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A thirst for adventure: maintenance officer/helicopter pilot loves her high-flying life.

Leading aerial mountain and glacier tours out of Juneau, Alaska, in the summer and working the oil rigs of south Louisiana the rest of the year, Maj. Jennifer West leads a life of high-flying adventure, both on and off the job.

Major West, 920th Maintenance Operations Flight commander, moved to Florida in 2003 to be part of the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, near Cocoa Beach, having served a six-year stint on active duty.

"When I got off active duty, I wanted to be in the 920th," the Colorado native said. "I moved to Florida for that reason only."

It also helped that Florida has many flight schools inside its borders and Major West's goal was to become a helicopter pilot.

She initially wanted to fly in the military, but at the time her vision was not good enough to meet military requirements. Major West had her vision corrected, but by then she had eclipsed the age limitation, so flying in the military was out.

Despite being disappointed at the time, the major now views the situation as a positive. She is better able to control her career as a pilot in the civilian world and still enjoy her role as a maintenance officer in the 920th, where her pilot experience helps her better understand the relationship between operations and maintenance.

"It gives me a pilot's perspective," she said. "I can see things from both sides. There is often a wall between maintenance and operations, and I now have a better perspective. My two careers complement each other, and each has helped the other."

Her career as a pilot has taken her on adventures from Florida to Louisiana to Alaska.

She began her career doing aerial photography flights for real estate and construction firms, flying from Orlando to the Florida Keys, a job she performed for a year. Major West said one of the highlights of this job was getting to "buzz big buildings in downtown Miami."

From there she moved on to the Gulf Coast, going to work in the oil industry, primarily in south Louisiana, arriving there shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had devastated the region.

Ironically, the company she began working for used its helicopters to perform rescues in the aftermath of both storms, a mission the 920th RQW performed admirably, racking up a total of 1,043 saves. Major West arrived in Louisiana shortly-after the rescues, though, and did not participate.

"It was very interesting (moving to Louisiana)," she said. "I got to see a lot of people still rebuilding their homes and lives."

Major West said she experienced quite a culture shock moving from Florida to Louisiana, but has since gained a great appreciation for the food, music and people of the region.

She also had the opportunity to help with some Habitat for Humanity projects in Lake Charles, La., which was hit hard by Hurricane Rita.

In her job, she flies oil workers and, occasionally, equipment out to oil rigs and vessels located off shore, as far as 200 miles, in an Agusta A119 helicopter, which can carry up to seven passengers. She flies up to 13 times a day.

Major West plans to go to Alaska this summer for the second year to work out of Juneau, flying tourists out to the glaciers.

Last summer was her first time going to Alaska, and she went there in style, flying a helicopter for four days from Lake Charles, La. Along the way, she made a quick detour.

"I stopped in my hometown (in Colorado) and landed on the football field at my little brother's high school and picked him up," Major West said.

She took him with her the rest of the way to Alaska as a graduation gift and paid for his commercial flight back home after a brief visit.

While in Alaska, Major West flew groups of up to six tourists in an AS-350 A-Star out to glaciers and walked them around for 20 minutes.

"I loved it," she said. "It was my first time flying in the mountains and landing on glaciers. It's really interesting dealing with the winds, mountains and ice."

In addition to her pilot duties, the major also served as a tour guide.

"After two or three months, you go a bit insane hearing yourself say the same thing over and over," she said.



Once the cruise ships stop coming, near the end of September, the helicopter season is over, too. Major West said most the people she met in Alaska were seasonal workers, and she didn't get to meet a lot of true Alaskans. However, she did get to do some mushing, or dog sledding, which she said was a great experience.

While working in Louisiana, Major West works two weeks on and two weeks off, so she has plenty of time to enjoy one of her many hobbies; traveling. Her job in Alaska is also very "travel friendly." During the tourist season, she works almost every day, unless the weather is bad. At the end, she is rewarded with a five-month paid vacation.

To make traveling easier, Major West moved all of her possessions into storage and hits the road packed lightly. Her travels have taken her to destinations in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Canada, and all over Europe and the United States.

"When I travel, I try to understand the local culture and develop an understanding of how we live together and share this world," she said. "Life is long, and the world is small."

Major West said she tries to go to small towns, off the beaten path, and makes sure she attempts to learn at least a little bit of the language, "which endears you to the people and opens up communication."

Traveling gives the major the opportunity to engage in some of her other hobbies: surfing, mountain climbing, snow boarding and scuba diving.

Major West does most of her traveling solo, as few of her friends have such a flexible schedule. But she likes it that way, as she gets to make many friends along the way.

Ultimately, her goal is to work in the firefighting business, helping with natural disaster relief. She has accumulated about 2,000 flying hours. Once the major gets 1,000 more, she said she will make the move and pursue her dream.

Until she reaches that milestone, Major West will continue living her life of adventure, flying choppers and serving the Reserve.

(Sergeant Babin is assigned to the Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command public affairs office at Robins AFB, Ga.)

By Master Sgt. Chance C. Babin
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Author:Babin, Chance C.
Publication:Citizen Airman
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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