Rachel Stonestreet is an extraordinary woman who has built an incredible career in the male dominated word of aviation. Her hard work and dedication have taken her to amazing places in both career and location – she is now living and working in New Zealand, and we were fortunate enough to have her share her story with us.
Hello Rachel. Can you give FOCUS readers an insight into your background growing up here in the Manning?
I grew up in Taree with my mum, two sisters and brother. I attended St Clare’s High School and kept to myself a lot of the time. I also played a lot of netball, and I represented Taree in the sport for many years.
I started my working career as an apprentice hairdresser, but I knew deep down that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life … something adventurous was on my mind.
What made you decide to join the Army, and how did your career end up playing out?
I decided to join the military after I turned 17 on the 5th September 1995. I was allocated to Catering Corps, as there was a shortage in that area, which wasn’t really what I wanted to do – but I just waited out my time and transferred to Aviation as soon as I could.
In 1999 I received a posting to 162 Recce Squadron as a Ground Crewman working with Kiowa helicopters.
In early 2002, I applied and started my testing for Loadmaster, and was put on course in September that year. I completed my Special Operations Loadmaster course in 2004.
My family we very supportive about my new adventure in aviation; they were pleased that I was following a dream that not many other women have pursued. I was always known to be one to want a challenge if there were road blocks in front of me.
Where has this career journey taken you?
I started my Aircrewman Loadmaster course in September 2002, which was conducted in Oakey, QLD. I was the only female on the course of four, and at the time I was the only female loadmaster.
The course structure in 2002 consisted of two phases:
Abinitio training consisted of the Aircrewman Loadmaster Rotary Wing Basic Course, which was conducted on UH-1H helicopters and was three months duration (approx 100 hours) – where you learnt the fundamentals of rotary wing loadmastering.
Followed by six weeks (30 hours) on operational aircraft, with the focus being to prepare students for their respective units.
I was fortunate to be allocated to Blackhawks. After passing my Black Hawk Operational Transition Course, I was posted to B Sqn 5 Aviation regiment as a D Cat Loadmaster (qualified but under supervision).
So where were you posted after your training?
I was initially posted to 162 Recce squadron as a ground crewman; I deployed to Bougainville PNG, East Timor on two separate occasions. After completing my Loadmaster course, I was posted to B sqn, 5 Aviation squadron and worked there for a few years, deploying again to East Timor two more times. After completing my Special Operations course, I was then posted to A sqn, 5 aviation sqn (name change to 171). I deployed to East Timor again on a few more occasions, and in 2006 we were deployed to international waters off the coast of Fiji at short notice, and whilst on that deployment, the squadron had an aircraft accident.
What was next for you?
I still really enjoyed flying, so I secured an Aircrewman position in SAR/EMS with CHC Helicopters Australia. I think I was at the right place at the right time when they were searching for crew. Rotary Wing Emergency Service Flying is a “small” industry in Australia, and reputation is important. I had built up the necessary skills and reputation as an Aircrewman in the military to be a good applicant for a position.
There are also so few women in the EMS flying business, there are plenty of opportunities for those who work hard and learn their trade. I took my long service and started work basically straight away. Later, I worked the Victorian EMS contract for Australian Helicopters (now Babcock) prior to deciding to move to New Zealand in 2016. I went to university and completed my Graduate Diploma in Aviation Management in 2017.
I am currently working with L3 Commercial training solutions in New Zealand lecturing APTL subjects (including Human Performance and Operations) to international trainee airline pilots. It’s certainly different to what I’m used to, but I’m enjoying the challenge. I miss flying, but the industry in New Zealand is small and the right opportunities are harder to come by.
What have been some of the stand out experiences you’ve had along the way?
Working with the elite soldiers was definitely a highlight for me; the professionalism and manners these soldiers have is above and beyond the average solider.
Every job has its highs and lows, and aviation is no different. Both civil and military service present difficult situations, and its how you think on your feet that make it rewarding. Teamwork in military and civilian EMS is very important, and I’ve worked with some amazing people in dynamic team environments. You get a rush when the phone rings. Once you leave the hangar and you are on your way to the job, it all becomes real. The challenge is being prepared for an unknown situation. This is where you rely on your training, experience, teamwork and preparation to deliver a safe and effective service to the community. It is very rewarding to deliver vital and sometimes life saving services to the community in challenging aviation situations.
My proudest achievement is to have set out on a path few women had walked before, and through hard work and perseverance, I have built a career out of it. When I left school I never dreamt of flying around in a Blackhawk helicopter or a rescue helicopter, but 16 years later, my career has been working in helicopters, and being a Rescue Air Crewman has definitely been the highlight of my aviation career – with over 2,500 hours.
I feel working in aviation, especially the Australian EMS industry, is a rewarding and challenging career for any woman who puts her mind to succeeding. I’m proud of the career path I have chosen, and I would do it all again if given the opportunity to start over.
Interview: Ingrid Bayer.