22 May 2018
Wife and husband Nicole Brooke and Andrew Stewart are in a unique position to understand each other's hard working day.
They are both Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) helicopter pilots in different sections of NH90 Flight, No. 3 Squadron, at Ohakea.
The pair, with No. 3 Squadron, were deployed together for Exercise Tropic Major in Vanuatu, flying NH90 helicopters from the flight deck of HMNZS Canterbury.
They didn't meet while in the RNZAF, but through search and rescue work. Flight Lieutenant Brooke's father, a police officer in Palmerston North, coordinated search and rescue teams and knew Flight Lieutenant Stewart.
Knowing his daughter had an interest in joining the RNZAF, he introduced the pair in 2009. They started dating nine months later, Flight Lieutenant Brooke graduated from pilot training in 2014 and the pair got married last year.
It was inside knowledge of No. 3 Squadron's missions that helped Flight Lieutenant Stewart set up an elaborate marriage proposal. In 2015, knowing that his girlfriend would be flying past a certain ridge line in the Ruahine Ranges at a certain time, he positioned himself at the peak with a large banner saying "MARRY ME".
"But the sortie didn't go as planned," he said. "I had to go to plan B quickly because too many people knew about it, so I proposed to her later that night in the paddock where we planned to build our house."
Flight Lieutenant Brooke said her husband definitely gets full marks for effort.
"A lot of people don't know we are married," she said. "We stay professional – we're not quartered together and when we are at work we are work colleagues. It makes it easier for everyone."
The pair do not necessarily go on the same military exercises together, and can spend long periods apart. When Exercise Tropic Major finished, Flight Lieutenant Brooke went home, while Flight Lieutenant Stewart stayed with Canterbury for another Pacific exercise.
"There are a lot of pros to being in the same job in the Air Force," Flight Lieutenant Brooke said. "We understand the stressful times. Both of us could be away in different places, so it is pretty lucky to be together for this one.
“So when it's really stressful, when you're tired and working heaps, you understand."
She had wanted to be a helicopter pilot since she was a teenager. She got involved in search and rescue missions, and got a ride in one of No. 3 Squadron's earlier helicopters, an Iroquois.
"I was hooked, absolutely – I wanted to be a helicopter pilot,” she said. “I thought it would be an epic job, but I didn't think I would get in, it's so competitive. It definitely was my dream."
She was one of seven out of 12 who graduated from her Wings course.
"The high point for me is I work with an awesome group of people,” she said. “We do different things every day. When we deploy like this it is a really tight-knit family, with heaps of camaraderie.
“That's what I saw when I was a youngster. I saw how everyone had your back."
Flight Lieutenant Stewart, originally from Timaru, joined the RNZAF halfway through seventh form in 2008.
"I had a passion for aviation, and had flown solo in fixed-wing aircraft,” he said. “I was interested in search and rescue, and the military sounded like a good idea."
The pair have not flown in the same cockpit, but they have flown in formation together.