May 14, 2019 1:41 pm
Updated: May 15, 2019 2:46 am

Okanagan flight school trains military helicopter pilots from around the globe

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Captain Kelly Levesque is a helicopter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“I’m a pilot from the 450 Tactical Squadron in Petawawa,” Levesque said. “I fly the Chinook.”

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He’s in Penticton for the next few weeks, learning how to navigate challenging Okanagan terrain with Topflight Elite Training and Charters.

“We do a lot of mountain operations out here, particularly in the summertime during the forest fire season,” Levesque said. “It’s incredibly convenient to be in an area where we’re probably going to be asked to operate in the next couple of months as the forest fire season kicks off.”

Topflight has been operating in Penticton for more than 70 years.

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“We started out as Okanagan Helicopters, which transformed into Canadian Helicopters, and that’s what we’re working under right now,” said Topflight pilot instructor Ian Jassman.

The flight school trains military pilots from all over the world.

“Right now, we have Canadian Air Force (members) here, Mexicans, some U.S. pilots and some Dutch national police pilots also,” Jassman said. “Our primary focus is mountain training, annual recurrent and just advanced training overall.”

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When the school is not training, they’re assisting with fire suppression as well as search and rescue.

The school has several choppers in use.

“We have an Airbus product, which is the EC120 and it’s a five-place helicopter — one of the lighter ones that we have here,” said Jassman, naming just a few helicopters in the fleet. “We have the Bell 407 and then we have the AS350B2 model.”

Many of the pilots are used to heavier helicopters, which makes learning with these lighter models a good challenge.

“It teaches great power management,” Jassman said.

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Another participant currently at the school is Dutch national police pilot Robert, who didn’t want his last name identified.

Although the Netherlands is flat, learning how to navigate through mountainous terrain is important for his work.

“We can do raids on buildings,” Robert said. “So that’s where the training from the mountains comes into play: when you have to land on rooftops. You also get high buildings, winds and everything. It’s kind of comparable to flying in the mountains.”

The training program includes comprehensive ground school as well as flight training which includes water bucketing, night-vision goggle initial training and advanced mountain training.

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“We start off in the infield at the airport. Get them comfortable hovering the aircraft and doing circuits,” Jassman said. “From that we start working up into the hills and then, by the second week, we’re working into the higher terrain.”

The school sees pilots of all ages with a varied set of flight skills.

“We get all ranges of experience — from guys with a couple of hundred hours to 6,000- to 7,000-hour pilots,” Jassman said.

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The challenge in the Okanagan is managing the different wind speeds.

“We teach them how to safely fly within that terrain and make approaches to the spot, because a lot of the guys are search-and-rescue pilots or military pilots,” Jassman said. “There’s going to be a time when they have to land to drop these people off.

“They love it. I would like to say we’re giving them the experience of a lifetime.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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