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What’s in a career

03 February 2014

Annie Fine (below), senior pilot Helicopters Cambodia; Siem Reap (Cambodia) base manager

Your time starts now…

annie in helicopter2

Why helicopters?

I was a real tomboy as a child - athletic, active. I used to jump around on my pogo stick, dig in the garden with the garden boy (I grew up in Rhodesia [now known as Zimbabwe] and we had domestic help), play cricket with my brother and friends, get into the workshop with my dad on weekends. I was always good with my hands and had excellent co-ordination (this is critical to fly a helicopter).

From a very young age I was fascinated by helicopters and how they got airborne. My prize possession was my chopper bicycle. I was chopper crazy and I cherished it and maintained it, polished it, oiled it, etc.

I knew early on that being cooped up in an office was not for me. When I began working, I was lucky enough to fly on the air ambulance as a nurse/paramedic in Johannesburg. It was there that I decided to realize my dream and learn to fly helicopters. I took a contract to Cambodia working for International SOS as its clinic manager and then branch manager.

Earning US dollars, I saved my money and after two years put myself through flight school in Australia. Flying helicopters is a perfect profession for me. I am outdoors and ‘free’ to move - breathing fresh air, sunshine…

Why Cambodia?

Firstly, I love South East Asia. I kept submitting and resubmitting my CV until a job came up. It was in Cambodia. I flew for 10 months with an opposition company before finally getting my current job with Helicopters Cambodia (wholly owned by Helicopters New Zealand).

I wanted to work for Helicopters New Zealand because of its reputation in the industry: its impeccable safety record, the type of work it does, and the career opportunities.

My job in a nutshell

I have been with HNZ Helicopters Cambodia for 2.5 years, and am a senior pilot. I am based in Siem Reap (SR), but fly around the country. When we have charters out of Phnom Penh (PP), I fly down to PP on a regular airline and use the company’s machine based in PP to do the flight. I then fly back to SR and do the flying in SR using the SR machine.

We have lots of work from both bases to different parts of the country.

Running the base in Siem Reap with 10 local staff members, the work we do includes charter work, external lifting, search and rescue, medical evacuation, aerial filming/photography, scenic flights, corporate Aircraft Handling.

Marketing is not part of my job description but I get involved to some degree to make sure we are targeting the appropriate market and that we remain true to our business direction and strategies.

I tend to be the ‘go to person’ in SR if staff encounter issues with clients and, of course, for everything related to the flying side of things (planning of flights, landing sites, fuel issues, etc.)

Together with the General Manager and the Operations Manager, I plan the logistics of our fixed contracts, piloting, planning, maintenance timing, etc.

A typical day

It's very difficult to describe a 24 hour day for me because the flying differs from day to day.

Charters generally have an early take off and a late landing back at base

Medivacs demand urgency and things are expedited

Scenic flying (tourist flying) is more laid back

Whatever the flying - my day generally starts at least 2-3 hours before take-off.

If take off is at 07:00 am then I am up at about 04:00 to eat breakfast, get to the airport, pre-flight the helicopter, organize fuel, etc.

In terms of charter work, preparation begins days earlier. For example, if I am going to do a survey operation, I need to know exactly where to fly to, which means the client supplies a map or preferably co-ordinates of the concession that is to be surveyed.

This is critical because I need to work out fuel requirements and given that most of the concessions are far from major cities (PP and SR), fuel is always an issue. We have drums held in secure locations dotted around the country.

If I am going to require a refuel out in the country at one of our depots then we need to call ahead and organize for the fuel to be brought to the helicopter. I am unable to lift the fuel drums - they weigh 200kg, so I struggle and the office must organize for someone to come help me lift the drum to a standing position. Once it's standing I can do everything myself. Male pilots are stronger than me, but hey, no one minds helping.

One little town, called Kratie,  brings the fuel to me using little donkeys pulling a cart. We need to give them at least 1 hour notice of my landing time, to get the fuel in a timely manner.

Planning a charter flight

For charter work we try and gauge passenger weights before the flight. Passenger load influences fuel. If I know I have five Western passengers – then I’m guaranteed not to be able to upload a full tank of fuel. Westerners tend to weigh more than Asian passengers - although this trend is changing. For example, as Chinese people become more affluent, they are becoming heavier.

Security is an issue if the aircraft is away from either of the bases on an overnight job. All of this needs to be pre-arranged, the local police contacted and paid and we need permissions to land the chopper overnight.

Medical emergencies or a search and rescue take priority. Everything changes to accommodate a medical emergency.

If it is a stretcher case then the aircraft needs to be re-configured - the front seat needs to come out, the two back seats are folded up and the stretcher gets secured with the feet facing the nose.

Effectively, this means losing three seats, which means I can only pick up the patient (on the stretcher) and two other passengers. Sometimes I will have a Doctor with me, other times no Doctor only family, or friends.

What I dislike

Being a heli pilot is not the cleanest of professions. Heli pilots are up on top of the machine checking out the blades - shirts get dirty, hands get oily from inspecting and touching things and it takes some planning to keep clean.

I have to clip my nails shorter than I would like, but that's preferable to having dirty, oily nails. I always keep a change of clothes and toiletries with me when I fly away from base and I keep clean wipes and tissues in the helicopter. 

I think as a child I was never afraid to get my hands dirty - digging in the garden, or fixing my bike, playing sports. If I’d been a princess as a child I would not have managed to be a helicopter pilot working in SE Asia or Africa where temperatures reach 45 degrees in the cockpit, and where you are expected to refuel the helicopter from drums out in the bush.

If I had a child who wanted to fly helicopters…

The only thing I would suggest is that they start young, and preferably do it through the military. That way they get into the profession from a very young age and get great training.

I made a late career change to fly helicopters and it was very difficult and cost me my life's savings. I am still trying to catch up financially, which is another reason why I decided to stay for a number of years in Cambodia. The work is diverse and fantastic experience (the weather makes flying quite a challenge in SE Asia which makes for a better, safer pilot) and Cambodia is inexpensive to live. There’s also easy access to other countries like Thailand, Singapore, etc. Even getting to Australia is easy.

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