Updated: Aug 26, 2021
Aimee Heal knows that feeling.
Flight Lieutenant (FLTLT) Aimee Heal is Roulette Seven with the Air Force Roulettes. They are the Royal Australian Air Force’s aerobatic display team which was established in 1970. That year was also when they had their first public display at RAAF Base Point Cook.
The Roulettes are a six-aircraft, seven-member team and they complete two display seasons each year. These displays are flown around Australia and the pilots demonstrate different precise formations, graceful aerobatics, low level flying and jaw-dropping airmanship skills. Their displays never fail to inspire awe and enthusiastic applause from the crowd. These pilots make it seem like the aircraft weighs next to nothing in the air.
Recently the Roulettes were in Port Macquarie to do a display and it was the first twilight show flying in the Pilatus PC-21. Veronica Lind spoke to Aimee Heal to learn more about what the Roulettes do and what it is like to be a pilot.
Training to Take to the Skies
FLTLT Aimee Heal is the only woman on the team and also the youngest. She grew up in Bundaberg, Queensland where she started flying at the local aero club at 16 years old.
She joined the RAAF after completing high school. She attended the Australian Defence Force Academy where she completed her Bachelor of Science. Straight after her degree, Aimee headed off to start on her pilot training course.
She graduated from 231 Pilots’ Course in 2013 having flown the CT4 and PC-9, and was posted to RAAF Base Townsville to fly the King Air 350 with 38SQN. Two years later, Aimee deployed to Vanuatu on Operation Pacific Assist. She was then posted to 33SQN, RAAF Base Amberley to fly the KC-30A MRTT later that year.
Since then, Aimee has participated in military exercises both in Australia and overseas.
Aimee recalls her early training days when the tiny cockpit felt claustrophobic. It took a bit of time getting used to it. For those who love flying, this tiny space soon begins to feel like their natural environment. During training, the student goes in the front seat and the instructor is in the back. When one is flying solo, the front seat is where they would go.
Aimee now flies the Pilatus PC-21 and has been doing that since the start of 2020. She loves flying this aircraft as it is highly responsive and includes all the modern systems a large aircraft has and still has the aerobatic capability of a training aircraft.
Aimee’s favourite part of flying the aircraft is in creating formations. It is a skill that requires a lot of fine-tuning and practice because it degrades over time. Pilots who do formation are always driven to attain perfection, which is notoriously difficult to achieve. Constant practice is necessary to keep their skills fresh and steady.
On the Roulette team, Roulette One is the leader and together with Roulettes Two, Three and Four make up one formation team doing manoeuvres while Roulettes Five and Six work together and Roulette Seven (which is Aimee) does the transits and takes the aircraft wherever they need to go.
One of the Team
Being the only female pilot on the team does not mean Aimee gets treated any differently. It is not so much about being one of the boys, but about being one of the team. She shares the same passion and dedication as her other teammates and is equally as committed in doing a good job honing their skills.
The community finds it intriguing to have a female pilot though!
Perhaps there is no need for a stereotype of what a pilot is like and while it may be nostalgic to think about Tom Cruise and his cool Ray-Bans, it is also very inspiring to meet someone like Aimee who has a bright, fresh, professional and down-to-earth demeanour and is quietly modest about her skills in making a huge machine twirl graceful pirouettes in the air to her command.
Pilots wear special clothes when they fly. We do not need our real life pilots to look like a random extra who just walked off the set of Top Gun. We need our pilots to be well protected when they are up in the air.
Pilots wear a G suit which is an extra pair of pants that is worn over the top. This suit has air bladders and is plugged into the aircraft. The air bladders inflate and push against the leg muscles and the abdomen. Pilots tense their muscles against that suit to keep the blood from pooling in the lower body, pushing the blood up in the upper body to reduce the likelihood of pilots blacking out. There is a vest that pilots wear which includes a life jacket with survival equipment in it. Next is the helmet, oxygen mask, visor and gloves. Pilots are well protected from head to toe.
Remember the cockpit is already a tiny space. To climb in with all the extra weight of the protective gear is not exactly slipping into a bathrobe at the spa.
Pilatus PC-21 Fact File
Aimee has had experience flying the biggest to the smallest aircraft and that says a lot for someone so young. She loves the PC-21 for its versatility and power.
The PC-21 is a Swiss-designed and built training aircraft, widely used by the airforce, the army and the navy. All the pilots are taught on this aircraft. This is the model that a pilot would first go solo in, which is a treat as it is a high performance aircraft.
The PC-21 has two ejection seats also referred to as 0-0 ejection seats, meaning at 0 knots 0 feet on the ground, the seats can safely eject the pilots. There is a limit on the pilot´s height and weight for the ejection seats, though the PC-21 is still much bigger than its other cousin, the PC-9.
The PC-21 goes at 370 knots, 685 km/h, allows low flying to 150 feet with 16,000 shaft horsepower which is a really powerful one. It can pull up to 8G and has roll rates of 200 degrees per second.
The PC-21 weighs approximately 3600 kg and holds 1200 pounds of fuel which allows the plane to go for two hours without refuelling. Each wing also allows the attachment of wing tanks which hold an extra 800 pounds of fuel. This can stretch the flight time to nearly four hours, which is a rather long time to be strapped into the seat.
There are pods attached to the wings called ESG (External Smoke Generators) which create the smoke trails seen during flying displays. The utility of these pods goes beyond the aesthetics as they also ensure safety, as each aircraft can avoid each other´s weight turbulence when doing manoeuvres and making it easy to rejoin when they split in the formation.
So the next time you hear that familiar loud zoom in the distance, look up and remember to wave to the Roulettes from down below! Who knows, your children may be inspired to follow Aimee's trail and take to the skies one day too…
Learn more at: www.airforce.gov.au/displays/roulettes
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