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The 11th annual Elsie MacGill Northern Lights (EMNL) Awards Gala was another extravagant gathering of the aviation elite held in Markham, Ont., on Sept. 28. Eight distinguished women were honoured at the event, which has grown yet again with 430 guests in attendance.
Named after Canadian aviation pioneer and human rights advocate Elsie Gregory MacGill, the awards gala recognizes eight women in aviation across seven categories: business, education, engineering, flight operations, government, pioneer and rising star.
The EMNL foundation attends all manner of aviation events such as career expos and airshows each year, and has a speaker’s bureau promoting women, aviation and aerospace. It has a mentorship program in conjunction with Porter Airlines, tutoring and helping give career advice to women in all aspects of aviation. The foundation also has scholarship programs with the 99s, Women in Aviation, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association and the Ontario Aviation Council.
“Our goal is to bring more recognition to women doing incredible work in aviation and aerospace in Canada,” said Joy Parker Blackwood, president of the Northern Lights Aero Foundation. “This year’s winners are all role models for the next generation of women in these industries.”
The presentations began with special awards for young indigenous women starting their careers in aviation. Jazz and Northern Lights jointly sponsor an award for two recipients, presented by Jazz vice-president of Flight Operations, Steve Linthwaite. The scholarships went to Doris Ipeelee, a student at the First Nations Technical Institute, who was inspired as a child when an RCAF helicopter landed at her elementary school on Canada Day. Another FNTI student, Zoie Michelin from North West River in Labrador, received the other award.
Air Canada introduced a new Indigenous award of its own for male and female students enrolled in post-secondary aviation programs. Called the Indspire Awards, it was presented by vice-president Murray Strom to Jasmine Stevens from Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia.
Northern Lights also introduced the Captain Judy Cameron Air Canada Scholarship, named after Northern Lights 2015 Flight Operations recipient and current board member Judy Cameron. The new scholarship will make significant financial assistance available to young women enrolled in post-secondary aviation flight or maintenance programs.
Although the Northern Lights Awards represent every sector of aviation, three of the recipients are current or future members of the RCAF.
The Flight Operations award went to Maj Alexia Hannam, commanding officer of 417 Combat Support Squadron, in Cold Lake, Alta. Hannam flies the RCAF CH-146 Griffon on search and rescue and utility missions. She flew with 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in Edmonton as her first posting. She later flew the CH-147D Chinook on 40 combat missions in Afghanistan, accumulating 250 hours. She was the detachment commander in Operation Lentus during the Fort McMurray and British Columbia wildfires. Challenges in this operation included operating in a heavy smoke-low visibility environment, and with a sky full of as many as 16 aircraft in visual range, with very busy communications, all of them conveying their positions to avoid possible collisions. With 15 years in the RCAF, she is a vocal advocate for national-level gymnastics and coaches gymnastics for the Canadian Forces and women in aviation. She loves to fly, enjoys a very fulfilling career and recommends Air Force life to anyone. Hannam’s final words of inspiration were: “It has been mentioned several times tonight that aviation training is expensive; well if you join the RCAF, your training is free!”
RCAF pilot Capt Mary Cameron-Kelly won the Pioneering award for the many firsts she has achieved in the Air Force. She was the first female non-commissioned member to become a CP-140 Aurora pilot, captain of the first all-female CP-140 cockpit flight crew and first female Maritime Patrol Crew commander. She has accumulated over 7,200 flight hours in her 37 years with the military, making her the highest-time female pilot in the Canadian military, as well as the highest-time current P-3 Orion/CP-140 pilot in the world. She served part of an exchange tour with the Royal Air Force, flying the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod aircraft, becoming the last Canadian to do so. She has served as the crew commander for Operation Apollo, where she fought against terrorism in the Middle East. She was an air cadet, and got her own private pilot licence before placing second in the 1985 Webster Trophy competition. She joined the RCAF as an airframe technician on the Aurora. Her RCAF pilot career was a hard-fought battle — overcoming sexism and pressure from superiors, it took her four tries to achieve her goals. She commenced pilot training in 1988, electing to fly the Aurora, the aircraft she knew inside and out. Cameron-Kelly became the first female Aurora instructor and standards pilot. Her tenacity and persistence is admirable, and she encourages up-and-coming women in aviation.
“If you want something, never give up, keep trying and you will succeed,” said Cameron-Kelly at the gala.
Dr. Joelle Thorgrimson won the first Rising Star award. She is a pilot, physician, physicist and future flight surgeon. She is highly educated, holding degrees in astrophysics, quantum computing and medicine, and has completed her private pilot’s licence. She was the only female in the National Research Council Astrophysics Lab, and was part of a recent major discovery. She received an Award of Excellence at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and was elected as chief resident. Upon completion of her medical residency, she will be posted in Cold Lake, Alta., where she will complete her flight surgeon training and work as a medical officer with the goal of pursuing aerospace medicine in the RCAF. She was also a mentor with Women in Space and Engineering, and is part of Big Brothers and Sisters, encouraging young girls to pursue science, technology engineering and math.
Lauren Egglestone won the other Rising Star award. She graduated from Seneca College’s bachelor of flight technology program in 2013. She started work for a small airline in Northern Manitoba the next day. She worked her way up from assistant to the chief pilot, to first officer, and ultimately captain. Her flights included medevacs and scheduled routes in Northern Canada. Her northern adventure continued at Canadian North, starting as first officer on the Dash 8, based in Yellowknife and Iqaluit. She later moved to the Boeing 737 as a first officer. She recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a pilot for Air Canada where she flies the Boeing 737 Max.
The Business award went to Wendy Tayler, president and majority owner of Whitehorse-based Alkan Air. She bought into the airline as part of a shareholder group she spearheaded in 2007. The group grew the airline from a small charter provider serving governments, expanded its operation to a large mining charter and medevac operation with an additional base in Nanaimo. Its fleet is now 21 aircraft including five Beech King Airs, two Beech 1900s, two Dornier 228s, four Cessna Caravans, two Otters, and a Beaver. Wendy established Northern Canada’s first aviation-business diploma program at Yukon College, where she has introduced northern youth to careers in aviation. She also sits on numerous boards, focused on strengthening the economic prosperity of the Yukon, and building a nucleus of local talent in aviation. Her award was gratefully accepted by her daughter Taylor Mitchell.
Dr. Suzanne Kearns won the Education award. She is an associate professor of aviation at the University of Waterloo. As a child she never knew anyone in aviation, and thought of flight as something magical. Since becoming a pilot at the age of 17, she has earned her commercial multi-instrument pilot licences, both fixed- and rotary-wing, and a college diploma in helicopter flight training at Embry Riddle University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science, a master’s in human factors and systems engineering at Western University, and a PhD in education. She has specialized in human factors and flight safety, and has authored four books on the subject. She has devoted her career to aviation education through lecturing, guest speaking, and e-learning, and has taught over 1,000 students over the years. She is a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO,) Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP) and the University Aviation Association, and is a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. She describes herself as a very determined individual; when she sets her mind on something, she won’t come up for air until it is finished, something she tries to pass on to her students.
The Engineering award went to Lyndsey Poynter, a project engineer for MDA, supporting projects for the International Space Station and the Kennedy Space Center. She was inspired by seeing the Space Shuttle carried on board a Boeing 747 as a child. She impressed her parents by enrolling in the U.S. Space Academy with her own money. Poynter went on to complete a degree in space and communications sciences from York University, and was the only woman in her course. She interned at Spar Aerospace, and was later employed there before it became MDA. She is a key figure in the Canadarm 2 program, repairing and testing it and other robotic ISS systems. She has instructed 57 astronauts in the operation of these systems over the past 16 years. She has been the recipient of numerous awards from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Poynter’s award was appropriately presented by EMNL board of directors member Cathy Fraser, wife of CSA Astronaut Dave Williams, with whom she has worked for many years. The morning of the awards she spent several hours on the phone troubleshooting problems with the Canadarm with other women on the engineering team, illustrating how far women in aerospace have come.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) helicopter pilot Kathrine Stewart won the Government award. She is an RCMP special constable helicopter pilot providing search and rescue, mountain radio repeater access, aerial surveillance, border security, and pursuits and interception support to frontline officers throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. She graduated from Canadore College as a helicopter pilot — a lifelong dream. Her early career was spent with Okanagan Helicopters, later joining Canadian Helicopters. She has carried out forest firefighting, wildlife management, diamond exploration, seismic exploration, work in the Arctic and disaster relief. She was operations manager for her last three years at Canadian Helicopters, overseeing 80 pilots. She has accumulated over 13,000 flight hours and is endorsed on eight helicopter types. She enthusiastically promotes flying helicopters at ‘show and tell’ events at schools and with Air Cadet Squadron visits as an RCMP recruiter.
“When you do what you love, it’s hard not to be enthusiastic and passionate. I have the best job in the world, flying for the RCMP, it’s mission oriented, supports officers on the ground, and protects the community,” said Stewart.
She encourages flight training schools to “never underestimate an 18-year-old student passionate about aviation.”
“Our ‘clients’ sometimes wish we weren’t as good at our job as we are; the team effort between the pilot and the tactical flight officer is instrumental to the success of the mission,” added Stewart.
The Northern Lights Aero Foundation Elsie Awards is in its 11th year of celebrating women in Canada’s aerospace and aviation industries. All told, the event was another stellar tribute to some of Canada’s preeminent aviatrixes.
Next year’s event will likely be even larger. Nominations for the 2020 awards will soon be open, so visit the Northern Lights Aero Foundation website to nominate your favourite female aviator!