Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Flight Lieutenant Caitlin Rytenskild is mentoring a new generation of Australian military aviators after a career flying transports.
Though Rytenskild loved going to air shows when she was a child, it was only as teenager that she decided on a career in aviation, during a year in the Australian Air Force Cadets programme.
“Through the cadets I did my first flight in a light aircraft, and I got the bug that way,” she says.
After this Rytenskild, who is from Melbourne, took pilot lessons at a local airfield. After “10 or 12 flights” she made her first solo sortie in a Cessna 152. The costs involved in private flight training, however, were prohibitive, so during university she applied to, and was accepted by, the RAAF.
Things moved quickly after this. Following four months of officer training, Rytenskild undertook ab initio training that involved several months of flying the Pacific Aerospace CT/4 trainer. After this it was nine months at the service’s Basic Flying Training School with the Pilatus PC-9, where she earned her wings.
After an initial stint as a co-pilot with 34 Sqn flying the Boeing 737 BBJ for VIPs, Rytenskild moved onto 36 Sqn as a co-pilot in the Boeing C-17 strategic transport. She subsequently moved on to captain the type.
Rytenskild has fond memories of her time with C-17s. One mission required a flight to Australia’s research mission in Antarctica, carrying food and other supplies. The mission involved flying to Hobart, Tasmania, and waiting there for one week for ideal weather conditions. A long weather window in Antarctica was essential because the aircraft needs to be on the ice for several hours to facilitate unloading and loading.
Rytenskild’s favourite C-17 mission, however, was a round-world-trip shortly after she moved into the left-hand seat. Rytenskild and her crew were ordered to fly westwards, dropping off and picking up cargo in Europe and the USA.
“I just took off out of Amberley, flew west and kept going west,” she says. “That’s always something that’s going to stick with me. I learned so much in that ten days about everything… flying everywhere in the world… how to run a crew and just learning by doing. It was pretty spectacular, picking up and dropping off cargo at various airports around the world.”
Rytenskild adds that one thing about C-17 operations she likes is the relative autonomy. Orders come in about the mission and the aircraft departs – often operating by itself. For a long mission, such as the round-the-world flight, the crew comprises the captain, two co-pilots, one or two loadmasters, and maintenance crew.
The maintainers pre-flight and post-flight the aircraft, and make any repairs deemed necessary.
“As a captain you run the show for however long you’re away and call home if you need help. But other than that, you’re on your own with your crew.”
During her four years in C-17s, Rytenskild says she transported all sorts of cargo, ranging from people and ammunition to vehicles. One memorable inflight involved the transport of military working dogs.
“We’re instructed to carry something large that needs to be picked up, then if we’ve got the time and the ability, we’ll go and do it,” she says.
From the C-17 Rytenskild has moved to No 2 Flying Training School RAAF, where she instructs new pilots. The PC-9 in which she earned her wings has been retired, however, with the arrival of the PC-21.
Rytenskild gives the new aircraft high marks, namely because of new systems that prepare pilots better for the more sophisticated types they will fly later in their careers, such as the PC-21’s head-up display, flight management system, and autopilot.
“I think it’s pretty exciting that students will have seen all of that stuff before going and flying something bigger, like some of the students might go and fly the 737. They’ll have learned how to use all of these systems, or at least seen them before.”
Rytenskild particularly enjoys mentoring younger pilots and seeing their progress.
After her stint with PC-21s, Rytenskild’s next progression is to become an instructor in an operational squadron. In her case, this is likely to involve teaching freshly-minted pilots the ins and outs of the C-17.
“The general plan for everybody is to go back to where you came from, basically,” she says. “My time here is to learn about how to instruct and getting my instructional skills honed.”
Rytenskild notes that representation of women in the RAAF is growing. One sign of this occurred on 5 August 2020, when she and two colleagues formed an all-female C-17 crew – the RAAF’s second such C-17 crew. She also indicates that a previous generation of female pilots helped pave the way for herself and other women to find careers in the RAAF.
As for bringing younger women into the service, she feels it is essential that they be able to see and speak with women working in aviation. When she joined the RAAF there were a handful of female pilots, but she notes that there are now three female instructors at the flying school, and a number of female students.
She notes efforts such as the RAAF’s camps for young women aged 16-24, which offer insights into both flight and technical roles in the air force. Moreover, this is a place where young women bound for RAAF careers can start forming a network of friends.
Rytenskild also notes that the industry and RAAF have worked on changing the culture, to make it “a nicer, safer place to work for everybody, especially people who are different, both women and anybody else – males as well”.