Interview: Natalie Jones – Erickson’s first female Skycrane Captain!
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Flashover: Thanks so much for talking with us! Tell us a bit about yourself – where you’re from and what your current role is.
My name is Natalie Jones and I am from a small town in Montana. I am currently employed with Erickson Aircrane as a command pilot flying the SK64 Skycrane since June of 2012.
Flashover: What is your background with flying? Where did you start out and what was the path that lead you to flying as a skycrane captain?
When I was in my early 20s, my older sister was living in Skagway Alaska, which is one of TEMSCO helicopter’s operation bases. While I was visiting her, she arranged for me to take a ride on one of their tours that lands you up on the glacier. It was one of the most incredible experiences which stuck with me through the years and never let go. Eventually, when I was working my first desk job out of college, I used to go to lunch with my co-workers and we would have the same conversation time and again “If you could do anything else for a job in the world, what would it be?” My answer was always the same “I want to learn to fly a helicopter”. So I started researching helicopter flight schools and found a one man operation flying a Bell 47D1 at an airport near my house. I went for an introductory flight and was hooked.
Helicopters have always been my first love over fixed wing. While I was working on my private rating, I would fly in the mornings before work and do ground school in the evenings after work.
Only 6 weeks later I had my private rating on May 1, 2004. After obtaining my private rating, I quit my desk job and moved up to Skagway, Alaska to work as a tour attendant for TEMSCO. I really wanted to figure out if I could commit to the lifestyle of a pilot, as it is not for everyone. I wanted to be around newer pilots that were trying to build hours and see an actual helicopter operation first hand. It wasn’t too hard to figure out this is exactly what I was searching for and wanted to do with my life!
After the Alaskan summer tour season was over with TEMSCO, I decided to continue my aviation endeavor at Precision Aviation located in Newberg, OR flying a Schweizer 269C. There is where I achieved my additional ratings: fixed-wing add-on to my helicopter private, commercial helicopter, Instrument airplane and helicopter, & helicopter CFI (certified flight instructor). I continued to instruct at Precision for a couple of years to build my hours and then moved straight into the world of flying a heavy helicopter as Second in Command (SIC) in a co-pilot position. I quickly concluded that a heavy helicopter is where my heart belongs. Not only do I love flying utility in the “big iron”, I also enjoy the camaraderie that comes out of working with so many different people from such diverse backgrounds. In this industry we have a bond because of our shared goals and experiences. You don’t necessarily have to be best friends with everyone in the group to know you have their support or that you are supporting someone else.
Flashover: Have you always flown in the fire configuration for Erickson or have you worked in other roles?
Erickson specializes in anything that involves heavy lifting. This includes various power line, HVAC, & specialty construction jobs, heli-logging, oil and gas, and aerial firefighting. I have been involved in a number of various flight configurations in the S64 Skycrane. However, Erickson is best known in Australia for our support of firefighting operations. The ‘E’ model skycrane is capable of lifting 9,072 kg. As you can imagine, this is a tremendous amount of water that we are able to deliver in support of fire suppression efforts.
Flashover: What was the training you needed to do in order to fight fires from above?
Most of my experience has been on the job training and learning from extremely capable and seasoned pilots that have paved the path for the next generation of pilots like myself.
Flashover: Is there regular training that you need to do to stay in the air?
I am required to do an annual check ride for currency every year, however, the regulatory requirements vary depending on the type of work I am doing and where in the world I happen to be working.
Flashover: Where in Australia have you worked with Erickson?
Erickson Inc is currently contracted through our local affiliate, Kestrel Aviation based at Mangalore airport in Victoria. We typically have 6 skycranes operating within Australia at various times
throughout the hot summer months for firefighting. Some of our bases include Bankstown Airport in NSW, Essendon and Moorabbin Airports in Victoria, Brukunga fire training center in SA, and Serpentine Airport in WA. I myself have worked out of all of these bases of operation and have been able to meet and work with a multitude of great people.
Flashover: Is this seasonal work for you – do you travel the world chasing fire?
After the summer firefighting season has concluded in Australia the helicopters are shipped elsewhere across the world typically to Greece and the United States to begin firefighting contracts in these countries.
Flashover: If that’s the case, is there ever any down time?
Erickson is a great company to work for as we typically have the same amount of time off in relation to the number of days we have worked throughout the year. Even though a particular aircraft
may be continuously working, that does not necessarily mean that I will be working that entire time as well. We have crews that rotate on and off aircraft throughout the year to keep the aircraft flying and a great engineering crew that works to keep us safe while we are not flying with continuous scheduled and routine maintenance.
Flashover: When you’re not flying through smoke, what do you enjoy doing?
My husband and I are in the process of a huge home remodel so a lot of our free time is spent doing various projects around the house. When we are done with that our down time consists of enjoying a movie, sipping on a glass of wine, or taking a dip in the hot tub. We work hard but we like to play hard also.
Flashover: Thanks again for catching up with us! Do you always use the same call sign – who should we be listening out for to see if that’s you hovering above our heads?
I don’t have a particular call sign like on Top Gun or anything but if you hear a female voice on the radio that is coming from the Skycrane then chances are pretty good that it is me that you are hearing. Aviation in general is a pretty male dominated industry, however, there are more women entering into the ranks every day. I am Erickson’s first female Skycrane Captain and I know I won’t be the last. It is a tremendous accomplishment that I am very proud of and I hope that it helps to inspire other women to consider a career in aviation. More women are breaking barriers every day and it’s exciting to be a part of. With the combination of the right mind set, some basic skill, and an amazing support system, any girl can fly to new heights! There are no limits! I truly believe that if you think it, if you dream it, you can do it!
I founded Flashover to promote Australian Firefighting. I’ve been a volunteer and a paid firefighter but now I spend my time chasing up leads, promoting good mental health and making the occasional Grumpy Firecom comic!