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Back in 1973 when Rosella Bjornson was hired as a first officer with Transair, a ground controller asked her why she, as a stewardess, was being allowed to use the radio. As the first jet qualified female airline pilot in North America, the Southern Alberta native faced her share of challenges as she blazed a trail for women in Canadian aviation.
Bjornson was the first female member of the Canadian Airlines Pilots Association and, after she was grounded in 1979 during her first pregnancy, she subsequently worked with Transport Canada to develop new policy that would permit female pilots to fly for the first six months of pregnancy. Her accomplishments and contributions to the aviation industry are too numerous to name, but there’s no doubt that Bjornson carved a path for future female pilots to follow.
On Oct. 1, 2016, Bjornson was among a panel of women who were recognized for their accomplishments at the 8th annual “Elsie” gala in Vaughan, Ont. The event is organized by the Northern Lights Award Foundation, which was founded in memory of Elsie MacGill, a Vancouver-born aeronautical engineer who became the world’s first female aircraft designer. During the Second World War, MacGill was fondly known as “Queen of the Hurricanes” for her role in overseeing production of the Hawker Hurricane in Fort William, Ont. (now Thunder Bay).
The gala recognized seven remarkable women who have made lasting contributions to Canadian aviation and aerospace. Bjornson, honoured with the group’s Pioneer Award, was joined on stage by a diverse group of accomplished professionals who spoke in front of more than 300 guests.
Dr. Sylvie Béland, recipient of the Foundation’s Government Award, has had an illustrious career as an aerospace and space scientist, working on technologies for the Canadarm2 and the International Space Station. She is the first female aerospace research and development director at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in Ottawa, has held a number of senior positions at the Canadian Space Agency, and acted as a Permanent Delegate of Canada to the European Space Agency. The author of a book on high performance resins and their composites, Béland has also received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee medal.
BGen Lise Bourgon is a maritime helicopter pilot who has amassed more than 2,500 hours on the CH-124 Sea King during her impressive 29-year military career. The recipient of the Foundation’s Flight Ops/Maintenance Award, Bourgon has done much to further women’s rights in the military. She was the first female commanding officer of an operational squadron, first female wing commander, and the first woman to command Joint Task Force Iraq in Kuwait, with more than 600 personnel under her direction. As a mother of two, Bourgon credited her husband and children for their unfailing support–even sharing a funny story with the audience about how, when she was posted away from home, her children would buy a new goldfish and name it “Mom,” so that Mom would always be in the house.
Jolene Mahody joined Air Nova in 1992 and has worked her way up through the organization, playing an important role in the merger of four regional airlines into what eventually became Jazz Aviation LP under the holding company Chorus Aviation. The recipient of this year’s Business Award, Mahody is a chartered accountant and the executive vice president and chief financial officer at Chorus. Having just celebrated her 24th anniversary with the company, Mahody told gala attendees that she is incredibly lucky to be surrounded by the talented Chorus staff.
The 2016 Education Award was presented to Dr. Catherine Mavriplis, a professional engineer who is currently on the faculty at the University of Ottawa. A tireless advocate dedicated to the advancement of women in science, engineering and mathematics careers, Mavriplis was selected as the NSERC/Pratt & Whitney Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering. She was inspired by her father, an engineer at Canadair, to develop her love of mathematics into a career—and today, her focus is on computational fluid dynamics.
The evening’s last two awards went to the Foundation’s Rising Stars—women under the age of 30 who have shown exceptional promise for a future leadership contribution to aviation and aerospace.
With a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Toronto, Holly Johnson joined MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) as a student and has worked on the Canadarm program, as well as serving as the lead systems engineer on the neurosurgical medical robotic arm, which facilitates hands-free surgical imaging. She is also a private pilot.
Sharing the Rising Star limelight with Johnson was Navreet Saini, a graduate of Ryerson University’s aerospace engineering program. After three internships with Bombardier, she took an avionics engineering position with Bell Helicopter and has since transferred to the flight test department, working on such aircraft as the new Bell 525 Relentless medium-lift helicopter. She, too, is a pilot, holding a private pilot’s licence and a night rating.
While the gala event was full of memorable commentary from the honourees as well as keynote speaker Karen McCrimmon, MP for Kanata-Carleton and the first woman to command a Canadian Forces flying squadron in 1998, it was Saini who perhaps summed it up best by quoting some very apropos words from Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
Indeed, the Northern Lights Award Foundation exists to recognize the giants in Canadian aviation and aerospace; women who blazed a trail for those who would one day come behind them.
Eight years ago, 65 people came out to the first Elsie gala. Today, attendance has cracked 300 and the event boasts sponsors such as Porter Airlines, Bombardier, Air Canada, Jazz and Pratt & Whitney Canada.
There’s no telling how many people will show up next year.