Cherie grew up in Greymouth, a remote seaside town in the West Coast of New Zealand. Her weekends and holidays were spent exploring the South Island of New Zealand — by plane — a rare method of transport for most families!
“We’d land on beaches in South Westland, Milford Sounds, Franz and Fox Glaciers, and up to Karamea. Our family would set up for picnics in some truly remote spots.”
Cherie’s father was a private pilot. It was his hobby, rather than his career. Cherie, the middle child of three daughters, got the bug.
“I got to sit on his knee and steer the plane. It really rubbed off on me.”
In the 1970’s, especially so in small-town New Zealand, most women didn’t fly. “There were almost no women pilots here at all. But I did it anyway.”
Cherie began learning at a private charter company. Birthday and Christmas presents were always an hour flying — and that’s how it started.
“Mum and dad couldn't really afford much, but they paid for me until I went solo. At that point, I got two after-school jobs which meant I could get a flying lesson on the weekends.”
Her father wasn’t particularly keen on her pursuing commercial flying as he believed it could be a little brutal at times. “But I knew better at the time, as you do when you’re young. It turns out that he was indeed right.”
Once Cherie got her license, she began looking for work — which was the next assignment. There were very few jobs in New Zealand and very few women pilots who’d paved the way for that to be an accepted norm in the industry at the time.
However, a job as a flight clerk came up in the ski plane base at Mt Cook Airport, and so Cherie began her career in the control tower.
This too is where Cherie met her (now husband) Carl. Carl was driving tour buses in and out of the Mt Cook Village. Carl too a trained pilot, had a lot in common with Cherie.
“He drove the buses and brought people in for their scenic flights, and the rest is history as they say!”
In time, Carl and Cherie both landed flying roles, piloting ski planes. There was one other women pilot there, and Cherie was the second. However, they did score the accolade of “first husband and wife team to fly ski planes in New Zealand.”
Cherie and Carl have been able to enjoy the travel that comes with the job — together — which can often place strain on families and relationships. However, their shared passion for flying has taken them all over the world.
The couple worked in remote parts of New Zealand and Zimbabwe, before making their way to Australia. After 9 years in NSW, Carl got a job in the aerial firefighting sector in South Australia, and the same company offered Cherie a role with fire surveillance aircraft.
The South Australia Country Fire Service were just introducing fire surveillance to their capabilities at the time Cherie was hired.
“11 fire seasons later and I am still flying.”
What they both love about the industry is that it’s a job with a purpose. Cherie’s worked in charter and scenic flights, which she admits were fun, but what drives her is going to work knowing that you have a purpose and can make a difference.
“It’s not an a-b type of day.”
Like any emergency work, some days can feel a little tedious — but once the buzzer goes, the job is on and the adrenaline hits.
“We usually only fly on the bad days… so when you’re flying it’s rough and hot and smokey.”
Although she laughs, her aircraft is air-conditioned.
Cherie flies a Cessna Caravan, carrying one or two crew with her. On board is usually the air attack supervisor and an air observer. Most of Cherie’s work consists of attending fires outside of the Adelaide Hills, and 2 bombers will go alongside her.
Cherie’s job is to keep her crew stationed above a fire so they can see what’s happening on the ground, and direct the bombing aircraft to it.
Too often, it’s Carl who is one of the bombers an — Air Tractor 802.
“It’s a family affair. We’re quite often on the same fire, which means they can have good debriefs at the end of the day!”
Over the 11 years, Cherie has noticed the seasons become longer.
The population is growing, and in turn, the boundaries of cities in metro areas are moving out and out. We are seeing residential areas encroaching on country that wants to burn. These factors are adding increasing pressure on those who operate in harm’s way — and because of this, there’s further expectation on fire agencies to offer a long-term service to better keep people, communities and housing, safe.
“People have plonked themselves in some beautiful spots, but unfortunately in high-risk bushfire areas. So if something happens, it’s huge news.”
This, alongside notable rises in temperatures and drier weather, is causing increased pressure of aerial firefighters to offer a duty of care to the community.
“We’re on duty now almost 6 months of the year — it used to be 3.”
Cherie notes how the industry has developed immensely in Australia over her 11 years on the job. Aircraft numbers have skyrocketed, and their work is in the face of the public more than ever before.
“We’re now getting a lot more press, good or bad, dependent on the day.”
A bad day for Cherie is watching communities burn — especially the effects on livestock.
Cherie was involved in the Pinery Fire in 2015, which burnt over 80k hectares of land in 4 hours. It was an extremely fast-moving fire, where a number of houses and lives were lost.
“This fire happened at just the wrong time as crops in the area were just about to be harvested which meant there was lots of fuel on the ground.”
Saving human lives is paramount in Cherie’s work, but she can’t help but feel affected by witnessing livestock and animals suffer.
“It’s part of your job that you will see stuff you don’t want to see, but it’s hard.”
As a first responder, Cherie stresses how important it is to talk about what you witness.
“You’re there to do your job so you store it away, but it’s important to revisit it later with the rest of the team, or when you get home. You can’t let it sit there and fester away. You’ve got to talk about it.”
Carl and Cherie know first-hand how it feels to have your home threatened by bushfire. “We’ve had our home threatened twice, it’s a devastating feeling — we were out fighting fires elsewhere and unable to defend our home. But we had a job to do, and had to stay focused.”
One of Cherie’s most memorable days was when she fought her first major fire on Kangaroo Island in 2007.
“It was a monster of a fire. There were pyro cumulus clouds created from the bushfire, as big as a thunderstorm. They’re very very impressive because you know whatever has produced this is something quite nasty. These create their own monumental set of weather conditions which develop rapidly."
Cherie fought this fire for two weeks and is a time she will never forget.
One thing challenging aerial firefighting at the moment is the increased use of drones amongst hobbyists.
When asking Cherie about her thoughts on UAV, she stressed caution.
“Drones are certainly going to have their place. But at the moment the issue is integrating these into the same systems that manned aircraft are using.”
As a pilot, the thought does occasionally cross her mind that a drone might be in close proximity to her aircraft, especially when firefighting close to populated areas.
“We just can’t see the drones. We’d pass them in a blink, and we’re down low. They’re flying our territory.”
Although she’s excited to see how drones will be used to scope fires and offer intelligence, she’s a little concerned that they’re not yet integrated safely into the wider ecosystem. “I haven't come head to head with one yet, but the day that happens to someone, that will be dreadful. But I see how they will be very useful for our operations, especially in intelligence roles.”
Cherie, whether her humble personality will admit it or not, has become a role model for other women who’re interested in flying.
Although there’s been a huge increase in women pilots since her career began, percentages are still low worldwide.
Her opinion is that if you love your job, and you’re good at it, there’s no reason why you cannot succeed, regardless of your gender.
“There’s a lot more opportunity out there now, whether it’s avionics, engineering or a piloting role.”
For Cherie, it’s about ensuring young women are supported in an industry that they love.
“Women should be mentored into a position because that’s where they want to go, and that’s their desired career path, gender should not matter."
Like many pilots in New Zealand, one of Cherie’s role models growing up was Jean Batten. Jean Batten was a New Zealand aviatrix. Born in Rotorua, she became the best-known New Zealander of the 1930s, internationally, by making a number of record-breaking solo flights across the world. She made the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936.
Cherie, known to fly under the radar, left it to the last minute of our interview to tell me that she was the last person to ever fly Jean Batten’s Percival Gull — a true testament to the respect Cherie has amongst her pairs in the aviation world in Australasia.
“Flying Jean Batten’s aeroplane was certainly a highlight of my career. In 1996, on her 60th Anniversary of her England to NZ flight, I got to fly her plane out of Auckland. It was pretty spectacular.”
Selected by the Air Women's Association of New Zealand, Cherie was the last person to fly Batten’s plane, which now hangs proudly in the Auckland Airport.
Cherie has had an immensely successful career because she loves what she does. Cherie has an infectious personality, and whether she knows it or not, she’s exciting so many young people into pursuing a role that excites them.
“Enjoy the journey and love what you do, then you’ll naturally find the jobs.”
Cherie and Carl Marshall own CCM Guidance Systems. CCM Guidance Systems specialises in quality aircraft GPS guidance systems and tracking technology, with a mission to provide premium products with a proven history and excellence in after-sales support. CCM Guidance Systems and also the Australian agents for the TracPlus.