Lieutenant Amanda Harris is a helicopter pilot in the United States Coast Guard. She started out wanting to be a civil engineer, but quickly realized that a desk job wasn’t for her. She went to flight school and soon found her passion for being up in the air. Even though she’s only one of seven female pilots out of 60 in the Coast Guard, Harris says that “It’s ok to be girly and be a pilot at the same time.” In honor of Memorial Day, we wanted to share what it’s like to work as a Coast Guard helicopter pilot:
What made you want to join the Coast Guard?
I come from a military family. My grandfather and uncle were both pilots for the Air Force and my dad was a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, too. I hadn’t thought very much about joining the Coast Guard when I was in college. I went to Seattle University and got a B.S. in civil engineering. But through interning, I realized that there was a lot more paperwork and management stuff than I thought. I met a lot of people in the Coast Guard through my dad, and it was a really good group of people. I enjoy moving around and I enjoy the mission, we train every day to help people and save people’s lives.
How did you decide to become a pilot?
While I was applying to Officer Candidate School (OCS) through the Coast Guard, I was still doing engineering work. It took me awhile to get in my application, but once I did, I went to New London, CT for OCS. From there, I went to flight school in Pensacola, FL. And now I’m in my first station in Atlantic City, NJ.
What’s the most exciting day you’ve ever had?
Every pilot at the AC base has to stand duty for a couple days every month. This basically means that you’re on call for any search and rescue, or emergencies that come up. One day when I was on duty last summer, we got a call and it was my first time on a case. There were two kids kayaking and they got lost in the marsh late at night. We went out to find them, eventually did, and then we hoisted them into the helicopter. When we brought them back, their mother and father ran to them. It was great to see that impact and have that connection with the family.
What does a standard day look like?
We have office days with all the pilots where we sit around and talk about the experiences we had. We think about different situations we’ve been in to help each other out. They’re not the most exciting things, but they are beneficial in terms of strengthening your skills as a pilot. There’s also a desk job that every pilot has to do, which does include paperwork and things like that.
How much time do you spend in flight?
In a five day week, I go on flights three to four times. Most of them are training flights, and they happen at all different hours of the day. You have to have a lot of skill sets as a pilot: we practice regular takeoffs and landings, emergencies, flying in different types of weather, with night vision goggles, and practice hoisting and getting people off the ground. On top of the training, we make sure there’s no suspicious activity and that everything looks good.
As part of working in Atlantic City, we also spend time patrolling Washington D.C. Because there’s a no fly zone around the national capitol region, there’s a special set of flight rules. We work with the Air Force to make sure that no one is in that area. To see more about the Coast Guard’s involvement in DC, watch the video below:
What it’s like in the helicopter?
There are two different helicopters that most units in the Coast Guard have. I work on the H-65. Typically we work with a four man team: a pilot and a copilot, a flight mechanic, who operates the hoist, and a rescue swimmer.
For the aviation division in the Coast Guard, 10% are women. When I was in flight school, there might have been one or two women in a class of 30. I think it has a lot to do with family planning. If you take time off to have a child, you basically have to start over to get trained again.
What do your hours look like?
The typical office hours are 7:30 to 3:30, but we get a lot of leeway to work around our flight schedules. We might have a training flight at night, so we can make our schedule around that. And if we work on Saturdays, then we get Sunday and Monday off.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
I have a skill set that is not something everyone can do, and that skill set might be something that can save someone’s life one day. It’s nice because when you have a hectic day, you get in the aircraft and can push everything else out of your mind. Being in flight helps me see the big picture a little bit better and I love that.
What’s your least favorite thing about your job?
The irregular schedule is the most difficult part. It’s hard to plan a social life because I don’t know when my flights are until last minute. It’s something that everyone has to figure out how to manage.
Where can you go from here?
I love my job and I love being in the Coast Guard, so I know I want to stay in for a long time. I’ll be moving next summer, and we have 16 locations that I could go to. I’m so much happier here than I was in engineering. I have so many opportunities to meet phenomenal people and see awesome places. The Coast Guard is such a small organization, and a lot of people don’t know what they do, or that they have an aviation side. I love being able to tell people what I do and to help them understand. We have a unique mission, and we help a lot of people.
Photos: Thinkstock; Courtesy of Amanda Harris