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417 Combat Support Squadron (417 CS Sqn) at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., is a relatively small entity within the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), but both its mission and its staffing composition are unique.
The squadron is tasked with operating three hoist-equipped Bell CH-146 Griffon helicopters to provide search and rescue (SAR) services for the area in general, as well as to support 4 Wing’s three squadrons of Boeing CF-188 Hornets and one of BAE Systems CT-155 Hawk lead-in jet trainers while they are training over the densely-forested range.
The people who perform that critical mission are led by a rare trio of female leaders, including the squadron’s commanding officer (CO), deputy CO (DCO) and honorary colonel (HCol). Add to that a squadron aerospace engineering maintenance officer (SAMEO), and women account for nearly nine per cent of the squadron’s 46 personnel.
In addition to six pilots, 417 CS Sqn has four flight engineers, 27 maintenance technicians, a SAR technician and three medical technicians. One of those pilots is the CO, Maj Alexia Hannam, an 18-year RCAF veteran who flew combat missions in Boeing Chinook D models in Afghanistan, when she was with Edmonton-based 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron. Her DCO is Capt Eileen Sudul, the only other multi-tour pilot in the squadron.
Her HCol, invested earlier this year, is Kendra Kincade, an Edmonton-based Nav Canada air traffic controller and founder of Elevate Aviation, a not-for-profit organization that tries to enhance opportunities for women in aviation overall by creating “inclusive work environments.”
The SAMEO is Capt Alex Longfield, who came “highly recommended” from the maritime helicopter community at Shearwater, N.S.
“This was definitely not to fill quotas,” replied Hannam when Skies asked how her leadership team became so female-dominated. “This just happened organically; there was nothing formalized about it, and I should point out that my chief warrant officer is male, master warrant officer Derek Stratton.”
Hannam, who majored in psychology at Royal Military College, said Sudul’s experience meant she was a logical fit for the senior captain’s role. Squadron commanders do have some say in postings, but Sudul was already at 417 CS Sqn when Hannam was confirmed as CO.
But she definitely had a say in Kincade’s appointment. “Kendra was a clear frontrunner and the only one I had in mind for the nomination,” said Hannam.
Kincade chuckled, saying she couldn’t believe the idea at first. “That has to go through high-level approvals,” including the Minister of National Defence. “It’s an absolutely incredible honour,” she added, sounding bashful. “I’m just so proud to be able to represent our military.”
LGen Al Meinzinger, the RCAF’s overall commander whom she first met in May, gave his formal blessing to the relationship with Kincade and Elevate Aviation in June.
The two women’s strong bond is rooted in Hannam’s involvement over several years with Elevate. In separate interviews, they shared a conviction that aviation remains relatively untapped by women.
“We’re finding that women are not aware of it,” said Kincade. “Teachers are not aware of it; students are not aware . . . So, we’re working with Nav Canada, Air Canada Jazz, Transport Canada, CCAA (Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace) and a whole bunch of industry partners on a campaign for all of us to kind of flood Canada with aviation awareness . . . over the next 12 months.”
Hannam echoed that the following day, pointing out that 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of women being able to do any job in the Canadian Armed Forces. That said, she still encounters girls and young women at airshows who seem unaware of opportunities not only in the RCAF but also within civil aviation. Hence her willingness to be a mentor when her RCAF role permits.
“My chain of command is always very supportive,” she said. “I’ll never turn down a school tour and we have a lot of groups and organizations that request a squadron tour. As long as we have a helicopter in house, I will always say yes.”
Given that 417 CS Sqn is a relatively small unit, it’s not surprising that Hannam — who has 2,500 hours logged – still puts in significant flight time. Crews are on one-hour standby whenever jets are in the air and 12 hours at all other times.
“I generally fly several times a week, sometimes twice a day,” she said.
While Griffon pilots must fly at least 50 hours every six months to remain current, she and the others typically fly 250 to 300 hours annually in 4 Wing’s busy operational environment.
Hannam, who has wanted to fly ever since she can remember, discovered in high school that she could learn for free if she joined the RCAF. So she joined Air Cadets when she was 17, hoping to be streamed into fighters. She said she is underweight for the Hornet ejection seat. During her early training, she put on 25 pounds by consuming five meals a day plus rich milkshakes, but even that wasn’t enough.
Following basic pilot training, she was selected for rotary-wing operations.
“The Chinook is an absolutely incredible machine, but I lived for eight years apart from my husband, so it was time to try living together,” she explained. “That’s the only reason I didn’t want to go onto the new F models in Petawawa (at 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron).”
For Kincade, a significant fringe benefit of having four shoulder bars on her RCAF blues is the opportunity to fly with her friend, most recently on July 1 when she got to fly the Canadian flag from the Griffon.
A single mother of four and former teenage runaway who later found her passion in air traffic control (ATC), Kincade noted that “those who fly, just like in air traffic control, have a passion for it.”
She said ATC “basically saved my life” by giving her confidence in her own abilities and now, as with Hannam, it’s payback time.
Kincade’s main role within 417 CS Sqn is essentially that of a morale booster, turning out for squadron family days and meeting with squadron wives who may be facing challenges when their spouses are away, often for months at a time.
“The flip side of that is trying to bring more awareness to the public about what the military does and hopefully attract more people to the military.”
Hannam, meanwhile, said she doesn’t necessarily try to sell only the RCAF as a career. “I just try to tell people to find their passion and then find a way to get paid to do it . . . I just want them to be inspired to do anything they set their minds to. By being passionate and excited about what I do, it bleeds off. There are a lot of really cool jobs out there and if people don’t know they exist, they’re not going to go after them. That’s what we want to highlight.”