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People often ask what inspired me to be a pilot. Here’s the truth: When I was a little girl, I saw Peter Pan soar effortlessly above London and fly off to Neverland. In that moment, I knew I wanted to fly, too. But I didn’t have any fairy dust, so I needed to figure out a better way to do it. My journey into aviation had begun.
I began flight training as a teen, and after earning my private pilot licence, I moved out West for university where I continued flight training for my commercial pilot licence. I spent my summers dispatching aircraft at a flight school, loading bags onto airliners, and flying skydivers up to 12,000 feet – all so I could be near airplanes as much as possible.
A summer job with Bombardier Aerospace turned into a full-time position in the Flight Test Engineering department once I graduated university. I worked with a team of pilots and engineers to test and certify new aircraft parts for the Q400 turboprop. After a few years in Flight Test, and some more training, I was ready to fly the Q400.
My career kept soaring, and three years ago I joined Porter Airlines. Porter has a fleet of 29 Q400 aircraft and flies to 22 destinations across Eastern Canada and the U.S. As a new pilot I started as a first officer, then after gaining more experience, I upgraded to captain in February 2018.
My job is both challenging and rewarding. Here are five lessons from my first year as an airline captain that I hope will support and inspire other women in aviation.
Lesson #1: Flying is the easy part
While physically knowing how to fly is definitely important, knowing how to solve problems when unexpected situations arise is equally as important. Experience is the best teacher here. As the pilot in command, I need to know how to make the right decisions that will keep my passengers and fellow crew members safe, and how to effectively lead a team.
Lesson #2: The captain sets the tone for the crew
It takes more than just a pilot to get an airplane off the ground. Our flight crew relies on the support of a range of teams that help the airline operation run smoothly: from the dispatchers who plan flights, to the engineers who maintain the aircraft, to the customer service representatives at the gates, to the folks who bring us our fuel, baggage, and catering. I know that my attitude has an impact. When I’m calm under pressure, I can motivate my crew to act similarly.
Lesson #3: Know what’s in your control (and what’s not)
This is an important one. For example, I can’t control the weather, but I can control how I prepare for it. I’ll ask for a different route around a storm. I’ll bring extra fuel. I’ll keep the seatbelt sign on if it’s going to be bumpy. I’ll provide updated arrival times to the passengers if we might be delayed. I spend less time focusing on what I can’t control, and more time on how I will adapt and respond to whatever situation we may encounter.
Lesson #4: Even once you’ve made it, there’s still more to do
I strongly believe that we never stop learning or developing in our careers. Not only is it important to seek out mentors – to ask them questions and learn from their experiences – but it is also important to ‘pay-it-forward’ to the next generation. This is one of the reasons that I volunteer with the Northern Lights Aero Foundation, whose mission it is to encourage young women to pursue careers in aviation and aerospace, and celebrates the achievements of women in these fields.
Lesson #5: It’s okay to defy “normal”
I like to stand at the front door and say goodbye to passengers as they disembark. Even though they’ve already heard my voice on the PA, it’s not uncommon to see a curious glance as they realize their pilot is a woman, or better yet, get a high five, or hear a parent telling their daughter, “See, you can do anything!”
We recently had a 12-year-old boy who was flying for the first time, and it happened to be with an all-female flight crew. Afterwards, I looked at my first officer and said, “Now 100 per cent of the pilots that this kid has met, have been women.”
So maybe we’re not just defying normal, but defining a new normal.
The lessons I’ve learned have been important for my career and in my everyday life. I hope others can learn something from my experiences as their own careers take flight.
Claire Lemiski is a Q400 captain at Porter Airlines. She serves on the board of directors of the Northern Lights Aero Foundation, and is passionate about providing mentorship and encouragement to new and aspiring pilots.