12/03/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 02/01/2014 05:59 EST

Meet the Canadian pilot who protects Washington's skies

Capt. Jeffrey Powell is a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, but currently has a high-pressure job in America: protecting the skies over the White House and the nation’s capital.

The 40-year-old helicopter pilot is part of a three-year exchange program with the U.S. Coast Guard and under the direction of NORAD Powell helps keep the airspace above Washington free of threats.

“I am the first Canadian to ever stand watch in D.C.,” Powell said during an interview at the coast guard’s station at Ronald Reagan National Airport, not far from the White House. “It’s a big honour to be here and do the job.”

How did a Canadian from the small town of Clinton, Ont., end up in one of the most important air defence positions in the United States? Not on purpose. The exchange program usually puts the Canadian pilot at the U.S. Coast Guard’s station in Cape Cod, but a last-minute change redirected Powell to the one in Atlantic City.

From there, Powell and his new American co-workers are sent to the Washington station for 3 weeks at a time. Powell did his first rotation in June. They monitor the rings of airspace around the National Capital Region that make up the flight restricted zone and the special flight rules area, and if called on because an aircraft is flying where it’s not authorized to be, they scramble.

They take to the air in MH-65 Dolphin helicopters — not the Cormorants that Powell is used to flying in Canada — and carry out air intercept missions. Most often the unauthorized planes are being flown by student pilots who lost their way or an equipment failure caused some confusion, but, every incident is considered a threat until proven otherwise.

“We treat every situation as the real deal because we don’t know until we get out there and get eyes on it what it actually is,” explained Lt.-Commander Zachary Mathews, an operations officer at the Washington air defence facility.

Search and rescue expertise

The coast guard’s role in air defence over the U.S. capital is just one part of a multi-layered system of security that also involves the defence department, NORAD and other air force partners. Powell’s team responds to at least one event every day on average.

Flying air defence missions is an entirely different job than what Powell is used to in Canada. He first worked as a commercial pilot in southwestern Ontario before joining the Canadian Forces in 2000. When he joined the military he knew he wanted to fly helicopters and after completing the training he headed for Greenwood, N.S.

He spent five years doing search and rescue there then transferred to Gander, N.L., where he spent the last three years.

“Flying in Canada and flying in the States, you’d think a lot of it would be the exact same stuff. It’s not,” Powell said about the learning curve he’s been on the last few months. “There’s been a lot of learning.”

He’s not the only one gaining new skills and experience though.

“From a search and rescue aspect, Jeff brings to our pilots a tremendous amount of experience. Both cold weather experience and offshore experience that we may not necessarily see here,” said Mathews. “That is money in the bank for us, for our pilots to be able to learn from him, that’s been a tremendous advantage and I think it’s good to have the camaraderie as well.”

That camaraderie is partly built on a good amount of teasing of the lone Canadian, but Powell has a good sense of humour and his colleagues have made gestures to make him feel at home. They ensured, for example, that a Canadian flag was put up in the hangar next to the American one when Powell first arrived. The original one was tiny compared to the stars and stripes beside it, which was the source of much amusement, and it was quickly replaced with a larger flag courtesy of the Canadian Embassy.

Mathews said he hopes the exchange program will continue to place Canadian pilots with the Washington branch of the coast guard and that this won’t be a one-off.

“Having him here in D.C. serving with us is something we’re proud of,” said Mathews.

Powell appreciates the unique experience he is getting and loves the vantage point he gets flying over the downtown Washington landscape, the Capitol building, the White House and the many impressive buildings. “When you get up and see it, it’s pretty cool,” he said.