Captain Keren Curtis IEng MIMechE is second in command to Major Steph McKenzie MIMechE of the Aviation Company, 7 Air Assault Battalion REME, based at Wattisham in Suffolk. Here, we find out more about her day job, what inspired her to become an engineer in the Army, and why her status as a professionally registered engineer is important to her.
What inspired you to become an engineer?
I read astrophysics at university which was a lot of fun, but not very practical! The applied physics side had an engineering bent to it, so I decided on a career as an engineer, and joined the Army.
I did a year at Sandhurst which was a real culture shock after university. Having graduated from Sandhurst, I joined REME, and started working on land systems engineering, with recovery vehicles. I started with a platoon of 30, then had a massive platoon of 180 in training school: where all the youngsters come to do their engineering training.
After four years with land systems, I decided to give aviation a try. It’s a year’s course on the Officers Long Aeronautical Engineering (OLAE) course – which is at Master’s level. Afterwards, I did six months on the job training and then I qualified as an aviation engineering officer.
Having spent two years working on Lynx helicopters in Germany, I came to Wattisham and have been looking after Apaches for the past two years. The Lynx helicopter was designed in the 1960s, and is very mechanical with few electronic systems. The Apache is a very different beast: it is very cutting edge and has a lot of electronics on it. When I look out of my office window and see the Apache doing practices and barrel rolls, it makes me feel incredibly proud that I get to work on that particular helicopter.
What is your proudest achievement as a military engineer?
In 2008, I was on Operation Telic in Iraq. I found that the pipes on four Lynx helicopters were being worn. It was a design problem that had the potential to affect the whole fleet. After in-depth testing and analysis, I discovered that the fault was just in one particular batch of helicopters. I had to undertake immediate analysis in Iraq, finding out how to change the pipes and borrow a special machine from the US military to deliver a bespoke engineering solution. This solution saved half the fleet from having to be sent back to the UK.
As a military engineer, you get very used to working in challenging environments when you are training in desert conditions say in Africa; but when you manage to provide a solution in the midst of an operation, then when it works, you feel very proud.
You are second in command to a female engineering officer? Is it inspiring for you and your colleagues to have such a good role model?
One of the reasons why I was drawn to REME, was because when I joined up, there were ten young officers in my cohort, and three of us were female. I have a female boss, who is the first woman in the UK to command the 73 Aviation Company, which supports the British Army’s fleet of iconic Apache helicopters and other Army aviation platforms. REME is renowned for having strong representation by female engineering officers and technicians, but at the end of the day, if you’re good at your job as an engineer, that’s all that matters.
Why is professional registration important for your career now and when you leave the Army?
REME generally prides itself on high professional standards, but a high level of competence is particularly important for REME aircraft engineers. For officers in the most senior roles in aircraft engineering at REME, you have to work closely with engineers from companies such as Rolls-Royce, so it is vital to show that you are professionally registered so that you can demonstrate to senior civilian engineers what your military skills mean in their world, and that your competence has been independently verified by a professional engineering institution.
I am currently an Incorporated Engineer and Corporate Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. As I have to leave the Army in a year’s time, I will be looking to gain Chartered Engineer status, because I know that that will help me as I look for a role in engineering management in a civilian company. I love being an engineer, and I cannot imagine wanting to do anything else as a career.