Career: Helicopter Pilot

PUBLISHED: 15:40 30 September 2013 | UPDATED: 15:40 30 September 2013

Nicola Elizabeth Smith

Nicola Elizabeth Smith


NICOLA Elizabeth Smith tells of her experience of becoming the first female pilot in Britain.

Nicky, age 44, was born in Colchester and has moved around for about 25 years around Britain, until she moved back to her birth place, Colchester.

At college, Nicky did an officer training at Emmanuel College. Then studied at Cambridge University for 3 years, specialising in Aeronautical Engineering.

“I wanted to be a helicopter pilot since I was 9 years old. In particular, I wanted to fly helicopters in an altruistic role. Happily, I was able to fly search and rescue helicopters in the Royal Air Force for 17 years and now air ambulance for 2 and a half years.”

“Shift work is about a 9 or 10 hour shift, but often a lot longer. I work an average of 4 shifts a week although the shift pattern is different each week. Shifts either start at 7am or later, until it gets dark. At the moment, the charity doesn’t have night flying.”

5 best things about your job;

1. Making a huge difference to the lives of our patients and their families. Being part of a larger team that is looking after and doing the very best for patients. I get to see this happening everyday and it never ceases to be a special experience.

2. Working with a fantastic team. I work very closely with my doctor and paramedic. We do everything together, preparing the helicopter, refuelling it, checking the medical kit, flying to the patient and working out the best place to land, preparing the patient for flying, negotiating all the hazards and obstacles along the way. Some days are so busy with lots of decision making and can be quite exhausting. We trust each other and get a real buzz from being a close knit, highly effective team.

3. Flying an amazing helicopter. This is a single pilot operation and the crew rely on me for all the aviation parts of the job. The MD902 helicopter is well-suited to the job and a joy to fly. For the pilot, it’s a like a sports car of a helicopter, very manoeuvrable, small enough to get into tight landing sites, safe, fast (150mph), quick to start up and shut down and relatively quiet. I’ve been flying for 27 years and I still love it. I’m so lucky that in my job I get to do something that I would happily pay to do as a hobby.

4. The job is a constant challenge. Every job is different and no day is ever the same. It always keeps you thinking and I have to make lots of decisions. This can be exciting and also brings a weight of responsibility. The flying is sufficiently demanding to keep it interesting, never dull but not too difficult so I can relax and enjoy it.

5. Landing in different places and meeting and working with new people. I love the variety and all the different people that I meet when I’m around and about landing in Essex and Herts. One day we’ll be on the beach, then in someone’s garden. Passers by are always friendly and helpful and little children come to have a look at the helicopter and think it’s amazing; sometimes I feel like a celebrity! Wherever a helicopter lands it’s invariably an exciting event for people nearby. We work with different ambulance crews, police and fire crew every day and they’re all amazing professionals; you get together in a time of great adversity, do a job together under pressure, then we wave goodbye and fly off to hospital and we all move on to the next thing. Sometimes we take our multiple trauma patients into London hospitals and get a brilliant view flying over the Capital.

“Overall, it’s such a brilliant job and I love it. It was hard work to get here but it was really worth the effort”

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