Going sky high over Canada

Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor

CALGARY, ALBERTA — Captain Riel Erickson makes it clear why her job is so special.

“I am able to see the country in one of the best seats available in any airline out there,” says Erickson, one of two female fighter pilots in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

That “airline” consists of the fleet of McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet jets that each cruises at 1,500 kilometres an hour, zipping across the sky in a blur to those on the ground. But to someone in the cockpit, the view from 30,000 feet up is eye candy unlike any other. From that vantage point, Erickson has seen the entire country, and been wowed by it.

“The views that we have in Canada are absolutely incredible,” she says. “We have some of the most diverse countryside I have ever seen in the world.”

Erickson was inspired by her uncle, also a fighter pilot, to join the Canadian military. A member of the 419 Tactical Fighter Squadron, the statuesque Erickson has become a bit of a celebrity. She was featured in “Jetstream,” a 2008 documentary about RCAF trainees, and was credited with intercepting a Russian military jet that had encroached on Canadian airspace soon after her graduation. (You can read the comments about that incident from Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay.)

Raised near Calgary in Millarville, Alberta, Erickson says her most beloved part of the country remains home.

“Being an Alberta girl, growing up just outside of Kananaskis country, I love the mountains,” she says, adding that flying through the Rockies is her favourite sight.

When not flying or working at Alberta’s 4 Wing Cold Lake, the most active fighter jet base in the Canadian armed forces, Erickson is often inspiring girls to follow in her footsteps. I met her while she was giving a demonstration at the 2012 Calgary Stampede about the impressive machine she operates and how to get started in a career with the RCAF. “This is the coolest job in the world,” she says. “And we need more women in the military.”

Women first started serving in the military in 1885 and now make up approximately 15% of the Canadian Armed Forces. The air force, however, didn’t open up full employment for women until 1987. Captain Kareen Mamo is the other female fighter pilot in the RCAF.

“My goal is to show that what I do for a living every day is possible for anyone to do,” says Erickson, whose nickname is “Guns” because she “giggled like a schoolgirl” the first time she fired the weapons on a jet while in training school.

She might also have a personal incentive for wanting more women in the military. Being the only woman in her unit leads to some unique challenges.

“It’s hard to go on a date,” she says. “I have about three dozen big brothers and that can be intimidating for a guy.”

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.

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