Lt. Colonel Riel "Guns" Erickson Royal Canadian Air Force Fighter Pilot.
One of the most evocative titles in the world is that of being called a Fighter pilot. In the world of fighter pilots you do not get to choose your call sign, rather this labeled is bestowed upon you by your fellow fighter pilots and most often its for some idiosyncratic behavior. So it was my distinct pleasure to talk Fighter Pilot Lt. Colonel “Guns” Erickson this past week about her Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) journey.
I first became aware of Riel Erickson in 2008 when I watched a documentary film series called JetStream which was produced by a local Vancouver production company Paperny Films for Discovery Channel Canada. The 8 episode series followed the 2007 class of eight pilots of the Royal Canadian Air Force learning to fly the CF-18 Hornet tactical fighter jet at Canadian Forces base Cold Lake Alberta with 410 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron. I was enthralled by the quality of the TV production and fascinated by the incredibly challenging task facing these novice fighter pilots. Seven of the eight pilots graduated from the course with Riel “Guns” Erickson winning the Top Gun Trophy for highest overall bombing and strafing scores and earning her "Guns" callsign in the process.
The show and the participants have long lingered in my memory. I reached out to the Canadian military to follow up on the career of Riel “Guns” Erickson. It was a thrill and privilege to talk to now Lt. Colonel Erickson a few days ago. Lt. Colonel Erickson has recently been promoted to command 2 Canadian Forces Flying School, home of Canada’s principal training base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
The major influence on Lt. Colonel Erickson becoming a fighter was her uncle Major David Kendall who was a himself a CF-18 pilot and veteran of the Gulf War. His stories had an impact on young Riel. One of the hair raising experiences during her CF-18 training was a near miss while landing in formation with another CF-18. Her instructor call sign "Spanky” took control and averted a disastrous situation. The incident gave Riel and her instructors serious concern for her future as a fighter pilot. Riel recalls that she was quite close to dropping out of the fighter training course as she dealt with her own insecurities. Her father’s calm approach of everything will be alright and accepting the possibility of failure ultimately helped Erickson return to the cockpit and turn around her performance in the course. As Lt. Colonel Erickson notes the worst thing that could have happened would been to fail the course, but life would have gone on. "One of the fundamentals of success I believe is coming to terms with the possibility of failure. We often learn more from failure than from success". It is a lesson that Lt. Colonel Erickson seeks to pass onto her students at 2 Wing.
A few months after graduating from Fighter school Lt. Colonel Erickson was part of the Q(quick) reaction alert for NORAD (North American Defense Aerospace Command) up near the Arctic circle when she was ordered to intercept a Russia Tupolev Tu-95 code aircraft, a large four engine turboprop powered strategic bomber and missile platform. This kind of intercept is not unusual but does get the heart racing as there is always the potential for trouble. Lt. Colonel Erickson commented that after the initial excitement had worn off the mission proceeded just like any other training mission except this time with a foreign aircraft. It really does come back to the training. Perhaps more stressful than the intercept was the aerial tanking part of the mission which took place at night and in turbulent air. Ah the life of a fighter pilot.
I asked what it was like to go solo in the CF-18 for the first time? "The most remarkable thing is not flying the aircraft but rather the quietness of the cockpit, gone is the voice of the instructor and you are all alone in a war plane of the Canadian Armed Forces". "The only noise that punctuates the cockpit is the noise from the aircraft itself". A truly surreal moment in the life of a fighter pilot, the solo flight lasted around an hour and mainly consisted of flying pattern work around Cold Lake AFB.
Captain Riel Erickson, CF-18 pilot, heads to Servicing after her mission during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) in 2008. Photo credit : Pte Jax Kennedy, 19 Wing Imaging
As the commander of 2 Training Wing Lt. Colonel Erickson is responsible for 300 military teachers and students. Students fly the CT-156 Harvard a single engine turboprop used for basic pilot training as well as the BAE Systems CT-155 Hawk used for advanced training. I asked Lt. Colonel Erickson about her scariest moments in flying and without hesitation she said being a passenger/instructor with students are usually the greatest moments of terror when flying. "Spanky" would certainly appreciate this revelation.
Flying is no longer Lt. Colonel Erickson’s main job though she likes to keep her hand in the cockpit occasionally flying the Harvard. Today her mission is all about leadership and helping to mold the future pilots of the Royal Canadian Air Force. As part of this Lt. Colonel Erickson recently returned from United Kingdom where she attended the Defense Academy with members from 54 other countries. Lt. Colonel Erickson’s goal is to help influence the direction of the RCAF, to be a leader and to inspire more woman leadership positions within the RCAF. Leading by example Lt. Colonel Erickson is the first woman to take command of 2 Wing Canadian Forces Flying Training School. Erickson is quick to note that she has had many mentors while serving in the RCAF who have helped and supported her. An inspirational figure outside of the cockpit has been the late Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Captain Riel Erickson standing next to a CF-188 Hornet
When I asked if she yearns to fly any particular aircraft Lt. Colonel Erickson rather diplomatically answered “there is no such thing as a bad cockpit”, though when pressed she conceded the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor might make the list. I would like to thank Lt. Sophie Quemeneur for arranging the opportunity to meet one of my Canadian Fighter Pilot hero’s. It was an absolute delight to talk to Lt. Colonel Riel “Guns” Erickson.