For this International Women’s Day (IWD) 2022, we spoke with Annie Fine, the chief pilot and Director of Flight Operations at Helitop Aviation in Cambodia, a partner of YUGO. Annie has forged an incredible career in aviation and specialises as a helicopter pilot with experience in Southern Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia.
We hear of her perseverance and the challenges she has faced to fulfil her dream of becoming a pilot and is currently the only female helicopter pilot operating in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Early Ambitions of Flying
Thanks for talking to us Annie. First of all, do you remember your first aspirations of when you wanted to become a pilot?
When I was small, a youngster really. I was just fascinated by helicopters. It was strange as no one else in my family was, they were all business-orientated and my late father was a pharmacist.
I grew up in Zimbabwe and I remember growing up there was a bicycle called a ‘Chopper’ and that was always in my mind (she laughs). I didn't do anything about it until much later in my life though.
Annie studied nursing after finishing school and was an intensive care and trauma nurse who ended up flying in rescue helicopters in South Africa (Johannesburg).
I got so interested in the flying aspect of my work, and in the helicopters. The medical side became less interesting, and more so the flying. The pilots were really good and took us through things and gave us a chance to get a feel of the controls of the machines.
I just said to myself at the time to fulfil my dreams - I must become a pilot!
Were there many female pilots in South Africa that you encountered?
No there weren't. I also had other things going on in my life at the time and I wasn't really focusing on my career. With help from my dad, I did nursing but I wasn't that interested. I was interested in medicine and veterinary science - but my grades were not good enough to study those.
Even with the nursing, I didn't want to just be an ordinary nurse, it didn't stimulate me. So I pursued being an intensive care nurse and a cardiothoracic intensive care nurse (working in a highly specialised cardiothoracic intensive care unit (ICU) catering to the needs of patients requiring constant monitoring and whose clinical conditions are considered critical).
I had to be in trauma, do pre-hospital work, and become an advanced life support paramedic - so I have multiple pre-hospital qualifications. I was slowly driving myself into the aviation world though.
There is a high-stress level in both of these sectors - is it something you are comfortable with?
Yes, totally comfortable. I function very well under stress. By combining the medical and pilot work, I loved that. I wanted to be a pilot - from the back of the helicopter to the front.
First visit to Cambodia - Pursuing a pilot's license
It's so prohibitive financially to become a pilot and get the money to put yourself through flight school. What I did was, I left the helicopter service in South Africa (SA), and used my nursing qualifications to come to Cambodia in 1999 with a contract to be the country manager for International SOS (now Raffles).
It was a great and interesting experience, and after two years or so, with the money I saved, I went back to SA and did my private pilot license in Durban. I am also an Australian citizen, so the chief pilot at the time asked me where I planned to live and advised me to complete my commercial license in Australia which is what I did.
Australian Helicopter Piloting
Annie completed her commercial license on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. After borrowing money to get additional ratings and be more employable, she took contract work in Thailand at Bumrungrad Hospital and worked there to pay off debts and headed back to Australia and worked on turbine helicopters.
I find that many inexperienced pilots start with small machines (helicopters) to get the hours more quickly. I was already older as I only started my pilot license at 38 years old, and I was lucky enough to meet an older pilot who had a small medical issue with his heart and needed a safety pilot with a medical background - so I suited what he needed.
By flying with him I received my necessary ratings for turbine engines and I built up my hours. We flew helicopters to Western Australia and we were doing offshore operations and servicing the islands, doing crab runs, lobsters etc and bringing them back.
It was tough going as I didn't do all the flying. The loads were heavy and I did other chores like making the coffee, accounting, cleaning the hangar etc. I did that for three years earning 100 AU Dollars a week (says laughing). But I built up my hours which was important.
I decided I needed to fast-track my career and get my hours up. So I wanted to become an instructor and headed to Perth and had to get my rating for that which cost more money.
But when you are instructing you really learn to hone your skills quite well and learn to do precision flying and manage emergencies and build your confidence.
By this time I had three turbine helicopters under my belt; the Bell 206, the Hughes 500, and the Sikorsky 61 which was bigger and was able to land on the ocean.
I instructed on the R22 and R44 and I had my eyes on the AS350 but there was a hierarchy at the company and I wasn't in line to fly that. I had to build my way up and eventually get some flying on it. In Australia, you need a different rating for each aircraft.
Flying in the Okavango
Annie returned to South Africa to help care for her mother who was ill, and was offered an opportunity to work in Botswana. With 4-5 years of flying experience, she still was struggling financially and took up nursing contracts to repay loans.
A sister in law managed to find her work in the Okavango, and she loved the appeal of working with wildlife.
She helped me get the job working in the Okavango Delta and I loved the opportunity to be working with the animals.
I can honestly say those few years working in the bush with the animals was the best flying of my entire career, and I learned so much.
I was flying the Bell 206 Jet Ranger and Long Ranger and had ratings on the Eurocopters’ AS350 and EC130 - they were all the helicopters that I had my eyes on.
I did a lot of filming, flying, and living in the bush - I can't begin to tell you how amazing it was. My boss was an excellent teacher and taught me how to film with a Cineflex camera as we used to film the animals for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, and taught me how to fly around the animals. We had to do a lot of collaring of the animals, where we had to open the doors and dart the animals from the air and then land the helicopter in the bush.
It was a different level of precision. For filming, you had to read the animals and move around them in a responsible way, so they don't stampede. It was an invaluable experience but I was getting restless and I always wanted to return to SEA and Cambodia.
Find out more about some of the best single-engine helicopters you can charter.
Return to Cambodia - Charter Flights
When Annie had first worked in Cambodia in 1999 she had noticed the Helicopter NZ company in Siem Reap, and she started sending her CV from Southern Africa to Cambodian based companies.
In my mind, I was angling to get back to Cambodia. I got a response from Helistar to join them and I did in 2010. I was then recruited by Helicopters Cambodia - and they did different things so I learned new skills again.
After eight years, Helitop asked me to set up a helicopter company - and they wanted to fly twin-engine aircraft - so it was just an opportunity I couldn't resist.
We set up in 2017 but we got our air operator's certificate (AOC) in 2020, so we started as a private company - flying senior management and guests but we became a commercial company the difference being that we can now earn revenue from flights and bill for the flights.
I helped them start the company and we brought more pilots in and we operated as many as three machines. We currently fly the Dauphin AS365 N3 and for that, I went to Singapore for training. When we got the Eurocopter EC135 I went to Texas for training.
Read about some of the best twin-engine helicopters to charter.
What is the bulk of the flying now?
It's predominantly VIP. So we have passengers we fly from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, to Poipet, Prey Veng, Sometimes we get up to Preah Vihear and Mondulkiri, and Koh Kong (all in Cambodia).
The wealthier and upper-class Cambodians are also increasingly using our services. They prefer to get there more quickly and it is time-saving - they like the flexibility. A lot of business people are doing their business mid-flight.
We take them from point to point, wait for them to finish, and bring them back to where they need to be.
There is the element of safety too as they mitigate exposure on the roads, and to COVID more recently.
Safety is the Priority
Tell us about the logistical challenges you face?
We are very flexible but it's not like you hop in your car and you go. The aircraft needs to be refueled, we need to plan things, where are we going, do we need to arrange a fuel truck? There are some limitations on each aircraft. On ours, it's a heavy aircraft with a VVIP configuration so it's truly beautiful inside.
In theory, we can accommodate six passengers but it depends on where we are going and how much fuel we need, how much baggage there is. Also, the take-off profile might mean we need a bigger area in the heat and humidity - we need a longer take-off space.
This might be useful for first-time private charter passengers to know?
Yes, and we don't have pilots sitting at the hangar always ready to go. Flights still require some sort of planning, there need to be weather checks, fuel planning, safety checks.
It's also not so much getting into somewhere but getting out. When the helicopter is fully reloaded, does she have the power to get out of a confined area? This helicopter (Dauphin AS365 N3) weighs three tons unloaded.
And the terrain and weather in Southeast Asia play a part too?
Yes, 100 per cent. It's a very sophisticated aircraft with all the bells and whistles and we have two type-rated pilots, we are all current and do proficiency checks with Airbus every year and either go to the simulator in Malaysia, or the instructor comes here. We have autopilot and multiple redundancies so we can handle it, and we are trained for all events, and have local knowledge.
I think people underestimate the value of local knowledge. We scout and share information with other companies about new big power lines and all the urban developments.
We also have wheels (retractable) on our machine which means we need to land on something hard and it is a consideration with the weather and when flying to the provinces and countryside in Cambodia.
We also can't land too close to people or huts as we could blow them away so there are considerations for us. Safety is just the main priority.
Want to know the ideal helicopter experiences in Cambodia?
Challenges to becoming a helicopter pilot - You need passion
Hopefully, your story can still inspire young and eager-to-learn pilots?
It's a five-year plan. The thing is with helicopter flying is that it needs to be a passion, it's different to commercial airlines. You can enjoy it there but it doesnt need to be a passion.
As a helicopter pilot, it may not pay as well, there are different challenges and they are more complex in some ways - you just have to have a passion to fly.
I know I have that, and sometimes I don't even need to fly, I just need to hear that power of the engine and I get that adrenaline rush.
It's so magical to pick that aircraft up in a hover and to know that you have control of that beast. She will control what you do.
It's a long hard road to travel but I don't think you will regret it as long as you have that passion.
There are always more ratings to achieve and more machines to fly. Hopefully, our company will get more and I look forward to training and flying those.
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