Inuk pilot reaches new horizons in familiar Nunavut skies

Doris Ipeelee, an Inuk pilot from Iqaluit, will begin her flying career in Nunavut. (Submitted by Doris Ipeelee - image credit)
Doris Ipeelee, an Inuk pilot from Iqaluit, will begin her flying career in Nunavut. (Submitted by Doris Ipeelee - image credit)

Doris Ipeelee remembers meeting a pilot years ago and asking them if they thought she, too, could fly a plane one day.

"He said yes, of course, and ever since then I've grabbed onto that and I've always wanted to be a pilot," Ipeelee said.

She was seven years old at that fateful meeting. Now, after graduating from flight school and going through nearly two months of rigorous training with Calm Air, the Inuk pilot from Iqaluit is look forward to flying in her home territory.

"It brings me so much pride," she said.

"When Calm Air offered me the job, I started crying so much because I was so excited to have the opportunity to land in Iqaluit, but also landing all over small communities."

This winter, Ipeelee will start flying in Nunavut. Her inaugural flight is still a couple months off, said Jan McNish, the chief pilot for Calm Air, but the airline is as pleased with the hire as Ipeelee is.

McNish said the airline has been recruiting pilots for the past year due to industry shortages. Ipeelee had been working for another company in Saskatchewan when her name popped up and McNish decided to reach out to her.

"She has a very good presence about her — a strong aura," McNish said, adding the airline looks for people who are ambitious and have a great attitude.

"I'm proud of her and I can't wait to see what she does in the future for us."

The training wasn't easy. McNish said it's a struggle for most people, but Ipeelee made it through.

Ipeelee, who graduated from flight school two years ago, said Calm Air's training got her ready to fly aircraft larger than she's ever flown before. Most of her training at flight school was done using a Cessna 172 — a four-seater, single-engine aircraft — or a Piper Aztec, which seats up to six.

"Compared to the ATR, which I'm flying at Calm Air — we're flying with 40,000-pound aircraft, so it's almost 10 times bigger. It's a huge jump," she said.

'Very exciting' for airline

Jenna Chouinard, Calm Air's vice-president of HR and payroll, said the Manitoba-based company has been looking to hire from the communities they fly into in Nunavut.

"It's very exciting for us to be able to connect with people and to be able to provide opportunities that might not have otherwise been there," Chouinard said.

She and her team have been holding open houses in Rankin Inlet to drum up interest for work as flight attendants, maintenance workers, pilots and more.

Those opportunities have expanded recently. McNish said the airline recently trained 12 young Indigenous people — including some from Rankin Inlet and Arviat — to get their private pilot's licence.

"Having these groups of kids understand that they can do it, and that we're coming after them, was a pretty big initiative on our part," he noted.

"Anybody that wants to have initiative to join our team, we're coming in with open arms and trying to grab as many people as we can."

Ipeelee said she hopes people who hear her story believe that, too — that you can do whatever you set your mind to.

"Just have it as a possibility in your head. If that's potentially something that you want to do in the future, you can always just have it there," she said.

"Don't think that it's not reachable, because it is."