'Nothing holding us back': Women in aviation pass the torch

1 / 3
'Nothing holding us back': Women in aviation pass the torch

Women in crisp aviation uniforms dotted a crowd of pre-teens in glowing blue Girl Guide t-shirts at Alberta's Aviation Museum on Saturday.

They gathered amid aged airplanes to talk about the future.

The museum hosted the group in Edmonton as part of a worldwide awareness week on women in aviation, inspiring the next generation of women to get their wings.

Six per cent of private pilots in Canada are women, according to the event's co-ordinator Zena Conlin. Commercially, women make up less than five per cent of Airline Transport Pilot Licence holders.

To propel those numbers upwards, the Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week educates girls and women about opportunities in aviation.

But less than a lifetime ago, the numbers didn't exist.

'It was the best thing I ever did'

Anna Turchet remembers leaving her rural Alberta community to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) at age 20, more than six decades ago.

Turchet said she was one of about 100 girls who in 1951, for the first time since WW II, were allowed to join Canada's Air Force.

"I was just anxious for them to start recruiting and as soon as they did, I was just down there immediately," Turchet said about moving to Quebec for training.

"At that age you're not scared, you're just looking forward to excitement," she said. "It was the best thing I ever did."

Women weren't allowed to enlist as pilots until the 1980s, so Turchet launched her RCAF career as a typist instead.

"I would have loved to learn how to fly a plane," she said. 

"There wasn't much we could do about it in those days because women didn't do those things."

'A wonderful sense of freedom'

Turchet was one of about a dozen Alberta women to share stories with a group of Girl Guides at the Alberta Aviation Museum on Saturday.

Retired airline pilot Capt. Rosella Bjornson and RCAF Capt. Elizabeth Williams talked about their runway to the sky. Unlike Turchet, both women learned to fly.

"It's freedom, that's what it is," said Williams, who flies helicopters with 408 Squadron in Edmonton.

"There's no one there to save you and, in a way, it's scary but also it's probably the best feeling ever just getting in an aircraft and knowing that you're the one who's going to save yourself."

Bjornson is Canada's first female airline pilot. She joined Transair in 1973, becoming the first woman in North America to fly a jet aircraft for a scheduled air carrier.

"I've always liked being in control, so being in control of an aircraft was just really a wonderful sense of freedom," Bjornson said.

She smiled down at three neat rows of Girl Guides as she recounted her journey.  

"I think women, especially young women, don't realize their capabilities and the only way they'll find out is if they try," Bjornson said.

Williams won her wings with a flying scholarship, before joining the Air Force. She trained and studied alongside mostly male recruits before earning a coveted position as a military pilot.

"I still have young girls, if they see me in uniform, say, 'Oh, I didn't know girls were allowed.' That's a little heartbreaking," Williams said.

"I just want to make sure that these girls know that there's an option and if they want it, they can go for it."

'There's nothing holding us back'

Eleven-year-old Roryana Nazaruk wants to be a pilot by age 30 — at the latest.

As a Navy Cadet, she learned all about boats. Now she's lifting her gaze to the sky, with plans of trading her black navy uniform for Air Cadet blue.

"I'm really excited," she said. "Flying, it seems really cool.

"When I travel [by plane] I like to look out the window and look at the wings and I ask my parents if we can find tickets to seats closer to the window where the wings are, so I can watch how they lift up."

After listening to Saturday's presentation with her friends from Girl Guides, Nazaruk said she doesn't see the sky as a limit.

"I can do anything, same as you can do anything," Nazaruk said. "There's nothing holding us back."