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A female RCMP officer sits in a helicopter.

Many skills needed to pilot an RCMP helicopter

S/Cst. Kathy Stewart has logged over 13,000 flight hours since starting her career. Credit: Morgan Palagain

S/Cst. Kathy Stewart has been flying helicopters for almost 40 years. In 2002, she joined the RCMP Air Services supporting operations from search and rescue to suspect pursuits. Stewart spoke to Travis Poland about her work and what it takes to fly with the RCMP.

How did you become an RCMP helicopter pilot?

I saw my first helicopter in 1979 and its capabilities immediately impressed me. I was working at a forestry camp and I began to think, maybe I could do this. I went to helicopter school in 1981 on my second application — they didn't take my first because they thought it would be a waste of money to train me and I would never get a job. I graduated and ended up flying throughout North America for a living. That brought me to about 8,000 flight hours and I joined the RCMP in 2002.

What are some differences between the private sector and flying with the RCMP?

One of the most notable differences is RCMP pilots are armed police officers. The tactical nature of law-enforcement helicopters means the pilot must adapt to a constantly changing environment with rapidly evolving situations, risks and priorities. Commercial pilots flying single-engine helicopters generally do not fly at night. The RCMP uses single-engine helicopters both day and night, using night vision goggles to enhance their capabilities. Commercial pilots tend to work alone while RCMP pilots are usually part of a team, working with a tactical flight officer who operates the mission equipment. Communications are generally more complex with standard aircraft radios and multiple police radios.

What type of operations do you support?

The Edmonton Air Section operates an Airbus AS350B3 helicopter providing operational and tactical support to front-line members throughout Alberta and other divisions. We perform multiple tasks including search and rescue, aerial surveillance and photography, and pursuits and interceptions. The helicopter provides tactical support for the Emergency Response Teams, Police Dog Services and our Explosive Disposal Units in a variety of high-risk situations.

Are there any memorable RCMP operations you've worked on?

There are many memorable missions, but one stands out because of its sheer life and death nature. In 2005, the Red Deer River experienced heavy flooding and I was flying with a county employee when we got a call about a person in distress on the river. We flew over and spotted a woman balancing on the roots of an overturned tree swept into the river. The river was a swollen, raging torrent and she was in imminent risk of being swept away.

I landed and told the passenger what I needed him to do. He would sit in the back with his seat belt loosely fastened while I carefully hovered next to the woman. He had to open the back door, reach out, grab her belt and help her climb on board. He expressed his doubts but I told him: 'It's you and me, and we're all she's got.' I gently hovered next to her, the adrenaline must have kicked in and he hauled her in. We dropped her off, made sure she was OK and I flew off to the next call. I don't think I even got her name. We were in the right place at the right time to save her life and that's what we did.

What advice do you have for someone interested in this career?

You want to have a strong background as a pilot and well-honed skills before joining the RCMP. It's important to bring as many skills as possible in order to safely and effectively use the helicopter during any challenging job. Pilots should be mission-oriented and motivated problem solvers who work well with an aviation team of engineers, pilots, dispatchers and tactical flight officers. Successful missions are often the result of good crew co-ordination and teamwork. Using your skills to support the front-line members is extremely satisfying, making this one of the best jobs in the RCMP.

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