LEUT Benjamin Thomson
(Image courtesy of Defence)
At what age did you become involved with the aviation / flying and how did it happen?
I’ve been fascinated and interested in aviation for as long as I can remember, however it was around 15 years old when I realised you could make a career out of it, rather than just being a passion.
I grew up in a small country town in Victoria (Bright), where there wasn’t much aviation exposure or focus. One of the biggest motivators was when the local Air Ambulance Bell 412 used to fly over conducting missions around the ‘high country’, and would infrequently come and land at the local school oval. I lived closed to the school so whenever I saw it commence an approach I would run up to the oval as quickly as I could and just stand there in awe until it departed.
What made you want to join the ADF and the Navy in particular?
Navy is renowned for having a rigorous training program with competitively high standards. This was a big draw card towards wanting to become an ADF pilot. I’ve always wanted to go down the rotary path of aviation, and have always been passionate about helicopters – this left me with the Navy or Army. I enjoyed the sea and have always wanted to fly single pilot aircraft, so that’s ultimately how I ended up wanting to be a Navy pilot.
Can you tell us what educational and training pathway you have undertaken to end up as a pilot?
While completing my Victorian Certificate of Education (year 12) in Bright, I applied for and was successfully awarded the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) Education Award. I was subsequently accepted into ADFA as a Navy Pilot.
I completed a Bachelor of Technology (Aviation) at ADFA and proceeded on the ADF pilots’ course in March 2008. The first course was at the Basic Flying Training School in Tamworth on the CT4-B. On completion of the basic flying component, I was then panelled for the ADF advanced pilots course at Number 2 Flying Training School in Perth which was conducted on the Pilatus PC-9A. On graduating this course in November 2009 I was awarded my wings.
After achieving my wings alongside my RAAF course mates, I was sent back to Nowra NSW (HMAS Albatross) where I commenced rotary conversion on the Aerospatiale AS350BA. Following the six month conversion, I conducted 18 months of consolidation flying to hone my skills as a helicopter pilot and aircraft captain. In July 2013 I was sent across to Jacksonville, Florida USA to conduct a Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk operational type conversion. On completion of this nine month course I was considered a fully operational Navy Pilot.
What challenges does an applicant undergo in applying for a role as a pilot?
The aviation industry (especially ADF) is very competitive. Because of this, meeting the required standards for a professional aviator comes with a significant amount of stress and pressure. Performing in a pressure filled and stressful training environment while being continually assessed and monitored is the most challenging aspect of becoming a pilot.
How did you find learning to fly – going through the stages of gaining type ratings and advancing up the system until you have reached the Seahawks?
I found learning to fly at the rate and to the standard that the military expected was a challenge. It was very stressful at times. That said, as with many challenges, it definitely came with rewards. In addition to the rewards of achievement, the type of flying was very enjoyable and exciting, especially when converting onto helicopters.
How did you find the transition from fixed wing to helicopters in training?
Hands and feet wise, flying helicopters is quite different from flying fixed wing. All of the aviation knowledge is the same, but the principle of how you operate them is a marked difference. You go from flying fixed wing aircraft where you’re taught that “indicated airspeed is life”, to helicopters where you can remain stationary while airborne and where “rotor speed is life”.
I really enjoyed the transition to helicopters, as I found them much more hands on with more hand-eye coordination required. This is a big part of why I enjoy piloting.
Being a Seahawk pilot what kind of specialised training do you undertake and what are examples of some of the different aspects ie engine training, understanding your airframe etc?
The majority of helicopters operate using similar concepts and principles. Once you learn how to fly a helicopter, the transition between helicopter types is nowhere near as steep as transitioning from fixed wing to rotary.
When you transit to a military operational platform (like the Seahawk), you have already been taught how to fly a helicopter on a much more basic type. Because of this, the majority of the conversion onto the operational type tends to be focused on the mission specific aspects of the helicopter. This includes the systems management and performance along with specific tactics. That said, there will often be certain nuances to that helicopter not taught on the basic type, such as operating with a second engine, more redundant/complex systems, etc.
Could you tell us about some of your operational flying and what does that involve you doing when airborne?
Ultimately the role of the Seahawk is to support the ship in which it is embarked. A big part of this is extending the range of the ship’s sensors. The helicopter has the advantage that it can fly out a significant distance from the ship, and feed back all the information that it sees from that location. This then allows the ship to develop its plan of attack for certain situations, often before the adversary is aware it’s even there. One of the primary operational roles that the Seahawk currently supports is in the counter-narcotics and anti-piracy roles in the Middle East.
What kind of interaction do you have with the Tacco and Senso during flight?
The crew model of the Seahawk is very unique, and very effective. Each member has their own role, but all three need to be on the same page in order to complement each other. The pilot is primarily responsible for the safety of the aircraft and mission, and positioning the aircraft to best support its sensors.
The TACCO (or Aviation Warfare Officer) is responsible for mission success, and will drive and command the mission in order to achieve the objectives. The SENSO (Sensor Operator) is the primary operator of all of the aircrafts sensors. They will receive raw data from the sensors and provide the TACCO with the information required for them to make the mission and tactical decisions. The more involved each member is with the mission, the more efficiently the mission will operate and more effective the crew will be.
How challenging is it as a pilot to operate a helicopter at sea in adverse weather conditions and pitching decks?
In short, it can be very challenging. Ultimately you have to trust your training and remain as calm and patient as possible. Sometimes it takes a few goes to trap the aircraft on deck, but it’s all part of the challenge (which makes it that much more rewarding). Operating over the back of the deck in adverse weather really works your fine motor skills, as there is not much room for error.
What do you find the most enjoyable aspect about flying as a Seahawk pilot?
It would have to be the versatility of the aircraft. In a single sortie you could be out over water attempting to prosecute a surface or sub-surface contact, then be tracking back over land to do a confined area landing or pinnacle winch.
How do you feel about your role in contributing towards the FAA goals of fleet defence?
It’s very rewarding to be part of the Romeo community. You can really see a tangible impact from your efforts towards the FAA’s mission.
What is your most memorable flight experience so far that you would like to share?
While on deployment last year (2016), our ship was in the Seychelles when a civilian leisure boat capsized. The local coast guard asked our Commanding Officer for assistance and I was launched with a crew to look for survivors. We were fortunate enough to find two of the civilians in the water who were drifting helplessly out to sea. Saving those two lives is the most rewarding thing I’ve done to date, and something I will never forget.
What goals have you got for the future with your military aviation?
I am looking forward to becoming an instructor in the second half of this year. It will give me a chance to give back to the Seahawk community and help the organisation retain some of its new found corporate knowledge.
Is there anything else you would like to share or add?
To all the aspiring aviators out there, never underestimate your abilities and sell yourself short of an opportunity or dream. As the saying goes, you’ll never know if you never give it a go.
DUAN thanks Benjamin for taking time to give us insights to his RAN career. We also would like to thank Defence Media and Navy Media for facilitating this interview request.