Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 48 seconds.
On May 13, cirrus clouds painted the blue skies that welcomed an estimated 2,000 visitors to Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre’s (WWFC’s) annual “Girls Can Fly” (GCF) event. As temperatures rose, so did the anticipation of the 300 lucky girls who took to the skies in aircraft provided by WWFC and COPA Breslau Flyers Flight 26. According to WWFC, registration for the free flights was sold out in under 10 minutes.
As industry exhibitors filled the Southwestern Ontario flight school’s hangars, the tarmac (typically reserved for smaller training aircraft) welcomed commercial jets operated by all-female crews. Locked doors leading to airline flight decks were swung open for awestruck children (and parents alike) to explore.
“This is the perfect opportunity for girls and young women to become interested in aviation,” said WWFC’s general manager Bob Connors. “We are thrilled to be able to hold this hugely successful event again. Girls and their families have the opportunity to tour our facility, meet women in the industry, learn more about aviation, and go for a free flight.”
Porter Airlines (known for having the highest percentage of female pilots in Canada) arrived with its De Havilland Dash 8-400; Jazz arrived with its CRJ900; and Sunwing joined the fun with its Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft for the first time.
As the stairs met each aircraft, out poured female pilots, flight attendants, and aircraft mechanics — eager to engage and inspire a future generation of aviation enthusiasts.
Sunwing, the first to arrive and with the largest aircraft to attend the annual GCF event, currently collaborates with the University of Waterloo (UW) and WWFC with its “low-time hiring program,” allowing UW/WWFC grads an opportunity to be hired directly to the airline.
The Toronto-based leisure airline also operates from the Region of Waterloo International Airport (YKF) to various sunny destinations during the winter season.
Landing at YKF shortly before 8 a.m. on May 13, Sunwing first officer Jessalyn Teed (who received her fight training at WWFC) and Sunwing captain Jessica Kessler were all smiles at the controls.
Teed described returning to WWFC as a homecoming.
“[Bringing Sunwing to Girls Can Fly] was a full-circle day for me, as it was an event like this . . . where I went up on a free flight,” she shared. “From being a student at WWFC, [to] volunteering for this event, and [flying in as a first officer of a 737] was an amazing opportunity.”
The destination airline’s introduction to the GCF event was spearheaded by Teed and fellow Sunwing first officer Siobhan O’Hanlon (also a UW/WWFC graduate).
“We wanted to show our support for inspiring the next generation of aviators and inviting women into the industry, sharing our passion for an inclusive, diverse, equitable workplace,” Teed explained.
Skies previously caught up with Teed at Elevate Aviation’s cross-country tour in March. The ambitious female aviator admits she is so heavily involved in events that inspire girls to fly because she “caught the bug” at a similar event when she was just eight years old and “never looked back.”
She added: “To fly in the largest aircraft yet to attend Girls Can Fly and open our doors to young aviators — representing and sharing with young people that this journey is possible for people just like themselves — is an honor.”
Earlier this year, Kessler, Teed, and O’Hanlon also participated in three all-female Sunwing flights that took to the skies on International Women’s Day.
Sunwing’s director of flight operations, Michael Simmons and vice president of flight operations, Keith Moore, were also on board and spent the day “interacting with attendees and supporting the crew.”
It’s no wonder the crowds for GCF grow each year — there was something for everyone to draw inspiration from.
Great Lakes Helicopters operated free flights; Wingstars brought in its deicing truck; Waterloo Regional Police Service handed out stickers and offered opportunities to operate a cruiser’s flashing lights; and volunteers offered face paint and temporary tattoos. Tables of merchandise were empty before the day was old, and the Runways Cafe burst with the bustling lunch-goers and patio dwellers looking to take a load off and enjoy a cold drink.
Pilots4Paws was on site with its furry mascot to promote the work the organization does for dogs needing re-homing and medical attention.
Attendees were also given a unique opportunity to view the Pipistrel Velis Electro, Canada’s first all-electric training aircraft.
Amongst the attendees was YKF’s director, Chris Wood, who brought his daughter to the event. Wood shared that the airport staff worked hard behind the scenes to help support the success of the event by offering all three airport parking lots (which remained full for the better part of the day), stanchions, outdoor seating, and waste management.
WWFC’s marketing and communications manager Julie Mudry told Skies that “the event seems to get bigger and better every year.” And the success lies squarely on the shoulders of all those who passionately offer their services, including pilots, volunteers, industry partners, and support from the Region of Waterloo Airport.
“It’s nice to see so many smiling faces and, hopefully, we inspired the next generation to join the aviation industry,” added Mudry.
Skies caught up with a beaming 13-year-old girl who shared that her friends were at Canada’s Wonderland, but she chose to attend GCF because it was her wonderland.
And although the female-friendly event was full of female role models, the goal is to help counteract industry shortages by inspiring both girls and boys to consider a future in the aviation industry.
Remnants of face paint and crayon shavings were swept from the hangar floor while record-breaking crowds dissipated with memories of one-on-one conversations with pilots, flight simulated adventures, helicopter rides, deicing demos, airport fire truck tours, and bellies full of ice cream truck indulgences.
As the euphoria of this year’s event continues to work its magic, a date for next year’s Girls Can Fly has already been set for May 11.