Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 38 seconds.
After being grounded for two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the annual Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC) Girls Can Fly (GCF) event returned to the skies on May 14, 2022.
And you couldn’t have asked for better flying weather. The skies were clear, the tarmac was warm, and the ice cream cones quickly melted as the unseasonable temperatures skyrocketed.
Porter Airlines brought a Bombardier Q400 (Dash 8-400) for static display, filled with a female crew. Jazz brought a Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft, offering cockpit tours. Waterloo Warbirds also flew in its T-33 Mako Shark jet for photo opportunities. And Bearskin Airlines made a surprise landing mid-afternoon, offering 16 girls the opportunity to fly aboard its Fairchild Metroliner.
Great Lakes Helicopter also returned, offering free helicopter rides throughout the day.
“All 275 seats required advanced registration and filled up in six minutes about three weeks ago,” WWFC stated in a news release.
Activities included sim flights, cardboard box airplane races, a “build an airplane” Lego station, and photo booths.
Former WWFC alumna, Jessalyn Teed, said, “It was an event just like this that sparked the fire” for her. She was just eight years old when she took her first flight at a similar “girls can fly” event in Northern Ontario.
Now a first officer of the Boeing 737-800 for Sunwing, Teed admits that she, too, is inspired by the beaming smiles that visited the Sunwing booth “with wide eyes and open ears.”
“[Girls can fly] is a chance to give [young girls] some insight into the industry . . . to welcome them into a community of women who are going to cheer them on along the way,” Teed added.
“These young girls who one day may be sitting beside us in the flight deck, [or] turning wrenches on our airplanes [could] help grow the number of females in our industry.”
And while walking around the event, speaking to the female pilots, there was a common theme; many were WWFC alumni – including Nina Shan of AirSprint. The Embraer Legacy 450 first officer shared that coming back felt like “a full-circle moment.”
“I wanted to come here today because I did all my training here and then instructed. And while I was here, I flew a couple of years [for Girls Can Fly],” said Shan.
Heather Post, captain of AirSprint’s Embraer Legacy 450, hopes to “help [girls] see that it’s possible to be a pilot and a mom.
“I have two kids at home, a three-year-old and seven-year-old, and I want them to feel inspired by what I’m doing with my career, too,” said Post.
Out on the tarmac, retired Air Canada pilot Judy Cameron (the first Canadian female captain of a Boeing 767 and the first Canadian female captain of a Boeing 777) admitted that she wished something like this had been available when she learned to fly.
In the wee hours of the Saturday morning, Cameron travelled an hour from her home to be a part of the event she calls “a big deal.”
“And it means a lot to be part of this. It’s the most rewarding thing I do in my retirement,” she told Skies as she handed out candy airplanes while operating the Northern Lights Aero Foundation’s booth.
“It’s gratifying to see so many young girls, especially with their moms out here, interested in pursuing a career and being encouraged and inspired by other women.”
Cameron, who took her first flight at the age of 19, said she remembers the impact flying in a small airplane (a Cessna 150) had in sparking her interest in aviation.
“The moment that plane landed, I single-mindedly pursued being a pilot myself.”
During the event, Bob Connors, general manager of WWFC, could be found mingling with both the pilots and the families in attendance. Eager to share his excitement to see the event return, he said he is “thrilled to be able to hold this hugely successful event again, after having had to cancel the past two years.”
He added: “Girls and their families have the opportunity to tour our state-of-the-art facility, meet women in the industry, [and] learn more about aviation.”
And over at Hangar 7, parents looked on while WWFC volunteers wrangled wide-eyed girls into eight four-seater aircraft, generously provided by WWFC and COPA Breslau Flyers Flight 26.
Ayesha Khan, a current CPL pilot and WWFC student training for her IFR (instrument flight rules) rating, volunteered as a pilot for the day.
“It’s nice; there’s this energy. This year, the anticipation is a little higher because of the pandemic. We couldn’t do it for two years,” she said.
Despite the unforgiving heat and sun, the line-up to tour the commercial aircraft remained steady.
“Everybody’s really excited to be here, ranging from women already in training with questions about the next steps, to little girls who are so excited to see the airplane,” said Porter Airlines’ first officer, Becky Church.
“I took a picture with a little girl earlier who I wanted to take a picture with us. So, we did the picture, and then we said, ‘There are [pilot] hats over there and a jacket, you can put them on and then go take a picture of the booth.’ And their face just lit up,” she said.
Church, who’s been with Porter for five years, is also a WWFC alumna.
“As an instructor, I used to volunteer at the event,” she said. “When [this year’s] event started, I arrived at 10 a.m. and “it was already busy. And it stayed steady the entire day.”
Autumn, a 12-year-old girl who attended GCF for the first time, described her favorite part of the day: “I liked how nice all the pilots were, and sitting in the cockpit with Pilot Jaki (Jazz’s Bombardier CRJ900 captain, Jaklynn Willson).”
“The number of parents and children I had the privilege to speak with and that toured the flight deck of our CRJ900 aircraft, infused me with positivity and pride for the company I work for, Jazz Aviation, as well as all the women in aviation,” said Willson.
She added: “Girls Can Fly events are an opportunity to empower young girls to grow up to be strong resilient women who are independent, confident, brave and unintimidated, regardless of the career they choose.”
By the time the booths were packed up and the commercial aircraft began rolling out, over 1,500 people attended, and the volunteer pilots had provided free flights to 300 girls ages eight to 18.
Khan said each flight is approximately 15 to 20 minutes, and the girls get a chance to try the controls. And after each flight, she asks if they want to be pilots now?
The answer? A resounding “Yes!”