Pilots soar into history as Manitoba's 1st female Indigenous medevac team

Pilots soar into history as Manitoba's 1st female Indigenous medevac team

They're named after birds, so maybe it's no surprise that Raven Beardy and Robyn Shlachetka fly for a living, but they've reached heights neither expected.

The two women pilots made Manitoba history this week when they became the province's first female Indigenous medevac team.

"It's fantastic. It's proving that women can do anything," said Shlachetka, a captain with Missinippi Airways. "It doesn't matter if being a pilot was a male-dominated career … young Indigenous women can see that this is not impossible.

​"They can do anything they want."

The 32-year-old has been flying for 15 years but had never met another female Indigenous pilot before Beardy, who started flying five years ago.

On Monday, the pair worked together for the first time. They typically had alternate shifts, and Beardy, 27, was supposed to be off duty but was offered some overtime.

"It was totally by chance that it all happened," said Shlachetka.

Recognizing the significance of their shift, the women posed for a photo in the plane's cockpit. Shlachetka then sent it to her mom, not realizing it would get posted on Facebook. By Thursday morning, the photo had been shared nearly 12,000 times.

"I'm overwhelmed. I'm definitely overwhelmed. We didn't expect this kind of reaction," Shlachetka said.

"It feels great," Beardy said. "It's super exciting."

It wasn't until Wednesday that the women heard the photo and their story was going viral on social media. Their 13-hour shifts in remote areas gave them little time or connection to check on anything.

"We've been doing nothing but flying and sleeping, so we had no clue what was going on," Shlachetka said.

The women say they are honoured by the attention and hope it encourages others to follow their path.

"Women in aviation — it's a pretty lonely thing. We're pretty sparse in the industry," Shlachetka said. "I really wish there was a lot more."

'Aviation is a lifeline'

Missinippi, based in The Pas, serves First Nations communities in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nunavut.

Growing up in one of those remote communities, where access is often only by air, Beardy was fascinated by the planes and admired the pilots who flew them.

"Aviation is a lifeline and I wanted to be part of that," she said.

She once required a medical flight out of her community, Shamattawa, not far from Hudson Bay, due to an appendix issue.

For Shlachetka, who grew up in Wabowden, about 570 kilometres north of Winnipeg, there was never any doubt she would fly.

She first set foot on an aircraft at age four, tagging along with her dad, who was a float plane pilot.

"I used to follow him all the time, so I've grown up around the docks and planes and flying," she said, adding she would study what he was doing.

"Originally, I was going to be a float pilot, but it's a little hard to maintain that kind of life when we have eight months of winter, so I decided to go all the way with my licence."

'Be fearless and unapologetic'

When she was finishing flight school, Shlachetka mentioned to her dad that she didn't know of many female pilots, never mind Indigenous ones.

"They hadn't hit the news, they hadn't hit the Internet. I literally heard about no one," she said. "He said, 'Robyn, if you can't find a role model, just become one.' So that's what my goal was."

Asked what kind of advice she would give to girls and women who want to pursue the same career, Beardy said be strong and determined.

"Go for it. Stay focused. Work hard and don't give up," she said. "Like anyone, you're going to face struggles, but there are people out there, too, who are willing to help out.

"And if anyone wants to talk to me, I'm here for them."

Shlachetka echoed that, noting that when she was much younger and told people she wanted to be a pilot, they scoffed. They told her it couldn't happen because she was a girl.

But her parents — like Beardy's parents — were her biggest supporters, encouraging her every step along the way. Shlachetka is now trying to do the same for young people she encounters. 

She tells her daughters to be whatever they want, to "be fearless and unapologetic and just do it."