Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 23 seconds.
The last 20 minutes of LGen Alain Parent’s career in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) were spent reminiscing with Skies about 39 years of memorable accomplishments.
The conversation covered many bases, from his early experiences in the Air Cadets to flying in the single-pilot CH-136 Kiowa helicopter, to what Parent called his “second career track” — a lengthy tour at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), where he filled various roles from 1997 to 2015.
On June 4, 2018, Parent, aged 56 — a tactical helicopter pilot who flew not only the Kiowa but also the CH-135 Twin Huey and the CH-146 Griffon for a combined total of 4,900 hours – concluded his final military posting as Acting Vice Chief of the Defence Staff in Ottawa.
With retirement literally moments away, it was time for some self-reflection.
Skies: You were an Air Cadet from 1974 to 1979. How important was that organization to your career?
Parent: It was extremely important. If it wasn’t for Air Cadets, I probably wouldn’t have discovered the joy of flying. My first initiation to flying was with the Air Cadets in a little Cessna. I remember coming back that evening and I was on a cloud! That’s when I figured I’d like to be a pilot for a career. I had family in the Merchant Marine and I was tempted to go there, but then I went to a cadet camp in Bagotville, and I saw two Voodoos landing in formation. That’s when I decided to become a pilot.
Skies: Why did you choose a military career path?
Parent: To be 100 per cent honest, when I joined, I thought I wanted to fly for the airlines. But the Air Force offered the chance to get a degree at the military college and then get pilot training. My dad insisted I have a university degree, so I always said it was my dad’s degree but my pilot wings – the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) offered me the ability to do both. But then I got hooked and I didn’t want to fly the airlines; I wanted to serve my country and be part of a team bigger than myself.
Skies: What do you consider to be some of your biggest career highlights?
Parent: I remember the freedom of flying on the Kiowa from coast to coast to coast, and even a bit in Europe, flying as single pilot with an observer. That was the end of an era to be single pilot, and the Kiowa had so many roles. When we acquired the [CH-146] Griffon, I was the first pilot to be trained at Bell Helicopter in Texas and licensed in the CAF. I helped to write the Griffon’s manuals and tactics, techniques and procedures. The prize was becoming the commanding officer (CO) of 403 Squadron in Gagetown, N.B., which is the training unit. We were short of trained pilots and had to maximize our output, so my saying became “Optimize without compromise” – that saying still persists in the squadron today. Commanding 1 Wing was also a milestone, because I got to lead the build-up of the aviation battalion that went to Afghanistan with Griffon and Chinook helicopters. The Chinooks were escorted by armed Griffons. Once we had that capability in theatre, no more soldiers traveling between Kandahar Air Field and the Forward Operating Bases for vacation were dying on the roads from IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. I was proud to participate in the development of that capability, and it will be replicated in Mali, starting this summer. I feel I’m leaving a bit of a legacy that way. As commander of 1 Canadian Air Division (1CAD), I found the different branches of the RCAF were not working together enough. I figured that when we combine our efforts, we are greater than the sum of our individual parts, so my motto was “Flying in formation.” That encompasses all operational flying of the RCAF.
Skies: Describe your leadership philosophy.
Parent: I think it’s important to lead by example. If you ask people to do things, you ought to be able to do them yourselves. I’m very proud of the fact that I still hold the record for the most flying hours by a commanding officer at 403 Squadron; I flew 503 hours in two years, and as Wing commander I was also fully qualified on the operational items I could do. I also think leaders must say what they mean, and mean what they say. On career management, there are some who lead by keeping everything to themselves. I was always open with people about what could happen with their careers, good or bad. Finally, as a senior executive, you have to maintain and demonstrate work-life balance. You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first so that you are fit to lead. That requires work-life balance.
Skies: Explain your work at NORAD.
Parent: In 1997, I got an offer to go to Colorado Springs, Colo., to the NORAD headquarters. At that time, I worked on military and political policy, but it really started at the missile warning centre, where I became a missile warning crew commander. I call NORAD my second career track. In my first two-year tour, I was the Canadian action officer examining the staffing of the NORAD agreement. I remember organizing high level visits to show them the project back then. I went to Staff College in 2000, and then to 1CAD and Canadian NORAD Region (1CAD/CANR). The pinnacle of my NORAD time was becoming the NORAD deputy commander from 2012 to 2015, where we kept North America safe, and I’m really proud of that.
Skies: Tell me about your role in the NORAD response to 9/11.
Parent: Before Sept. 11, 2001, NORAD was looking outward at threats. That day, the attack came from within. I was part of the architecture that ordered all the aircraft to land across Canada, and part of the planning team for Operation Noble Eagle [the homeland security response to the attacks]. On the 10th anniversary of that day, people asked what I remembered. Really, I remember going to work on 9/11 and coming out of work around mid-March 2002. The days were long and we were planning for Op Apollo in Afghanistan, and we had to re-examine our capacity in the RCAF and how we would respond.
Skies: How have you seen the Air Force change (rotary ops in particular) since your days of flying the Kiowa?
Parent: The RCAF went through a period with three types of helicopters: Chinook, Twin Huey, and Kiowa. Due to budget constraints, we went from three types to one, the Griffon. We tried to adapt the Griffon to do everything, but we’ve learned that it cannot do everything. You can arm it, you can put sensors on it, but it doesn’t have the lift of a Chinook. I’m very happy we got back into the Chinook business so we can do the heavy lifting. I think with time, we’ve developed into an extremely professional force in tactical aviation. We tested our mettle in Afghanistan; that makes us focused. I think we’re a more disciplined, focused force and I’m really proud of the newest generation of tactical aviation pilots. I think the people are outstanding and they will carry the flag.
Skies: What are some of the exciting developments you see coming for the Air Force of the future?
Parent: I think the Air Force of the future is exciting because of the new defence policy. A lot of initiatives touch the Air Force, and the Air Force now truly has the attitude of flying as one team and leveraging each other’s strengths. Also, we now have the ability to really limit collateral damage. We can see better; we can anticipate better. We can match GPS with avionics to be in the right place at the right time, and on target. For a pilot, the aircraft can be in automation mode and the crew can really concentrate on getting the mission done. If you don’t have to fight the controls, you can really focus on achieving the objective.
Skies: What are your plans for retirement?
Parent: It’s time to recharge my batteries. First, I’m going to take care of myself and my wife and we’re going to have a leisurely summer. I’m thinking of golfing and doing whatever my wife wants me to do. I owe her – she has supported me all these years. You know, military families are the centre of gravity for the CAF being able to perform their operations. When I was talking to folks before the deployment to Afghanistan, I said family and support is what counts the most to be able to do what we do, to serve our country. We need the support of the population and we need to know the system supports our families, so they can be resilient through all the moves and deployments. People come first.