreplaceable contributions to the space industry of the United States. They never gave up in face of doubt and injustice. Their stories were adapted to a film, Hidden Figures. We are luckier than them, as we live in a more enlightened era, and a more equitable environment … I feel lucky to be able to work as a captain, and I am grateful to my team members for their support," Song adds.
Behind each successful rescue is hard training day after day. From flying during the day to flying at night, Song has repeatedly honed her professional skills, through difficult training programs, and she has gained a deeper understanding of life. "Saving lives is our top priority, but sacrificing one life to save another is not what we want. I hope to give hope and a sense of security to people through my professional skills," Song says.
In 2012, Song attended the European search-and-rescue congress, in Ireland, where she gave a speech on China's search-and-rescue capacity, technology and development plan. She also visited colleges and universities, where she shared her experiences as a captain in the hope of encouraging young people to become search-and-rescue helicopter pilots.
The capable woman pilot in the 2020 film, The Rescue, is based on Song. "The challenge begins the moment the search-and-rescue helicopter leaves the base. For members of our rescue flying team, every mission is a race against time. Our goal is to make rescue operations safer and more efficient. We will continue to work hard and advance our skills," Song says.
Last year, Song was awarded the National May 1 Labor Medal for her dedication to saving lives during emergencies. In March, Song was named a National March 8th Red-Banner Pacesetter by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), and she was named one of the Most Beautiful Women Strivers by the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee and ACWF. "These honors are the best encouragement for me. What's past is prologue. At the new starting point, I will keep pursuing my dream, and marching forward on the new journey," Song says.
Photos Supplied by Donghai Rescue Bureau of the Ministry of Transport and Yang Rui
(Women of China English Monthly May 2023 issue)
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