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Engineer profile: The best of both worlds

There are no height requirements to become an engineer, which was a good thing when Leigh Thompson wanted to get into the industry.

At nearly two metres tall, the 25 year-old’s desire to be a navigator in the Royal Australian Air Force was thwarted — his lanky frame meant he couldn’t fit into the aircraft.

But the Pilot Officer’s other great passion is mining and he completed an Engineering Degree before going to work for Tomago Aluminium, near Newcastle in New South Wales.

“I was disappointed about being too tall to be aircrew, but I’m in the RAAF Reserves now and love the challenge of that,” he said.

Leigh Thompson is a process engineer in the ingot-casting section at Tomago Aluminium.

The company is one of Australasia’s leading aluminium smelters. Employing about 1,200 people it produces just over half a million tonnes of the versatile metal each year, adding more than a billion and a half dollars to the Australian economy.

“They took me on as a graduate engineer in the electrolysis section,” he said. “I moved to the cast-house about two years ago and love it.

“Much of my work is trouble shooting and problem-solving alongside the maintenance workers. I really like the stimulation of it all.

“Time off-line for the plant is money lost for the company so it’s a real challenge to make sure the hydraulics, pneumatics, gearboxes, motors and chains are all working efficiently.”

Leigh’s job is fast-paced and never boring. Tomago Aluminium is a 24/7 operation and the mental challenge of keeping the production line running while maintaining the integrity of the machinery and the safety of his colleagues is a constant challenge.

“It’s a different world to what I thought it would be — but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. But that’s not the only work Thompson does.

In his final year of University, Thompson continued a family tradition and joined the RAAF. His grandfather, George McArthur, served in the Air Force during World War II. Grandfather and grandson have a special relationship.

“We always go to the Dawn Service together on Anzac Day,” said Thompson. “He’s incredibly proud of his wartime service and I’m happy to be following in his footsteps. I’m incredibly patriotic, you know. I love serving my country. Australia has given me some incredible opportunities and this is one way for me to give something back.”

Pilot Officer Thompson works at the Headquarters of Air Combat Group and is involved in long-term strategic planning for fast jet operations.

“The team I work with commits Air Wings and Squadrons to exercises and training program — up to five years into the future,” he said

“We are managing on a very large scale what these aircraft will be doing well into the future which is both exciting and stimulating.”

How frustrated, though, is Thompson about being too tall to be an Air Force navigator?

“The Tomago Aluminium plant is only a few kilometres from Williamtown RAAF Base and I see jets fly over nearly every day,” he said.

“I get a pang of jealousy that I can’t be up there flying, but then realise that I have the best of both worlds — being an engineer and also a reservist.”

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