features ‘Only Up’ documentary amplifies extraordinary women in aviation

The new film, spearheaded by Edmonton’s Kendra Kincade, aims to inspire and attract more women to an industry that urgently needs talent.
Avatar for Ben Forrest By Ben Forrest | February 5, 2024

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 26 seconds.

Over the whip-crack and rumble of simulated thunder, between flashes of artificial lightning, Kendra Kincade felt her body freeze up. 

She stood, momentarily paralyzed, at the edge of a 26-foot platform, above the safe-but-churning water of a darkened rotary underwater escape training facility in Dartmouth, N.S. 

Her mind said: jump. Her body said: no, way. 

Alberta-based F1 air race pilot Blaire Hamilton stands with her aircraft in Reno, Nev. Kendra Kincade Photo

Then she heard the voices of several Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) members urging her forward.

“They were chanting my name,” said Kincade, an honorary colonel of 417 Combat Support Squadron in 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., recalling the scene.

“So I jump, we finish the day, and what they taught me was: They were not leaving me behind … I felt so supported, and it gave me more confidence to do something I wouldn’t have done before.”

This scene, which Kincade replicated in her new documentary Only Up, is a fitting illustration of the film’s central message, and a microcosm of her own aviation journey. 

“I don’t think I could have jumped if I didn’t have that encouragement,” said Kincade, an air traffic controller with Nav Canada at Edmonton International Airport and one of the most vocal proponents of recruiting more women into the aviation industry.

Kendra Kincade and Sophia Wells flying to Fort McMurray to capture scenes from the ‘Only Up’ documentary. Kendra Kincade Photo

“Just a little bit of encouragement can help people do things that they might not think of doing on their own.” 

Kincade released Only Up, her first film, in January 2024 to strong reviews from critics and several of the trailblazing women she interviewed as the project’s host, director and executive producer. 

It was a mammoth undertaking that involved starting her own production company, hiring a crew and gaining the support of Super Channel — she randomly met president and CEO Don McDonald on a flight to Toronto, and he became a strong supporter of the project. 

“It was way bigger than I thought,” said Kincade, speaking over Zoom during a recent vacation in Thailand. “I love interviewing people, I love getting their stories, and that’s what I wanted to do in this movie. 

“So there are parts where I felt extremely comfortable. And there are other parts that were just physically exhausting … my team was amazing. I could not have done this without them.”

Only Up sets out to answer a simple question: Why are there so few women in aviation?

Nordia King and Cassandra Hepp compete as part of the Elevate Aviation team at a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) competition in Dallas. Kendra Kincade Photo

Despite a massive talent shortage, only five per cent of Canadian pilots, three per cent of aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs) and 17 per cent of air traffic controllers are women. 

Through interviews and film shoots squeezed in on weekends and other days off from her full-time job with Nav Canada, Kincade confirmed what many already believed to be true.

“Women need to see other women in these careers in order to imagine themselves in these careers,” she said. “And a lot of women and girls do not know about these careers. 

“The number one thing we hear over and over again is, ‘Why haven’t we heard of these careers before?’ So in this documentary I really wanted to hit that [message], too.”

Through much of 2022, Kincade and her crew fanned out across the country to interview established, prominent and up-and-coming women in aviation. 

Air traffic controller Emily Meyer looks out from the tower in Fort McMurray, Alta. Kendra Kincade

The film opens with two air traffic control students, training for a life-changing career Kincade entered 24 years ago and credits with saving her life. This job gave her the financial freedom to overcome a crippling depression and support herself and her four children, she said. 

In the film, one of the students is successful; the other is not. Kincade sees herself in both women.

“When I was training, I had four kids and they wanted to fire me,” she said. “If it wasn’t for my first mentor working with me, I would not have had that career … you go from struggling, or whatever is before that, to having a solid career that pays well, that has great benefits, that gives you a place in life where you can look after yourself.

“That’s my underlying goal with all of this, is to give women, men, everyone, the opportunity to realize that if you’re in a bad place in life, you do not have to stay there.”

The film also features interviews with Capt Rosella Bjornson, Canada’s first female airline jet pilot; and Capt Judy Cameron, the first woman pilot for Air Canada.

Blaire Hamilton, an Alberta-based air racing pilot, is prominent in the film, along with Melissa Haney, the first female Inuk captain for Air Inuit; award-winning women AMEs; Halifax airport CEO Joyce Carter; search-and-rescue technician MCpl Katherine Hanek, and many others.

“It’s such a privilege that one, they trusted me,” said Kincade. “And two, that I was able to have access to go in and tell the stories. Air Inuit flew us to Tasiujaq and Canadian North flew us back for free … that’s a lot of money that they donated. WestJet also donated over 70 flights to make this movie happen. It would not have happened without their support.”

Seeing the film completed, edited and sent out into the world has been scary, but gratifying. It forced Kincade and others far outside their comfort zones, moving toward the lives they want. 

Just as she did atop that 26-foot platform in Halifax, Kincade willed herself to jump in with both feet — and inspiring others to do the same. 

“I always tell people … do something that scares you,” she said. “I feel like I haven’t done that in a while. This was that, for me … basically, it’s putting your soul on a plate for people to judge. It’s terrifying, actually.” 

Another key message in Only Up is: Amazing things happen when people take calculated risks, show up, persevere, and do the work required to succeed. 

“I hope this film brings people into the aviation industry,” said Kincade. “But mainly, I just hope people that watch it believe they can do whatever they want.”

Only Up is streaming now on Super Channel, available through Apple TV Channels, Prime Video Channels, with your cable or satellite package, or through the Super Channel App.  

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