Search and rescue helicopter pilot

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Emma Turner is a search and rescue helicopter pilot for the Royal Air Force (RAF). While at university, Emma joined the University Air Squadron where she learned to fly and was sent for selection to join the RAF as a pilot.

What is your role?

My main role is flying and navigating a helicopter to search for and rescue people in trouble.

What is a normal day like?

We start in the morning with a weather report, which is given by one of the pilots on duty. When then plan the day's flying training, which will usually involve a day trip and a night trip. When we have decided on the type and amount of training we're going to do, we give a briefing to inform everyone of what's happening before we go.

If we get called out to someone who needs help, we have to be in the air within 15 minutes and that job takes priority over everything else.

We try to do four hours' flying training a day. If we're called out on a search and rescue job, we can be airborne for much longer.

For the rest of the day, I have other duties such as writing reports, reading information about the helicopter to make sure I'm up to date, and carrying out any other duties I have been given to contribute to the running of the squadron.

Who else is in the crew?

I work in a crew of four: two pilots, a radar operator and a winchman. We also have five engineers who check the helicopter is working and fix it if it breaks down, an operations officer who gives us information over the radio while we're flying, and three safety equipment fitters who make sure all our flying kit is in good condition. Everyone works very well together.

Is being a search and rescue helicopter pilot dangerous?

It can be dangerous if the weather is really bad, but generally we're quite safe.

Do you work in shifts?

Yes, I work a 24-hour shift. I sleep at work in case I am needed during the night. On the day after I've been to work I am on-call and have to be within half an hour of the squadron. I usually do around nine shifts a month.

What qualities and skills do you need?

You need to be flexible and have common sense, as every job is different. Decisiveness is important, as you're required to make decisions very quickly, sometimes in difficult circumstances. Good hand-eye co-ordination is necessary for flying.

What training have you been given?

I did six months' Initial Officer Training, followed by 60 hours' training on a firefly aircraft (a small aeroplane), 170 hours on training helicopters and 100 hours on the Sea King, which is the search and rescue helicopter I fly now.

I've also done a lot of ground school which is basically learning flying theory, and covers topics such as the weather, principles of flight, navigation and technical knowledge about how aircraft work.

What do you enjoy most?

I always wanted to be a pilot. I love the flying and working as a crew member. It's also very rewarding to help people in difficulty and rescue them from dangerous situations.

What do you dislike about your job?

Sometimes we can't help people, as they're too badly hurt, and it can be frustrating if we go out to look for someone and search for a long time without finding them.

Emma's route to becoming a search and rescue helicopter pilot

  • A levels.
  • Degree in Management.
  • University Air Squadron.
  • Joined Royal Air Force (RAF).

Emma's tips

  • Contact the Armed Forces Careers Office to let them know you're interested in a career in the RAF and to find out about sponsorship for students.
  • Join the Air Training Corps near you and do some flying to see if you like it.
  • Make sure flying is what you want to do before you apply; the training is hard, but fantastic fun.

Helicopter pilot related jobs

Salary of a helicopter pilot

  • The starting salary for RAF search and rescue helicopter pilots is around £30,000.
  • This rises to over £40,000 for a flight lieutenant and can go up to over £53,000 for a squadron leader.

Getting in

  • To become a search and rescue helicopter pilot within the RAF, you need a minimum of two A levels/three H grades and five GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3) including English language and maths, or equivalent qualifications. Many entrants have a degree.
  • After Initial Officer Training, you will receive both classroom and hands-on helicopter training, including specific training for the search and rescue role.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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