If we are all a product of our environment, then it’s no shock that Heather McGonigal is a pilot.
A third generation aviator, McGonigal “grew up in a hangar,” and followed in the footsteps of her grandfather, who flew a Second World War Avro Lancaster, and her father, a long-time corporate pilot.
“When my grandfather passed away, he left my sister and I some money to use when we got older,” McGonigal told Skies. “My parents wanted us to use it in such a way that would commemorate our grandfather. At 17, we thought the perfect way to do this would be to get our pilot’s licences. As soon as I got into an airplane and flew it myself, I fell in love.”
McGonigal earned her private licence at 17, before following her father’s advice and taking a bit of time off “just to make sure it was something I really wanted to do.”
The next year, she got her commercial pilot’s licence and followed that with a flight instructor rating after high school. She taught flying and worked several jobs while pursuing her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Saskatchewan—all with the goal of one day flying for a legacy air carrier.
“My dad is my mentor, and he directed me towards the airlines,” remembered McGonigal. “He knew that corporate aviation generally isn’t as stable as the airlines. So, with my degree and my flight training, I figured I would be in a good position to get on with the airlines.”
After university, McGonigal continued instructing until landing her first airline job at the age of 23, as a first officer on an Air Sask Jetstream 31 based in Saskatoon.
Today, she has accumulated more than 8,000 hours of flight time and is still working for the same company (Air Sask was merged with Athabaska Airways in 2000 to form Transwest Air). These days, McGonigal flies a Saab 340, although she spends much of her time on the ground working as the director of flight operations (DFO) for Transwest Air and Northern Shield Helicopters.
With about 200 employees, Transwest Air was founded by Patrick Campling and his late partner, Jim Glass. It is one of the largest and most diverse operations of its kind, offering aerial work, air taxi, commuter, airline operations, and off-strip ski, float, and helicopter services. Its fleet consists of 26 fixed-wing aircraft, ranging from a Cessna 185 up to the Saab 340. The company also operates a fleet of nine Bell helicopters.
“Wherever you want to go, we can take you there,” said McGonigal, who supervises the flight operations department, cabin safety, crew scheduling, training programs, and the company’s safety management system. She also enjoys teaching Canadian aviation regulations to students in Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Commercial Pilot Program, as well as first aid for the Red Cross.
Transwest Air sees its business fluctuate seasonally, with about 60 pilots on the employee roster in winter and close to 75 in the summer. It is a prominent member of Canada’s aviation community, tracing its affiliation with the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) back 60 years, to the days of Athabaska Airways.
Company co-founder Jim Glass had been invited to rejoin the ATAC board in 2012, but passed away before he could do so. McGonigal was asked to fill in for him, and was officially nominated the following year. In November 2015, she was appointed as the new ATAC chair, making her the second-youngest chairperson ever at age 38—only a few months older than Glass had been in 1999, when he held the position.
McGonigal has a few specific goals for her two-year term as ATAC chair.
“I’d like to continue to assist ATAC in addressing key industry issues with the new Minister [of Transport],” she said. “Some of these issues have been on the table for years, and may have an adverse effect on the industry and our ability to conduct business.”
Specifically, she named flight crew fatigue management regulations and the movement to require personal flotation devices to be worn in seaplanes. As well, the Transport Canada funding model (and resulting lack of service level for industry) and the aviation taxation structure are top issues, she added.
McGonigal encouraged ATAC’s operator members and industry partners to get involved in the association. “We need to take advantage of our diversity and work together as a team. There is strength in numbers.”
As a woman working in a male-dominated industry, McGonigal said she receives incredible support from her bosses and fellow team members, as well as her family—including her husband, Terry, who is a chief pilot at Transwest Air. In her spare time, family activities with their three children keep them busy, although she finds exercise is the best way to unwind.
“I participate in Ironman 70.3 triathlons. That keeps me very busy with training, and I do one race per year,” she said. “I love the diversity of swimming, running and biking. I have a significant amount of responsibility at my job, and I find that exercise clears my head and helps me relax.”
When it comes to the next generation of aviation professionals, McGonigal has some wise advice: “If you’re getting into aviation, you have to love it, be passionate about it, and work your hardest. Finally, remember that aviation is a small world—be professional and always act like someone is watching.”