The Royal New Zealand Air Force’s No. 3 Squadron is at the heart of a major achievement in military aviation: it is home to the first all-female team to operate the NH90 in New Zealand. The fleet includes eight NH90 helicopters, which have been in full service since 2015. With missions ranging from Army battlefield support, to search and rescue, to amphibious operations, this crew is also one of trailblazers, paving the way for many others in military aviation. 

Flight Lieutenant (FLTLT) Nicole Brooke, Flying Officer (FGOFF) Hayley Vincent and Flight Sergeant (F/S) Jen Hart are part of the all-female 3 Squadron crew of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. In operational theatres where every second counts, agility is their motto. “Crews are expected to operate in a dynamic and changing environment, with training flights often encompassing multiple disciplines and flight regimes”, said FLTLT Brooke. In these conditions, solidarity is also a key driver for the team. F/S Hart explains: “We are also very lucky that we have a close-knit unit who are all friends with each other, this enables us to know how each other operates and creates great efficiencies and crew resource management dynamics.”

What binds the crew together is a shared passion for aviation. FLTLT Brooke, FGOFF Vincent and F/S Hart all trace it back to their first encounter with helicopters as teenagers, which marked the start of their journey toward joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force. FGOFF Vincent’s passion stems from a long-standing interest shared with her family, while F/S Hart left school right after turning 17 to join the RNZAF as a ground support equipment technician. She then qualified as a heavy diesel mechanic and worked in various workshops across the bases, where she could experience the thrill of helicopter flights first-hand. “I was hooked, the following week I submitted the remuster paperwork. A fortnight after graduating I was posted onto the NH90.” FLTLT Brooke echoes the sentiment: “Once I had my first flight in a helicopter that was it, and I did everything I could to set up for a career as a helicopter pilot in the RNZAF.”

Trailblazing military aviation: an all-female team onboard the NH90


Innumerable missions supported by the NH90

The diversity of the crew’s daily operations only adds to this: “What I find most thrilling about this job is the variety of our work and people we work with”, says FLTLT Brooke. Mountain flying during a search and rescue mission one week, then flying an amphibious operation in the Tokelau’s or Sub-Antarctic region in the next, and then operating with the Army and police units in a battlefield or counter terrorism capacity in the next: these are all part of the team’s day-to-day missions. 

Trailblazing military aviation: an all-female team onboard the NH90

3 Squadron gathers skilled and passionate aviators, who are able to operate in environments where crews are given a high level of trust and flexibility with a strong safety culture that underpins airborne decision making. To rise up to the challenge, they can count on a considerable ally: the NH90. With a unique blend of capabilities, the rotorcraft is able to fully execute the diverse range of 3 Squadron’s missions. Featuring an ample cabin, twin engine power output, tactical self protection capability and a complete anti-icing system, the NH90 is a proven workhorse: “A key NH90 output is National Contingency (NATCON), where an aircraft and crew are on short notice to move, ready to react to any sort of domestic crisis or emergency event. This typically takes the form of a search and rescue, or domestic natural disaster response”, says FLTLT Brooke.

The Christchurch Floods in 2021 were one of the most challenging missions, where the rotorcraft once again proved its reliability and versatility. FLTLT Brooke recalls: “The aircraft’s range, speed and weather protection meant the crew could deploy to Christchurch in a timely manner. We were able to use the aircraft’s hoist system, pilot automation and power output to successfully extract multiple survivors from floodwaters in a night vision environment.” 

Trailblazing military aviation: an all-female team onboard the NH90


Pioneering military aviation in the Royal New Zealand Air Force

But for 3 Squadron, the rotorcraft has also become the emblem of a trailblazing milestone: FLTLT Brooke, FGOFF Vincent and F/S Hart form the first all-female crew that flies the NH90 in New Zealand. The team actually came together by chance: “We were programmed to fly together almost accidently for a deployment on a mountain flying exercise: we were all very keen to head down for this and it was our friend and photographer Ned Dawson who put two and two together and realised this was probably the first female crew on the NH90 in New Zealand”, says FGOFF Vincent.

This marks an important step for aviation, but most importantly it represents an incentive to consider all fleet members equally, no matter what their gender. FLTLT Brooke describes: “I have been incredibly lucky to have a fantastic wings course and workplace that never treated me any different for being female. While I was at high school which was all female, there was a large misunderstanding of the military and aviation. Today, in 3 Squadron, we are treated exactly the same as our male colleagues, and that goes a long way too”. 

To keep on track, displaying the career opportunities that await men and women in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and most of all, showcasing men and women working together in these roles are crucial elements to show the next generation of aviation enthusiasts. FLTLT Brooke explains: “I think there has been a shift in the aviation industry to showcase the role for both females and males. The job really sells itself, we just need to show women what the job actually is”.

Trailblazing military aviation: an all-female team onboard the NH90