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“I always say my job saved me.”
Kendra Kincade is seated on a folding chair in the Summit Air hangar in Yellowknife, N.W.T., on April 28. She’s just finished describing her career as an air traffic controller with Nav Canada to a group of young people who have come to learn about potential aviation careers.
As the founder and chair of Elevate Aviation, a non-profit organization that connects young people with career information and influential mentors in aviation, Kincade knows the importance of discovering your passion in life.
At age 13, she ran away from home and lived on the streets for several months before she entered the foster care system and struggled to find her way forward.
Then, someone arranged for her to tour an air traffic control centre.
“I walked through those doors and that was it. I knew that I wanted to become an air traffic controller.”
At that time, in 1999, the Edmonton Control Centre had a qualification rate of just seven per cent. As her training progressed, Kincade found herself on the verge of being washed out.
That’s when John Bright, an air traffic controller working in the Edmonton terminal, stepped in. He saw something in Kincade that made him believe she had what it took to do the job, and his mentorship provided the vital encouragement she needed to succeed.
Two decades later, Kincade has enjoyed a highly successful career as an IFR controller in the Edmonton Area Control Centre (ACC), the largest region in the country responsible for controlling 5.5 million square miles of airspace.
“Aviation has provided economic security for me to create the life I love. But I am here because I had a mentor–someone who believed I could do it,” she said.
That’s why mentorship is a cornerstone of Elevate Aviation, founded in Edmonton by Kincade in 2015.
Since then, the organization has grown rapidly. There are now nine people on the board and hundreds of volunteers across Canada. It’s a grass roots movement that has been gaining serious momentum in the past few years.
“It started with a calendar we created to showcase women in aviation,” explained Kincade. “As the women came into the calendar, they became our mentors–and then speakers, and it kept growing. As we learned more, we added new programs and we adapted the program to meet the needs of what we are facing.”
Today, Elevate Aviation–and virtually every other player in Canadian aviation–is facing a serious labour shortage. Pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers, air traffic controllers and all manner of industry support personnel are already in short supply. By 2025, the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace has predicted that this country will need 55,000 new workers to keep pace with industry growth and retirements.
The problem is compounded in the North, where communities depend on regular air service. One of the solutions is to attract more women and Indigenous people to careers in aviation and aerospace, creating a “homegrown” solution to the labour shortage.
It’s a plan that is endorsed by the Northern Air Transport Association (NATA), which is holding its 43rd annual general meeting, conference and trade show from April 29 to May 1 in Yellowknife.
Kincade was asked by NATA executive director Glenn Priestley to kick off the conference on April 28 by hosting an Elevate Aviation Cross-Country Tour at the airport. Roughly 25 people came out to hear female speakers talk about a range of aviation careers.
“This is not a career fair,” Kincade told Skies. “Our speakers use their own personal stories to connect with and empower young people in our audience.”
The Yellowknife event featured presentations by Sophia Wells, an airline transport-rated pilot and flight instructor who runs the Edmonton Flying Club; Lindsay Murphy, a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer and private pilot who is currently a maintenance planner for Flair Airlines; Cheyenne Boutilier, an observer/communicator working for ATS Canada at the community aerodrome radio station in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.; Melissa Haney, the first female Inuk captain with Air Inuit, who started her career as a flight attendant in 2001; and Michelle Burtch, an ATR turboprop pilot and groundschool, simulator and crew resource management instructor with First Air.
Elevate Aviation’s annual cross-country tours started in Edmonton with just 12 people in 2014. Now, the event is capped at 100 participants in Edmonton every year. Besides the Yellowknife event, the organization is fielding four teams who will host 20 events across Canada this year, most of them during the first week of June.
Elevate Aviation has also launched the Elevate Learning Centre at Edmonton Airport–a week-long program that immerses young people in aviation careers, delivering hands-on experience with drones, military operations, airport planning, flying schools, small charter operations, and air traffic control.
“We provide a platform for women to thrive and succeed through aviation and continuing education,” said Wells, who added that only six per cent of airline pilots are women, while only two per cent of aviation maintenance technicians are female. Air traffic control as an industry has the most women, at about 17 per cent.
NATA’s Priestley, who spoke at the Yellowknife event, said he first encountered Elevate Aviation last October. He was impressed, calling the organization “the real deal.”
He encouraged young people to consider aviation careers.
“Do get involved. Every one of the trades–pilot, AME, we need them all. All of those positions in the North have opportunity.”
For her part, Kincade encouraged those who want to learn more about aviation careers to reach out to Elevate Aviation.
“I want people to realize it doesn’t matter what your past looks like,” she concluded. “You can create the life you want no matter where you come from. It’s about having a goal and going after it. Surround yourself with people who support you and you will succeed.
“How many times have you heard, ‘I wanted to be a pilot but didn’t know where to go’? If we can take our message across Canada, it can be the place where people go.”