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Flying the half-million pounder
N.S. pilot at the helm of military’s biggest plane
By CHRIS LAMBIE Staff Reporter – The Chronicle Herald, Nova Scotia

22592 Capt Rob Doucette (RMC ‘03)

A NEW GLASGOW pilot who just got his wings last spring is already flying the military’s newest and largest aircraft.
Capt. Rob Doucette, 27, has already piloted a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift transport plane to Germany, Jamaica and Afghanistan, as well as across Canada, including to the Arctic.
“When you’re in the cockpit, you kind of forget how big the aircraft is,” Capt. Doucette said Thursday in a telephone interview from his base, CFB Trenton in Ontario.
“You’re always aware of where your wingtips are and where your gear is and where your tail is. But when you fly, it’s so responsive and manoeuvrable, you kind of forget that you’re in an aircraft that weighs half a million pounds.”
The first time Capt. Doucette got to fly one of the massive planes was in early February, a year after Ottawa announced the purchase of four C-17s from Boeing.
The planes and maintenance for 20 years cost $3.4 billion.
“We have two right now, and two more are on their way,” Capt. Doucette said.
He flies out of 429 Transport Squadron, originally formed as a Second World War bomber unit. The military phased out the squadron in 2005 but re-established it to handle the Globemasters.
“It’s really exciting to be part of a new squadron and to be flying a brand new aircraft,” Capt. Doucette said. “So right now, you probably couldn’t get any better than this.”
He is working as a co-pilot, or first officer, to the plane’s commander. There are only 11 qualified C-17 co-pilots and 10 C-17 commanders in the Canadian military.
“Most people want the newest and the shiniest aircraft, so it was a pretty good challenge to get here,” Capt. Doucette said.
“You’re evaluated on every flight and every test.”
He’s one of Canada’s youngest C-17 pilots.
“There are four of us here that are 27 and we’re the youngest by far.”
As a co-pilot, Capt. Doucette does a lot of the flying.
“You have to get a feel for the jet,” he said. “The more you fly, the more you’ll get this comfort.”
The C-17s can move anything from troops and tanks to helicopters and humanitarian supplies.
“We can carry a lot of stuff,” Capt. Doucette said. “If it can fit, we can probably take it.”
The four-engine jets can fly 9,600 kilometres without
refuelling and have a cruising speed of about 830 kilometres an hour.
Capt. Doucette hasn’t done any of the “seasoning” flights into Iraq that some Canadian air force pilots have conducted while on exchange with the American military. But earlier this month, he made his first flight into Kandahar, Afghanistan.
“I wasn’t overly scared,” he said. “We do everything possible to fly as safe as we can. There’s been a lot of research done and preparation done to ensure that the routes that we fly in there are the safest and most tactical routes, and the aircraft itself has very good defensive systems.”
Canadian pilots are also well-trained in evasive manoeuvres in case of an attack by surface-to-air missile, he said.
“Maybe it’s because I’m new and I haven’t really experienced anything like that, and I hope I never do, but I didn’t feel nervous,” Capt. Doucette said of his first flight into southern Afghanistan.
The C-17 is also equipped with flares the crew can dump to fool heat-seeking missiles.
“It sends out a very bright and very hot piece of metal and basically it tries to confuse the missile into thinking that this piece of metal is the aircraft engine.”
At the same time, pilots will put the aircraft into a roller-coaster-like flight path to try to evade the attack.
“For such a large aircraft, its manoeuvrability is phenomenal,” Capt. Doucette said. “We can go very, very fast, very, very low and still do some very aggressive turns and do some very aggressive pitch-ups and pitch-downs.”
Flying from Dubai to Germany this month, Capt. Doucette got to see the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Suez Canal from the air.
“There’s lots of perks to the job, that’s for sure,” he said.
In late February, he flew medical supplies to Kingston, Jamaica. But there was no stopover for a trip to the beach.
“That was actually a long flight,” he said. “We basically flew down and dropped off all the passengers and supplies and then we just took right off again.”
Capt. Doucette has been in the air force for nine years but he only switched over to pilot training in 2004.
“The military was experiencing a shortage of pilots, so it was a perfect opportunity for me to try my hand at something new,” he said.
After learning to fly several small aircraft, he got the wings that decorate a pilot’s chest in March 2007 and soon learned he would be heading to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma to start training to fly the Globemaster.
“Right now, we have no formal training system for the C-17 in the Canadian air force,” he said, “but the Americans have been doing this now for years.”
The last time Capt. Doucette was home in New Glasgow was at Christmas, but he said he’s keen to bring a C-17 to Nova Scotia sometime in the future.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “We are trying to get the jet out as much as possible to different air shows.”
Just the other day, he checked to see if the runway at 12 Wing Shearwater is long enough for a C-17 to land.
“If we have one scheduled to go, I’ll definitely fight my hardest to be on it,” he said with a chuckle.
“I would absolutely love to do that.”

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