by Stephen Ryan
Everyone has a story… there’s something unusual about how any of us got here…
Think about it, have you ever told anyone that you’re a helicopter pilot and not have them be at least a little surprised about it? Well, I can tell you that I most certainly have, not just because it’s unique but because where I come from it was very unique.
…so, here we go…
I guess I should first define where “here” is. Well, I’m currently flying the AW139, I’ve got about 16 years in the industry and have over 5000 flight hours. Every day I’m looking for a way to get more knowledge, more experience, more hours and more aircraft.
I’m pretty sure I was obsessed with helicopters since before I could ride a bike. Unfortunately, growing up in Ireland in the ’80s there wasn’t much in the way of helicopters for an Irish lad like me to see, back then there was pretty much only one show in town and that was the Irish Aer Corps. Once in a while I’d get a glimpse of their Dauphins either flying overhead or maybe a clip of a mission they had just done on the evening news.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I fell in love with the Dauphin, I mean, who wouldn’t? I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a Helicopter pilot and that I wasn’t just going to fly helicopters but somehow, I was going to fly the Dauphin! The obvious choice was to apply for the Irish Aer Corps when I became old enough. It goes without saying, I was disappointed to not be in the 10 or so applicants that made it through that year, So I was gonna have to do it on my own.
I finally made it to flight school in 2001 in Australia and completed my Commercial Pilots License (CPL). I decided on Australia due to the fact that there weren’t many flight schools in Ireland at the time, well none that I could afford anyway. After flight school and still with the goal of flying a Dauphin at the forefront of my mind, I headed off to the US and I ended up at Hillsboro Aviation in Oregon. This is where I got my second commercial license (CPL) and where I would start my flying career as a Flight Instructor.
As is typical in the industry I became a bit of a nomad, following whatever jobs gave me the experience I needed to get to my goal. I did a few Flight Instructor jobs in the Robinson R22, R44 and Hughes 269. I got to fly a few different versions of the Bell 206, The Eurocopter AS350 and the EC130. I moved to numerous places with the jobs and did a few years in both the Gulf of Mexico and the Grand Canyon as an Offshore pilot and Tour Pilot respectively. Both of these are great locations to build flight time and experience. And for some, you can make a great living and spend a whole career in either one of them but I still had a goal in mind and I was getting closer all the time.
One of the few operators in the US of the Dauphin (AS365) besides the US Coast Guard was the Maryland State Police. They used the aircraft in a Single Pilot capacity for multiple missions including Medevac, Law Enforcement and Search and Rescue (SAR). I loved the idea of a “Multi-mission” profile and I really wanted the job but more importantly, I wanted that aircraft.
Eventually, I felt confident that I could hold my own against the undoubtedly stiff competition and felt qualified to apply for the job that I had dreamed about for a very long time…
Applying to be a pilot for the Maryland State Police (MSP) seemed like a long shot, the application process was long and would deter even the most motivated pilot but the possibility of flying the Dauphin was too good to ignore. After a lengthy process (approx 9 months) of paperwork, interviews, and polygraphs I was offered a job and I spent the next few years loving every day. I was based at “Trooper 2” at Andrews AFB. Probably the most visible of all of our bases due to its unique location and large service area. It felt good to be part of such an amazing team and even better to have achieved such a long term goal but like all goals, once they’re achieved you’ve got to look for the next one….and the next one wasn’t far away.
Unbeknownst to me, the universe was conspiring to make my next big goal come true. After being at MSP for 3 years I was offered a job at CHC Global. The reason I qualified for the job was that I now had time in the Dauphin but the reason that I took the job was that it also meant that I would eventually become Captain of an AS332L2 Superpuma. I had been enamored with the Puma/Superpuma since I had witnessed the Irish Aer Corps “hit the big time” with that (sadly too short) two-year lease of a Puma back in the early ’80s, now here I was, about to fly one.
Back then, that Aer Corps Puma made me so proud that the Irish Military had an aircraft that could rival the likes of the US Military’s UH 60 Blackhawk. I felt like I had won the lottery… again, and spent the next 5 years traveling the world with a world class company and getting paid to do it.
My Superpuma days took me as far south as the Falkland Islands and from there, to West Africa, Turkey and every few months to the Superpuma Simulator in Scotland. I got to hone my Search and Rescue skills with some of the best SAR flight crews I’ve ever met in the austere environment of the South Atlantic and once again I learned things I didn’t know, I didn’t know.
By 2017, My time with CHC was winding down, the Offshore support environment had changed and they were selling some aircraft. In the meantime, Maryland State Police (MSP) had upgraded to 10 new state of the art Leonardo AW139’s, they now operated as a 4 man crew instead of just 2 like I was used to before. The mission stayed the same but with a much more capable aircraft and crew and…well…I guess it’s a hard place to stay away from.
I had been thinking about returning (since the day I left) and after a few quick phone calls, I found myself back in the application process. This time it didn’t take as long and the rest, as they say, is history….my story continues though, and if you’re interested it can be read here in my “A Day in the life…” post.