Friday, March 9, 2018

First Military Female Test Pilot serving in the RCAF

Maj. Catherine Blais, the first and, so far the only, military female test pilot to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. She has been quietly working away at 4 Wing Cold Lake at the military’s Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment, not wanting to toot her own horn.
Maj. Catherine Blais, the first and, so far the only, military female test pilot to serve in the RCAF. She is working away at 4 Wing Cold Lake at the military’s Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE). In this photo, she is seen beside the AETE's CT-114 Tutor. 
By: Marie-Michèle Siu
Special to the Cold Lake Sun

With yesterday being International Women's Day, the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment in Cold Lake is proudly highlighting Maj. Catherine Blais, the first, and so far the only, military female test pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Over the past 50 years, more than a hundred pilots have been carefully hand-picked to work at AETE.

As a very versatile pilot, Blais has flown over 2,700 hours on 30 different military and civilians aircraft, both airplanes and helicopters, including the Tutor, which is the same jet the Snowbirds fly and that AETE uses for training; the Harvard, a turboprop plane, which is one of the first planes all Canadian Air Force pilots fly when they are sent to Moose Jaw for flight training; as well as the Griffon helicopter and the Cormorant helicopter, just to name a few.

“My favorite aircraft is the Blackhawk (helicopter) because it’s an icon of military aviation,” said Blais, who flew the aircraft when training at the United States Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland.

Before joining the military, Blais graduated from l’École Polytechnique de Montréal with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2002.

The following year, Blais enrolled in the Air Force because, not only did it offer multiple opportunities to fly, but because she wanted to satisfy her sense of adventure.

She also wanted to use her engineering education in a non-traditional way and “couldn’t bear to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life,” she said.

After her initial flight training, Blais became a flight instructor to newer military pilot hopefuls in Moose Jaw. Later, she was posted to Valcartier, Que. to fly at the tactical helicopter squadron there.

In 2010, she deployed to Afghanistan for nine months where she flew helicopter support for the army. While there, she also worked in the Tactical Operation Centre, overseeing and planning daily operations.

Following her deployment, she was selected to be a test pilot after an intense selection process that involved advance math tests and coming to Cold Lake to prove she could learn very quickly how to fly unfamiliar aircraft that she had never flown before, which basically meant reading the instruction manuals for each plane or helicopter and hopping in with an instructor, who would ensure she stayed safe in the unknown aircraft.

Blais said being selected as a test pilot and being sent to Pax River, Maryland—which is an hour outside of Washington D.C., along the scenic Chesapeake Bay, to go to test pilot school —was the highlight of her career.

After graduating test pilot school, she returned to Cold Lake in 2013 to join AETE

Her typical day as a flight test pilot consists of flying for half a day (if the weather cooperates), and then working on supporting other projects, such as test planning, reporting, participating in review boards and attending engineering meetings with other Department of National Defence technical and operational agencies.

When working to deadline on a specific test project, she can have some very long days, doing as many as three flight tests a day, writing her reports at the end of that day, and planning the next day’s objectives.

Despite the long days, Blais finds the work rewarding.

Over the past four years, she has been involved in a multitude of diverse projects, like doing a Cormorant’s engine vibration survey, testing a Chinook helicopter’s simulator acceptance. She has done g-suit testing, and worked on Griffon Maritime Helicopter Precision Approach System developmental testing. She also earned CH-146 Griffon Required Navigation Performance Area Navigation certification.

Although, the test pilots are predominately, male, Blais says selection of test pilots is based on proficiency.

“ If you have the background, the experience and are competent, then there is no reason why you should not be accepted and excel in this field,” said Blais, as advice to young women interested in a similar career.

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