Soaring Spirits: Taking to Wood Buffalo's skies, Big Spirit alive and flying high with all female air crew
Leanne Burton’s most challenging memory of fixing an aircraft is literally frozen in her mind: three days on the tarmac in Fort Chipewyan at -47C, winds ripping across the landscape and a heater operating at half-power as she tried to locate the problem, a slipped pulley on a cable.
“At the end, I enjoyed it because it was a real person-building moment,” says Burton, 27, one of the few female aircraft mechanics in the industry and the one-woman maintenance crew who keeps planes in the air for charter service Nor-Alta Aviation’s Fort McMurray operation. “It was fun.”
Fun is obviously a matter of interpretation. Burton, who describes herself as stubborn and tenacious, thrives on challenge. And she finds it here.
The rough and tumble Fort McMurray environment may be perceived as largely a man’s world, but at Nor-Alta’s local office, there is a strong female presence in traditionally male jobs. Adrienne Bennett, 32, oversees charter services while Courtney Adams, 25, is the co-pilot on air ambulance and medical flights that make up to 60 to 80 trips a month. All joined Nor-Alta last year after Air Mikisew ceased operations.
Bennett has been flying in northern Alberta for eight years and says there have been times when passengers were skeptical of her abilities. It took time for some, including native elders, to accept having a woman at the flight controls. Even after landing the aircraft, she has been referred to as a flight attendant. But she prefers to take the comments in stride rather than get upset.
Their youth has also caused passengers boarding the plane to do a double take. Both petite and outgoing, Bennett and Adams have become accustomed to people asking if they are old enough to fly the plane. During a medical flight, one older man was visibly scared at the prospect of two female pilots. When the plane landed in Edmonton, he commented with relief that “at least we didn’t crash.” Adams laughs when recounting the incident, shrugging off the experience as part of the job.
Adams moved to Fort McMurray on a whim from her Toronto home in April 2006 with no job prospects or connections, looking for a chance to make a career with her pilot’s licence that wasn’t happening in Ontario. She got that chance. While there was a bit of culture shock in leaving the big city and her family, she says the opportunities for personal and professional growth have made the transition well worth the struggle.
“You do have to have a strong sense of optimism, especially during these long winters,” says Adams. “I’ve always been really gutsy and ambitious.”
Bennett, a former air cadet, was truly bitten by the flying bug during a trip to Australia after high school. She saw doctors travelling in small aircraft to help people around the outback and was hooked. She returned to Canada and got her pilot’s licence in Red Deer, AB, and followed that up with a commercial licence through Mount Royal College in Calgary. She got a job at Air Mikisew, soon doing everything from reservations to dispatch until she got a chance to fly.
The romance of flying planes, soaring high above the clouds with an office view of the northern lights or spectacular sunrises, has given way to reality that can include some pretty basic grunt work.
Bennett recalls being seven months pregnant with her daughter and transporting 40-kilogram boxes of fresh fish packed in ice from Fort Chipewyan during summer months. “We would put plastic tarps on the boxes, bundle and tape them in the aircraft and fly to Fort McMurray.” By the time the cargo arrived, it was considerably more slimy and not the sweetest of passengers. But it never put her off flying. “You stay because of the love of aviation,” she says.
These days, most of Bennett’s work is corporate, flying charters into Edmonton or Fort Chipewyan for business meetings, native councils or the monthly shuttle of lawyers and a judge into communities for court proceedings. Bennett and husband Shawn have set down roots here with two-yearold daughter Karley. They have created a home life that revolves around the outdoors and the natural beauty of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, whether that is snowmobiling or skating with neighbours on Gregoire Lake near their home.
“The extreme winter conditions mean that we have to pull together,” she says. “That creates this wonderful spirit.”
That bond is also felt as a member of a far more exclusive community: the women of aviation. Burton, who has been referred to as a modern- ay Rosie the Riveter, says that can-do spirit from the Second World War is alive and well in her female colleagues. She likes the badge of honour that comes with doing a nontraditional job and doing it well.
Burton notes that “aviation breeds a special kind of person,” someone who thrives on facing challenges every day. There is also a slight nod to a rebel nature that fits well. “There’s some notoriety involved with being women in aviation. I like it.”