Interview with Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Willrich

"As a member of the Snowbirds we did not only fly at airshows; we visited schools, youth clubs, museums, and many other places and venues getting kids and adults alike excited about aviation."

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Revised by Eric Major

Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Willrich (Photo: personal archive)

When Eric Willrich was young, he used to daydream about controlling airplanes, and he decided to give wings to his dreams: he worked hard, and with lots of dedication, efforts, and maybe a bit of luck, he not only achieved his dream, but surpassed it. Now, at 45 years old, the Brazilian-Canadian was just promoted to be the commander of 437 Transport Squadron in the Canadian Armed Forces.

437 Transport Squadron is made up of 87 Canadian Armed Forces members and 62 technicians and managers of L3Harris (contracted maintenance). 2020 has been a busy year for 437 Transport Squadron. The crew of the CC-150 are taking part in Operation LASER, Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) response to a worldwide pandemic situation, by providing transport to medical personnel to different location to support Canadians in these trying time.

Between missions, Willrich talked to Wave about his life, his dreams, and his remarkably interesting career.

Wave – Which city in Rio Grande do Sul are you from originally?

Eric – My father’s family is all from the Novo Hamburgo area but I was born in Pelotas. I did not live there long though and spent most of my formative years not too far away, in the Sant’Ana do Livramento area along the border with Uruguay, also known as the “Fronteira da Paz” (Frontier of Peace).

Wave – How did your start your career as a pilot?

Eric – My father used to say that I started my career as a pilot with a dream – a dream that begun under a seat in the upper viewing area of Rio’s Galeão International Airport. My first time in an airplane was when I was two and we were going to the United States to visit my grandparents (on my mother’s side). I was told that I might not like the whole idea of flying or being in airplanes until my father took me to the viewing area where I hid under a plastic seat as all the jet noise apparently scared me. Dad finally convinced me to come out from under the seat to look at the wonderful machines that made all that noise. He said that as soon as he picked me up and I saw what was going on out there, I was mesmerized and from that point on, I spent the rest of my childhood gazing upward wondering where every airplane I saw had come from and where it was going and daydreaming of one day being at the controls of one of them.

Wave – Why did you choose Canada? Did you come with your family?

Eric – My mother chose Canada for us after my father passed away. We had family friends in Regina who offered to help us get on our feet after my dad’s passing. This support network we had through the church where my dad had been a pastor, coupled with what my mom considered a place to give us kids a better shot at life made us relocate.

Wave – What did you need to do to become a pilot here?

Eric – In order to be a pilot in Canada you need one of two things:

1. enough money (a lot of it) to pay for your own licence; or

2. a scholarship through the military where not only did you NOT have to pay to learn how to fly if you kept passing, they actually paid you. The secrets to getting this kind of scholarship were passing a barrage of entry exams, good grades (especially in the sciences), volunteer/community work, involvement in sports, and such things. These scholarships still exist today.

Wave – Is the process similar or different then in Brazil?

1. The option of having the money to pay for your training is a possibility, but again, with flight training costing what it does, for most normal human beings, it is prohibitively expensive.

2. Joining the military in Brazil is also extremely competitive with many applicants for very few slots. This said, with a lot of hard work and dedication, the opportunity also does exist.

Wave – Are there any other Brazilians in the Canadian Air Force?

Eric – Not many that I know of but there is one family with three siblings, originally from Esteio (also in RS), two of which are in the Air Force as engineers and the youngest brother is in the Army.

Wave – The fact you came from another country, was that a challenge or a hinderance?

Eric – Initially it was a hinderance as I needed a Social Insurance Number and a bunch of other documents including Canadian citizenship in order to apply to be an officer in the Air Force. It took me a long time to sort all this out and even once I did, there was a long wait until the recruiting process got to me.

Wave – Is there a difference between working for an airline and working for the Air Force?

Eric – Most definitely. Airline life from what I have heard is particularly good when the economy is doing well. You travel the world while getting people to their destinations. But once the aircraft engines are turned off, their job is usually done until the next time they go flying.

In the Air Force, we are officers first. We do officer training and are taught how to lead people and how to complete complex tasks and to think outside the box before we even touch an aircraft. Then even once we are finished flight training, we never stop learning and evolving as professional aviators and officers. So you are not only responsible for the aircraft you’re flying like at an airline, you’re also in charge of leading and mentoring squadron mates, troops, mechanics, pilots junior to you, and also doing your part in making sure your squadron is running how your Commanding Officer and the Air Force wants it to.

Wave – How was your experience with the Snowbirds? How did that happen?

Eric – It was amazing – some of the most memorable years of my career. I was an instructor pilot at the NATO Flight Training Centre which is at the same base where the Snowbirds have been since they began flying back in the early 70’s. An opening became available due to one of the guys moving on and one of my friends who had recently joined the Team asked if I would be interested in giving it a shot. It all happened quickly. I had an interview with the Commanding Officer, a tour of the squadron and met some of the other guys. I did not get an official “you’re good to go” call until a few days later. Once it was official, it happened even faster. Since I had already flown the Tutor jet before, I was able to complete my training quite quickly and get on the road. Getting the chance to represent my adoptive country, the one that embraced me when I arrived and gave me the opportunity to follow my dreams, was fantastic. As a member of the Snowbirds we did not only fly at airshows; we visited schools, youth clubs, museums and many other places and venues getting kids and adults alike excited about aviation. My goal was just to make people smile and realize that we were just normal guys with a cool job while getting to carry out the official purpose of the Squadron which is to demonstrate the skill, professionalism, and teamwork of all members of the Canadian Armed Forces, at events all over North America.

Wave – You piloted helicopters in special missions. How was it? Has there been a situation that marked you the most?

Eric – That was my first assignment after graduating as a pilot. As part of 430 Squadron in Valcartier, Quebec, I got to do resupply missions in the high arctic, Peace Keeping in the Balkans, VIP transport for summits held across Canada as well as countless exercises and missions all over North America, but the one that marked me the most was being a part of the UN mission to Haiti in the early 2000’s. The flying was amazing as the terrain and country is beautiful, but the role we played in helping people that really needed our help was what touched me the most. We got to take food and supplies to places that had lost road access to floods and keep that lifeline open. We did medical evacuations of sick and injured people and got them to emergency care without which, they likely would not have made it and other such missions, six days a week. What I looked forward to the most though were our days off on Sundays, when many of us linked up with the CIMIC (Civil & Military Cooperation) folks. We would receive shipments of school supplies, clothing, toys, etc. from Canada and on Sunday’s we got to take it to schools, orphanages and community centres to give to people in need. Being able to deliver a bit of happiness, a bit of hope, a change in the daily life of kids that destiny put in places like Cité Soleil is something I will never forget.

Wave – Tell us about your newly appointed position. What does it mean for you to transport members of the government? 

Eric – The squadron I have been given the honour of leading for a couple of years is the only provider of strategic air to air refuelling, large scale troop and VIP transport our Air Force has. Everybody we transport is a VIP to us – from the young soldier shipping off to a mission overseas, to the Prime Minister going to a G20 summit halfway around the world. Our job and responsibility are to make sure the people put in our care arrive safely at the other end. Transporting our nation’s elected officials and government leadership is cool when you think of it but again, we are just doing our best to get the job done as efficiently and as safely as possible.

Wave Is there a different protocol for the PM and Governor General and another level of government?

Eric – There definitely is. Our crews get to know what the people we transport like and dislike. The Queen likes flowers in the washroom and the Governor General appreciates good, strong coffee for instance. We like to make sure the people we transport have as positive an experience as possible and we always do our best to make sure they arrive well fed, well rested, and ready to hit the ground running at the other end.

Wave – Do you have any story about working with a PM or well-known government official?

Eric – I had met the current Governor General Julie Payette at an air show over a decade ago when she worked for the Canadian Space Agency. A couple of years ago, I got to take her on a few trips in her new capacity. Being a lover of aviation, she enjoys spending time on the flight deck with the pilots. I really enjoyed chatting with her about her experiences from “back in the day” when she was working as an astronaut. We were coming back from a visit she did to the troops over in Latvia a couple of years ago and a couple CF18’s did a practice intercept on us high over northern Quebec. One of my buddies was in one of the fighters and I told him over the radio that we had the Governor General and the Chief of Defense Staff in the cockpit. He thought that was cool, but I did not think he believed me. So, I looked back and asked if they would not mind getting on the radio and saying hi to my buddy Simon, and without hesitation, they both did. It was neat and I am sure Simon still brings that day up from time to time with his fighter pals.

Wave Are there any tips for anyone out there that would like to become a pilot and even to be part of the Air Force?

Eric – They say that if you love what you do, that you will never work a day in your life – this could not be truer. When I was a kid, I had a French teacher that would get angry at me when she would catch me daydreaming out the window in her class. One day when I was staring out that window watching airplanes high in the sky and wondering what it would be like to be up there flying, she scolded me saying that I needed to pay attention as I would never find a job where I would get paid to sit down and stare out a window. A few years ago, I was about halfway through a 10ish hour flight over the Pacific. I took a picture of myself up there, some 12km above the sea staring out the window at beautiful Wake Island. I sent the picture to a friend down where I grew up and asked him to pass it along to Mrs. Costa. Apparently, she remembered me and had a good chuckle at the card I wrote to her that said: “I guess you were wrong after all, thank you for the motivation” with a smiley face after .

All this to say, follow your dreams. I genuinely believe there is nothing that some hard work, dedication, effort, and maybe a little bit of luck will not get you.