When it comes to taking to the skies to combat fires, women are still few and far between. However, Captain Natalie Jones from Montana and pilot Alba Castellanos from Spain are paving the way for a younger generation to get in on the action.
From Greece and Turkey to the United States and Australia, they travel the world fighting fires in one of the world’s largest firefighting helicopters, the twin-engine Sikorsky S-64E Aircrane.
As the only female Aircrane pilots currently working for Erickson Aviation, the first opportunity to work together was in March 2017 in Western Australia on the Aircrane Georgia Peach, which is contracted to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).
Meeting them at Serpentine Airfield south of Perth, they said it was great to be able to share some of their experiences.
Alba, 43, a former professional musician, fell in love with flying after tagging along with a friend who was crop dusting near the Spanish coast.
“That sensation of flying was awesome and especially feeling the hover which is different from fixed wing. It just touched me in such a way that it became a love story for me,” Alba said.
After completing flight school in Madrid she worked in South America, flying passengers in and out of the jungle for oil and gas companies.
This is Alba’s first time in Western Australia, however she has been with Erickson for two and a half years and has worked extensively in Greece fighting wildfires.
“There is a lot of sea exposure and winds in Greece. Sometimes you are picking up water from the sea and then climbing up because it is quite steep and you are on full power, full of water just going up and down [cliffs] all day.”
Natalie, 38, worked in Australia during the 2016 Waroona bushfires.
“That was a pretty extensive fire season and we were down there with all the other aircraft trying to be effective,” she said.
Natalie dreamed of learning to fly since high school but it was not until after university, when she was working a desk job, that she took the plunge.
“I found a little one man operation that was doing flight instruction and during the introductory flight he let me take the controls. From that point on I was hooked,” she said.
“It is one of those things you absolutely fall in love with once you do it.”
After ten years in the industry and four and a half with Erickson, Natalie says she still gets a thrill flying the Aircrane during a bushfire.
“Heading towards a fire you see the smoke plume and where the wind direction is coming from,” she said.
“You start setting up how you are going to make your approaches into your drop patterns, looking to see is anyone down there because this beast can carry a lot of water.”
Both Alba and Natalie said it was still rare for women to fly large helicopters, but knowing someone else has made it in the industry can be a great encouragement.
“I have had a lot of other female helicopter pilots who have reached out to me to and asked - how did you get to where you are because I want to do that too,” Natalie said.