A career as an RAF Helicopter Pilot
Cathy is a search and rescue operational captain. Flying a helicopter, she is responsible primarily for rescuing any RAF aircrew from a crash. While on standby, she and her crew operate a rescue service for the public.
What's an operational captain?
It means that I am in charge of the helicopter. We are there to rescue RAF fast-jet aircrew if they crash.
How often do you get called out?
Fortunately, not very often for crashes involving RAF aircraft. On standby, we can act as a search and rescue service for civilians who get into difficulties, such as walkers and climbers in the mountains and holidaymakers on inflatables and jet skis. We also do long range jobs if fishing crews have an accident and need bringing ashore. This provides a service to the public as well as giving us valuable training.
Who's on the helicopter with you?
There are two pilots – the captain who does most of the flying and the co-pilot who navigates and maintains communications via the radio. The rear crew comprises the winch operator and the winchperson. The winchperson is a paramedic who goes down to the casualty and prepares for transit back up to the aircraft. The winch operator is the link between the winchperson and the pilot. We have to work closely as a team. We also work with other agencies – the police, coastguards, mountain rescue and medical services.
Do you work a shift pattern?
Yes, it's usually based on six days on and three days off. We need to provide cover throughout the year. During work days we are on alternate 24-hour working shifts.
What is a typical day?
I get to work for 8.30 a.m. At 9.20 a.m. we have the handover, when the crew going off shift brief us on the state of the aircraft and the weather. We discuss the flying plan for the day. We plan to fly twice each shift, even during a night shift to make sure that we keep up our night flying skills as well.
Throughout the day we are on 15 minutes standby. When we are on 24-hour duty we sleep at work, but are still oncall. Next morning at 9.20 a.m. we hand over to the oncoming shift. Then we are the standby crew for the next 24 hours. We can go home or do other duties but have to be on 60-minute readiness. We can't be more than 20 minutes away from the station.
What do you enjoy about being a Helicopter Pilot?
The unpredictability. When I go on shift I never know what's going to happen. The best thing is feeling that you have saved someone from a disastrous situation. I was once involved in searching for a missing three-year-old boy. We had to abandon the search during the night but continued the next morning and found him. All the anguish disappeared when I saw the look on his father's face as he was reunited with his son.
How do you cope with difficult situations?
Unfortunately, not all our jobs have happy endings. When we can't find people and have to abandon the search or when we cannot save someone's life, despite our best efforts, the whole crew is affected. But again that's where the teamwork comes in. We support each other emotionally.
Cathy's tips for becoming a RAF Helicopter Pilot
- You must be prepared to work as part of a team.
- If things go wrong it can be a bit upsetting.
Career as a RAF Helicopter Pilot
- After basic training, aspiring pilots will be selected for fast-jet, multi-engine or rotary wing streams. Further training on the assigned aircraft type then follows.
- Training prepares you for the variety of the role, which can include military support or humanitarian aid missions, search and rescue flights and the transport of troops and equipment into combat zones.
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