Joining the Air Force as a school leaver has opened many doors for Squadron Leader Melissa Axelrad (Harington 2000-2001).
There have been multiple trips to Antarctica. So many, in fact, Melissa has to stop and calculate the exact number. “It has probably been…seven times,” she says on the phone from the United States.
Melissa, spoke to Network in April midway through a three-week trip where she was in charge of 47 New Zealand Defence personnel taking part in an international training exercise in Little Rock.
Melissa does many overseas trips including the annual personnel and freight trips to Antarctica each New Zealand summer. For a keen skier and snowboarder, it is a dream come true, and a “really cool” experience each time.
“It is somewhere I have always wanted to go my whole life, I love the snow and the mountains and it is not an opportunity many people get. I don’t want to sleep while I am there.”
Melissa, 34, who has held different roles in the Air Force, is currently a Navigator on the C-130 Hercules. “There is a lot of mental arithmetic, fuel planning and flight planning and that type of thing.”
The Kiwi contingent in the United States was offering “real time support” as part of a huge joint-readiness training exercise involving more than 4000 soldiers.
“What we are doing at the moment is a really big exercise here in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is like an advanced tactical exercise which trains us for operations overseas particularly in the Middle East.”
With a ranking of Squadron Leader, Melissa is leading the New Zealand involvement.
Melissa joined the Air Force as a school leaver and soon went to Christchurch where she did a degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Canterbury.
She completed her degree with First Class Honours in 2004. She then worked as an engineering officer in the Air Force in both Wellington and Auckland. In 2008 she changed trades, or “remustered” to train as an Air Warfare Officer.
“I did my training at a Royal Canada Air Force Base in Winnipeg, Canada, and I have been all round the world since then, on operations, exercises and on other tasks.”
That has seen her posted to places including the Middle East and the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.
It has been, and continues to be, a satisfying career choice. “I guess it has involved a lot of variety, a lot of travel, and heaps of different opportunities, both professionally and in terms of playing sport.”
Melissa is very involved in sports clubs within the Air Force and does touch rugby, soccer and skiing and
snowboarding. She attended an armed forced soccer competition in Australia last year.
She enjoys mentoring personnel coming through the ranks. “I am an instructor, so I teach other navigators as well so it is quite cool assisting them and passing on the knowledge to them.”
Melissa recalls some advice she got at school. “It was recommended by the careers advisor at Paul’s that engineering could be a thing I would be interested in.” It proved to be true.
“I was quite interested in the Air Force because of the potential for travel and the variety, but I did not know too much when I joined up.”
Melissa, who has a partner, is based at the Air Force base at Whenuapai, north-west of Auckland. Her next career move is a ground-based role at Defence Headquarters.
She has also studied for a Master of Business Administration at the University of Auckland.
Melissa describes some of the humanitarian work after cyclones as the most satisfying. “We did some relief work after Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji, and after the cyclones in Vanuatu and Samoa over the last four or five years. Also the Christchurch Earthquake relief work was pretty rewarding.”
After the 2011 earthquake the RNZAF deployed three C-130 Hercules and numerous other aircraft around the clock to transport police and medical personnel.
The C-130s acted as aero-medical aircraft and evacuated victims and tourists to Wellington. It was the single biggest movement of personnel and freight by the RNZAF in its history.
Having been to the ice, local disaster areas, war zones and cyclone ravaged tropical islands in the Hercules, one place still stands out. “I definitely have to say Antarctica. It is a pretty amazing place that not many people get to go to.”
Melissa, who grew up in Hamilton, attended Deanwell Primary School, Melville Intermediate and Hamilton Girls’ High School, before coming to St Paul’s in 2000.
Photo Caption: Squadron Leader, Melissa Axelrad.