CAF Firsts: Military female test pilot

Major Catherine Blais
Major Catherine Blais, the first and only, military female test pilot to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. Photo: DND

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By Captain Marie-Michèle Siu

In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8th, the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE) in Cold Lake, Alta., is proud to highlight Major Catherine Blais – the first and only military female test pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Over the past 50 years, more than a hundred pilots have been carefully hand-picked to work at AETE. As a versatile pilot, Maj Blais has flown over 2700 hours on military and civilian aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary wing, like the CT-114 Tutor, CT-156 Harvard II, CH-146 Griffon and the CH-149 Cormorant.

“My favorite is the UH-60 Blackhawk because it’s an icon of military aviation and it is truly built for its mission. Plus, I liked flying it at Test Pilot School” she states.

In addition to her impressive flying experience, Maj Blais holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in aerospace engineering from l’École Polytechnique de Montréal. She is also a licensed professional engineer in Alberta.

In 2003, Maj Blais enrolled in the CAF because of opportunities that appealed to her sense of adventure. She wanted to use her engineering degrees in a non-traditional way, and “couldn’t bear to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life”, she explains.

She was first posted as an instructor at the 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Moose Jaw, Sask. In August 2010, she was deployed to Afghanistan to fly the CH-146 Griffon in support of army operations. Following her deployment, she was selected to be a test pilot in the CAF, and was posted to AETE upon her graduation in December 2013. She says the highlight of her career to date her time at the United States Naval Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Maryland.

Her typical day as a test pilot consists of flying for half a day, and supporting other projects such as test planning, reporting, participating in review boards, and attending engineering meetings. When she is executing a test project, she can do two or three flight tests a day, write her reports, and plan the next day’s objectives. “When doing deployed testing, the days are long but rewarding,” she says.

Over the past four years, she has been involved in many projects like the CH-149 Cormorant’s engine vibration survey, CH-147F Chinook simulator acceptance, CH-146 Griffon Required Navigation Performance Area Navigation certification, CT-156 Harvard II g-suit testing, and CH-146 Griffon Maritime Helicopter Precision Approach System developmental testing.

For women interested in becoming a test pilot she shares this advice: “It is a male-dominated field but it is based on competence. So, if you have the background and the experience, there is no reason why you should not excel in this field.”

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