Aged 14, her parents bought Henrietta Davies a 15min flying lesson in a helicopter – and she was hooked. “From that point I knew I wanted to be a rotorcraft pilot,” says Davies, who has just earned her captain’s stripes flying an Airbus Helicopters H145 for Babcock on behalf of the East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA) charity.

After almost a decade as a first officer in the North Sea oil and gas sector – one of the most demanding working environments for any pilot – she has been flying helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) missions for Babcock since returning from maternity leave in 2020, becoming the first female multi-crew commander with Babcock.

The job involves four 12h shifts – two days followed by two nights – with four days off. As well as her co-pilot, the helicopter’s crew comprises a doctor and critical-care paramedic, with a specialist consultant or a second paramedic on hand if necessary. As captain, she is mission commander, ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of often critically injured or unwell patients, as well as the crew.


Babcock partners with EAAA, a charity responsible for providing HEMS across a swathe of eastern England. Although East Anglia has a smattering of cities such as Cambridge and Norwich as well as large towns, remoter parts of the region can be an hour’s drive from the nearest accident and emergency department. That is when EAAA’s helicopters come into their own.

Incidents vary from cardiac problems and strokes to road traffic or horse-riding accidents. No day is typical, says Davies. While EAAA’s bases in Norwich and Cambridge average eight callouts every 24h, it can vary enormously. One day recently, Davies’ crew were called out five times in a single shift; the next day they did not leave their station.

Henrietta Davies

Source: East Anglian Air Ambulance

Davies has just earned her captain’s stripes flying an Airbus Helicopters H145

Unlike her previous role, Davies does not have to fly over the sea (maritime search and rescue cover is provided by another operator for HM Coastguard). But while East Anglia’s flat farmlands might lack the undulating landscapes of other areas, landing at night as near as possible to an incident always presents challenges.

When a callout comes in, Davies and her team will “pause for a few moments” and plan the mission, particularly at night. “This gives us the situational awareness of what we are likely to face,” she says. Air traffic control gives HEMS flights priority over other traffic, so “it’s rare that we cannot fly in a straight line”.

Typically, Davies and her crew will arrive on the scene at around 1,000ft and assess if it is safe to descend to 500ft – hazards include power cables and wind turbines. At night they will usually deploy a high-intensity searchlight to identify a landing spot. The medical crew in the back of the aircraft have night-vision monocles and act as “additional pairs of eyes, something that is really useful”, she says.

Once on the ground, Davies and her co-pilot often return the favour by helping the medical team. “We’re not trained medically but we can move bags and equipment and hold splints to allow the medics to get on with their jobs,” she says. “One of the best parts of this job is the camaraderie and being part of a team.”

In the periods between callouts, Davies and the other pilots will often relax – the crew facilities have rest pods. During day shifts, time is spent on administrative tasks, refresher training, studying, or simply reading. There are ambassadorial duties, too, to keep EAAA in the public eye. “EAAA is a charity, so it has to constantly earn money from donations,” she says.

Like many pilots, Davies’ interest in aviation stems from a young age. Her mother tells a story of a helicopter dropping red noses for a charity event in a park close to their home, and Davies was entranced. Her parents had initially given her a 15min lesson in a fixed-wing aircraft at a local flying school at just 14 for her birthday, but she knew even then that her heart lay with rotorcraft.

After leaving school, she went to Florida, aged 19, to attend the Bristow Academy in Titusville (now US Aviation Training Solutions), flying two-seat Schweizer S300s, leaving with European and US licences. However, like many newly qualified pilots, she found it hard to getting on to the first rung of the career ladder.

“I had 150 hours and no real-world experience,” she says. “I could have stayed in Florida instructing but my dad died, and I wanted to come home.” She figured that the North Sea sector was the best place to start, but it was 2009/2010 and oil and gas production was dropping fast, leaving the helicopter companies serving the sector shedding not recruiting pilots.


After working as a children’s nanny to pay the bills and travelling to the UK’s oil and gas capital Aberdeen to “get my face around”, CHC invited her for an interview. Six months later she was offered a job, and eventually, two years after qualifying on the tiny S300, she found herself flying the 19-passenger Sikorsky S-92.

She moved to rival Bristow on the same type, and later to Norwich to fly Leonardo Helicopters AW189s after completing her type rating in Milan. By now established in London with a family, commuting to Norfolk was more convenient. Then, in 2018, pregnant with her second child and unwilling to relocate to Aberdeen with Bristow, she took a two-year career break.

In 2020, she spotted an advertisement for a co-pilot with Babcock. “I had a tiny baby but couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” she says. “I had experience of flying offshore but this role would add onshore experience.”

She joined at the height of the pandemic. “It was a weird time,” she recalls. “I was going back to work while everyone else was stuck at home.”

Of the UK’s more than 1,200 helicopter pilots, only around 36 are women – an even worse ratio than for airline pilots. Because of this, Davies is determined to be an evangelist for the profession to young women.

“There is more promotion around STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] careers for young women these days, but equally important is that they have role models,” she says. “Every time I land in a park, kids see me. That’s exactly what happened to me all those years ago. I saw that doing a job like this was possible.”