Systems experts: 75th anniversary of RCAF flight engineers

Flight engineers (FEs) may be a vanishing breed in civil aviation, but not so in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), where a generally more complex operational environment with evolving systems requires more hands on the flight deck or back in the cabin.

A flight engineer from the Force Protection team in Mali participates in an escort mission on a CH-146 Griffon helicopter during Operation Presence in February 2019. Cpl Francois Charest Photo
A flight engineer from the Force Protection team in Mali participates in an escort mission on a CH-146 Griffon helicopter during Operation Presence in February 2019. Cpl Francois Charest Photo
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In fact, the military’s annual intake of FE candidates has been increased to 30 from 25, and there’s likely going to be a similar increase in the not-too-distant future to offset attrition mainly due to an aging demographic.

FEs currently are scattered among seven RCAF fleets. Four are fixed-wing: the Lockheed Martin CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, the CC-130H Hercules transport, the de Havilland CC-115 Buffalo search-and-rescue (SAR) platform and the CC-138 Twin Otter. The other three are rotary: the AugustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopter, the Boeing CH-147 Chinook transport, and the multirole utility Bell CH-146 Griffon.

FEs in the RCAF have been celebrating the occupation’s 75th anniversary this year, including a formal event in June at 8 Wing Trenton, Ont., which included a memorial rededication in honour of FEs who have died in service since they first flew on Avro Lancaster bomber missions in 1944. A small but important part of the celebrations was the design last year of a new patch for operational flight clothing; it pays homage to the half wing from the Second World War, but also features modern wings on a Maple Leaf background.

The roster of “fallen” FEs also includes three who died more recently. One was killed in Afghanistan in July 2009 when a CH-146 crashed after the pilot lost situational awareness on takeoff from Kandahar Airfield. The two others died in July 2006 when a CH-149 crashed into the sea off Nova Scotia during a night SAR training flight.

Given that there are fewer than 300 FEs among the RCAF’s total of some 17,000 regular and primary reserve personnel, it’s a small community in which losses are keenly felt. There is, however, an implicit support network, the Canadian Military Flight Engineers Association, which currently has more than 1,300, including some who first flew toward the end of the Second World War and now are well into their 90s.

Historically, the position of FE evolved as aircraft became bigger with more engines and more complex systems. In those wartime Lancasters, monitoring the engines and other critical systems freed the pilot to fly the aircraft. The FE sat in the cockpit to the pilot’s right, above the bomb-aimer and in front of the navigator and wireless operator; the rest of the typical seven-man crew were the upper-turret, belly and tail gunners.

Today, as then, RCAF flight engineers are the systems experts, with extensive mechanical and technical training and responsibility for pre- and post-flight inspections.

All aspiring FEs, whether self-identified or recommended for the position, must be an experienced aircraft or avionics technician. Once medically screened to become aircrew, there’s a competition and, when selected, they must complete FE basics at 8 Wing and then additional maintenance and flight courses before fleet assignment, explained CWO Neil Thorne, who has spent most of his FE career in helicopters.

Promoted from Master Warrant Officer in mid-June as the senior occupational advisor for FEs, Thorne is a native of Torbay, N.L., which, incidentally, was a Second World War operational base for Canadian, British and American aircrews providing cover for Allied convoys and patrolling the North Atlantic for German submarines.

Although recently posted to 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg, Man., where his new role is to advise commanders of issues facing the community, he spoke with Skies from 19 Wing Comox, B.C., as the FE leader of 442 Training and Rescue Squadron, where he managed the CH-149 and CC-115.

The role of FEs in the RCAF has generally evolved with the fleets. “The roles on fixed-wing aircraft such as the Hercules and the Aurora are as they have been traditionally,” he said. “But the remainder of the fixed-wing aircraft have shifted to cabin duties” such as checklists, assisting in emergencies, and advising the flight deck on system issues.

On the Griffon and Chinook, cabin duties on domestic and international missions include mission kits and manning weapons. On the Cormorant, the FE also operates the rescue hoist, which Thorne said can be “very dynamic” and “not for the faint-of-heart” as missions are often in extremely poor weather.

“It’s a very collaborative crew concept” and while “the aircraft commander is the ultimate authority on all RCAF aircraft, the flight engineer has technical responsibility to advise the aircraft commander on serviceability when away from home base,” he said.

CWO Neil Thorne next to a CH-149 Cormorant at 19 Wing Comox, B.C. Cpl Jeffrey Clement Photo
CWO Neil Thorne next to a CH-149 Cormorant at 19 Wing Comox, B.C. Cpl Jeffrey Clement Photo

Not only are FEs an essential link between pilots and military technicians, they also maintain good relations with civilian contractors.

Asked whether an FE can overrule a pilot and declare an aircraft unfit to fly, Thorne replied that “he has the responsibility to ensure that the aircraft is airworthy, absolutely, and will advise the aircraft commander.” That being said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a commander take a plane flying with an airworthiness issue.”

While the command structure for FEs is similar to other RCAF occupations, it differs in some ways. “A corporal will fly 80 per cent of the time while the other 20 per cent will be administrative duties,” explained Thorne. The ratio shifts with promotion to where MWOs spend 80 per cent of their time on administration and 20 per cent flying. Once they become CWOs, they become solely administrators.

FE salaries in the RCAF tend to be “on the high end for enlisted personnel” and there’s a bonus in the form of flight pay. Thorne said it can be “a motivator for occupational transfer, for technicians to become flight engineers.”

He admitted, “there have been times when the occupation has struggled with numbers, through the ’70s and ’80s especially.” As the occupation evolved, “there have been times when its future seemed to be in jeopardy due to … restructuring and civilian job offers.”

At times, attrition has outnumbered intake, but that same evolution seems to have generated what Thorne described as “considerable interest within the RCAF for technicians to step up and challenge themselves.”

The RCAF’s new retention campaign is expected to help. Since assuming RCAF command in May 2018, LGen Al Meinzinger cautioned in a statement to personnel this June that “increasing our intake and our training capacity is not enough … we must nurture an environment where the RCAF’s quality of life and quality of service make it more attractive for our members to stay than to leave.”

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It’s almost a no-brainer for Thorne. “It’s an exciting career that attracts members looking for a new challenge.” While FEs in SAR squadrons have been prime candidates for recruitment by the offshore petroleum sector, he expects the number in RCAF blue “will continue around 290-300 or possibly grow slightly in the next decade or two.” Conceding that could change with new aircraft procurements, he said, “I believe we’re in good shape for the foreseeable future as long as we continue to be an attractive option for RCAF technicians.”

Part and parcel of that effort is an annual working group of senior FEs, mostly master and chief ranks; the latest in February included Col Scott Murphy, the occupational advisor to 1 CAD. “They can be very candid,” said Thorne. “Each fleet representative gets up and speaks. We talk about different topics and, of course, there are differing opinions. But at the end of the day, it’s a collaborative effort to make sure that we’re all on the same team, going in the right direction.”

Mentoring is a key factor. “As a peer and as a supervisor, I’ve found that the time spent with younger members has paid off as they progress in their career,” he said. “When I was an (FE) lead at 440 Squadron Yellowknife, I had quite a few corporals working for me on a fairly simple airplane. However, through mentorship, a lot of them have moved forward to more challenging aircraft such as the Hercules and the Aurora.

“Mentoring new members on how to interact with pilots and technicians is important for a positive working relationship. The airmanship component of being an aircrew member sometimes takes a while for younger flight engineers. This isn’t something they usually deal with as technicians.”

Also, there’s the reality that SAR missions can involve picking up casualties. “How we deal with stress and critical incidents is important,” said Thorne. “We try to ensure our members are both physically and mentally healthy for their missions.” It helps that the community is “tight-knit, very collegial.”

But do FEs get the recognition they merit? “That’s a tricky question,” Thorne replied initially. “I will say this: self-satisfaction means a lot. They don’t become flight engineers for the glory, but for the personal satisfaction of serving their country, especially in tactical aviation overseas.”

His own career included a deployment as a young corporal when he was a technician with 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron flying the McDonnell Douglas CF-188 Hornets in support of Operation Allied Force, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo.

“We have a lot of flight engineers helping Canadians every day on search-and rescue missions across the country,” he added. “That’s the recognition that keeps them going a lot of the time.”

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