Our people: Major Steve Thompson, Air Detachment (North) commander for Operation Laser

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News Article / May 13, 2020

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Operation Laser Air Task Force Public Affairs

“To date, Air Detachment (North) has employed a 440 Transport Squadron aircrew on a CC-138 Twin Otter aircraft to deliver personal protective equipment—masks and gloves—to seven 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group [CRPG] patrols around Great Slave Lake.”

“These flights are not out of the ordinary as one of 440’s main roles is to support 1 CRPG in their mission,” says Major Steve Thompson, the Air Detachment (North) commander for Operation Laser, the CAF’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. “The completion of these flights enables the Rangers in these communities to conduct any potential Operation Laser tasking while adhering to personal protective equipment guidelines set out by the Canadian Armed Forces.”

Looking back at his career, Major Thompson considers himself lucky. He spent his teenage years flying gliders as an Air Cadet in Sault Saint Marie, Ontario. When he joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1997, the timing of his courses lined up perfectly and he was winged as a fully qualified RCAF pilot and posted to 440 Transport Squadron in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, by 1999.

However, working at the northern squadron wasn’t how he originally pictured his career starting, but when given the opportunity, he jumped at the chance.

“When I joined the military, my goal was to fly Hercs, says Major Thompson about his first posting as a trained pilot, but when the opportunity came up, I told them I’d gladly take that slot to fly Twin Otters in Yellowknife.”

Looking back on how the posting worked out, he doesn’t mince words. “I met my wife and we had our first child during that time,” he says with a laugh. “I’d say it exceeded expectations.” The flying was great too. He says the Twin Otter is the multi-tool of aircraft. It can land virtually anywhere from the frozen Arctic sea ice to the barren tundra, and the amazing men and women of 440 Squadron are highly skilled in getting it prepared and operating it in that environment.

Now, 24 years in, Major Thompson has spent half his career in Yellowknife in different roles, including his current position as Air Component Coordination Element (ACCE) Officer (North), where he provides advice to the commander of Joint Task Force North on the use of air power in the north and supports the commander of Canadian NORAD Region as part of Canada’s commitment to NORAD. He says that experience will undoubtedly help him as the Air Detachment (North) commander.

“I was honoured to be selected for this position because the north is a lot different than down south in terms of infrastructure, and it helps to have first-hand knowledge of this when working here,” says Major Thompson. He says the sheer size of the area, coupled with how spread out everything is—including access to health care, food, fuel and other types of supplies—is what makes life more challenging in the Canadian territories.

The Air Detachment (North) is part of the Air Task Force (ATF) within Operation Laser. It is one of six detachments across the country—North, Pacific, West, Central, East and Atlantic. The Twin Otter is the Royal Canadian Air Force’s aircraft in Yellowknife, but Major Thompson says his role as the detachment commander could likely involve coordination of multiple aircraft to cover the massive region.

This is where his experience will come in handy. As a Twin Otter pilot, he spent years flying members of the 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group into remote communities for patrols.

“I’ve landed at over 50 different airports north of 60, he says. Remoteness is a challenge. Down south, you have options for alternate airports, fuels, hotels, supplies. It’s understood in the north that everybody needs everyone else, so everyone helps each other a lot.”

In the mid- to late-2000s, Major Thompson spent some time away from Yellowknife. In 2004-2006, he was an instructor at the Canadian Forces Flight Training School in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, and, from 2006-2009, he was part of the Snowbirds Air Demonstration Team, an experience he loved.

“It was a fantastic experience, but after three years it was time, he says. I had three kids under the age of five so I missed a lot of the cool stuff when my kids were young because I was away so much during the airshow season.”

After the Snowbirds, Major Thompson was posted to 1 Canadian Air Division as a Senior Operational Duty Officer working in the Combined Air Operations Centre and then moved to Special Events, where he was one of the safety pilots for the CF-18 Demo Team during their air show season.

In 2012, he was posted back to 440 Transport Squadron as the deputy commander. “It was awesome coming back,” he says. With over a dozen years of experience in the north, Major Thompson is ready to support the Operation Laser effort.

“A request for assistance from any of the territorial governments to the commander of Joint Task Force (North) could require an air asset move to get someone somewhere or to get someone out of somewhere, says Thompson. Without roads connecting the majority of the north, we are going to have to figure out what is the best aircraft to deliver the effect the commander is requesting.”

“I feel quite privileged to be part of that, working with the Air Force, and with our CAF family to be on alert to help the northern communities. We are going to be there and ready to help out.”

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