Retired helicopter pilot found a way to follow her dream of flying

·4 min read

As a young girl, Mary Ellen Pauli dreamed of being a pilot but she didn’t know it was possible until reading about Amelia Earhart.

Fast-forward to the future, Pauli was inducted into the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre’s Women in Aviation exhibit where her display is next to Amelia Earhart’s.

Pauli, 63, is a retired helicopter pilot and a former business owner.

Growing up in northern Quebec near a seaplane base, Pauli saw planes landing and taking off every day.

Her father, brother and brother-in-law were pilots and when she expressed interest in flying, her father didn't support it and said she’d never get employed. Her brother also died in a plane crash when she was young.

Pauli's mother told her, "Where there’s a will, there’s a way" and that saying stuck with her.

“It was the question of money, it wasn’t there. When I finished Grade 11, I went to work at the helicopter company, which made it even more tempting to fly,” Pauli says. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Well, I found my way.”

When work started on the James Bay hydroelectric project, she signed up for one of the jobs and saved money for flying courses in Fredericton, N.B. When Pauli got there, she says the manager was shocked as he didn’t expect her to show up and there were only accommodations for men.

Later, Pauli worked for Trans-Quebec Helicopters and as a base manager for Trans-Canada Helicopters in Timmins. When the base closed, she went back to work at the James Bay project and later ended up at the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR).

Discrimination against women in aviation is still present and there are still challenges but it’s getting better, Pauli says, adding there are many organizations supporting women in aviation and aerospace.

“Don’t let anyone dissuade you. You just keep moving ahead … and just continue on that path and it will happen,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have money, I didn’t have money.”

In her 31 years working for the MNR, her responsibilities varied from dealing with forest fires, doing wildlife surveys and forest inventory to collaring caribou, geese and tranquillizing polar bears.

That's when she encountered her survival instincts.

One time, a polar bear cub charged her. Another time, a polar bear came to their tent camp and took off the whole front of her helicopter.

“Those were exciting times. Like I say, survival instincts,” Pauli recalls jesting.

For her help rescuing a stranded family in 2008, Pauli received the Governor General of Canada Certificate of Commendation.

Throughout her career, she was also awarded the Lewis P. Currie Award from the Downtown Timmins Business Improvement Association, the Northern Lights Foundation Award, which she says is close to her heart, and the Elsie MacGill award that recognizes women who made outstanding contributions to aviation and aerospace.

Pauli’s vision to create something for Timmins, similar to what she’d seen in southern Ontario or in Europe, led her to run Christopher’s Coffee House on Pine Street South. It was challenging running the business so after seven years, she sold the place. Nonetheless, she says she really enjoyed it and had some great times there.

Pauli's interests and passions are diverse, varying from interior design, medicine and law to music and sports.

Nowadays, Pauli volunteers with the Timmins and District Hospital Foundation, Porcupine Music Festival and Timmins Symphony Orchestra. She was also involved with the Timmins Ski Racers, chaired the Timmins Slalom Derby and raised money for the ski hill.

She learned how to ski and play the violin along with her two children because she wanted to have music and sports in her family life. It's never too late to learn something new, Pauli says, as she was about 38 years old when she picked up the violin.

“I’m proud of my children because they’re nice people. I believe their successes stem from that,” she says, adding she’s also proud of her husband, her career in aviation, her brother and father, her friends as well as her community and all the organizations she’s been a part of.

Pauli says she’d like to contribute to the community in some other way but she hasn’t yet figured out how. If the community wants to grow and be well-rounded, people need to support it, she adds.

“I’m just that kind of person that when I see a need, I just jump right in there and, ‘How can I help?’ That’s how I got involved with any of these organizations,” she says.

Despite the challenges and prejudice, she's experienced in her life, Pauli says it's important to just forge ahead.

"There are too many things to be afraid of in life. And if you're not forging ahead, you're thinking about all those things you're afraid of."

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com