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First female graduates as Wildcat pilot

20 December 2023

A United States Coast Guard officer will be the first female to fly the Royal Navy’s maritime Wildcat helicopter on front-line operations.

Lieutenant Commander Rachel Rychtanek graduated last week alongside fellow pilot Lieutenant Elliott Wylie and observer Lieutenant Kieran Lovett at a ceremony at RNAS Yeovilton.

The trio completed their training to fly the Wildcat HMA2 – the maritime version of the helicopter, which 825 and 815 Naval Air Squadrons operate as the Wildcat Maritime Force. 

Lt Cdr Rychtanek, 32, who is an exchange pilot from the United States Coast Guard, said: “The highlight of my training was getting back out onto the shipboard environment and watching the other students perform their first solo deck landings. 

“I’m very excited for the opportunity to deploy to operational theatres that I otherwise may not have seen in my United States Coast Guard career.”

At the end of 78 intensive weeks of studying, exams and practical assessments, each graduate was presented with their wings ahead of front-line operations with 815 Naval Air Squadron.

“Training was a challenge, the most exciting and demanding part of the training was the final exercise at Prestwick, a week long exercise involving several aircraft from 825 NAS operating in the mountains and lochs of Scotland, something that really prepares you to go onto a frontline squadron,” said Lt Lovett. 

“It has been a long process and it is a relief to finish all my training. 

“I am looking forward to going on the frontline squadron, it will be great to see more parts of the world I’ve not been to before, especially from a bird’s eye view.”

The ceremony highlights the achievements of the newly-qualified aviators and gives families and loved ones an opportunity to celebrate their success, and learn about their role in the Fleet Air Arm.

The ceremony ended with a show from the Black Cats display team demonstrating the capability of the Wildcat HMA2 helicopter.  

Lt Wylie is fresh off the conveyer at the end of an intensive six-and-a-half-year journey, but it didn’t appear to be his destiny to be a Wildcat pilot initially.

The 29-year-old from Lancashire joined up to be a submariner but after a visit on a boat decided that a life underwater wasn’t for him and he forged a career in engineering, working on Sea Kings and Merlins, and later becoming an officer.

“The course takes a lot of mental resilience, I would say to get through it, just because there are a lot of assessments throughout,” he said.

“It’s been hardwork and a very difficult thing to do. You’ve got to appreciate how long it takes and the pressure over that period of time is difficult to deal with.

“But when you’re on a good course with good course mates who help each other through it makes a difference. That camaraderie.”

Lt Wylie points to his support system - his wife Faye and daughter Annabelle.

“My wife has been a massive help. I’ve come home stressed and worked up, she calms me down and brings me back to reality,” he said.

“She reminds me of what’s important and you return to work refreshed.”

 

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