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In 2009, a then-18-year-old Jessica Traynor of Peterborough, Ont., got her first chance to fly while attending the Aviation Technology – Flight program at Sault College.
It was a dream of hers to become a pilot after being exposed to the industry at a young age through her father, Randy Traynor, a captain on the De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 at Air Canada Jazz.
Eleven years later, Traynor saw herself earn the honour of becoming the youngest female captain in Air Canada’s 83-year history, as she worked her way into the lead seat aboard the Airbus A320.
The decade between her first flight and her recent achievement was a grind; Traynor paid her dues in the industry as a flight instructor and air ambulance operator for northern communities before landing her spot in a commercial seat at Jazz, much like her father.
“It’s rewarding to see that you’ve achieved the goals that you set up for yourself,” she reflected during a recent interview with Skies. “I honestly just love flying. It was just a passion. I’ve wanted to do it since I was really young. So it’s just really exciting to see all the things that you want kind of falling into place.”
“Falling into place” is putting it modestly. Years before earning her spot in the captain’s seat on a commercial airliner, Traynor learned to fly in a Czechoslovakian-made trainer, the Zlin 242 — a “really fun plane to start on” — while attending Sault College.
After nailing down the basics of flight in the Zlin, her next step was earning the requisite hours for her multi-engine and multi-engine instrument flight rating in the school’s Piper Seminole. She must have impressed a few people in her time there as a student, because only two weeks after graduation, Traynor earned her instructor rating and the college hired her onas a flight instructor — a career move she said was a beneficial starting place.
“Instructing builds your confidence, because you get to watch everyone basically make the mistakes that you’re told you’re making all the time,” she explained. “You really see things a lot clearer, I suppose, when you can watch other people do [the flying].”
Taking the lessons she learned both in the classroom and as an instructor at Sault, she moved to Thunder Bay, Ont., where she flew the Mitsubishi MU-2 for Thunder Airlines.
“It is a sick plane,” she laughed. “My favourite plane so far, honestly.”
At Thunder Airlines, she sharpened her understanding of flight ops while earning a new appreciation for everyone’s role. It was her job not only to fly the MU-2, but also to file flight plans, fuel the aircraft, check the weather, and complete her own flight following.
“You did everything,” she recounted. “That was a great experience because you understand how it all works. So once you get to the commercial side of things, even though you’re not doing it any longer, you know what to look for.”
The flying itself was a challenge as well, moving from a world of paved runways at the flight school to gravel strips while serving northern communities.
“You don’t really know what’s going to happen when you get there,” she said. “You really learn how to manage your time and be aware of the risks that are involved when you’re doing something. . . . Once you got to the airlines, finally, it’s a break almost.”
That didn’t take long for her. After a year of flying the MU-2 for Thunder, Traynor was hired at Jazz. There, she was able to achieve a career goal, as she and her father Randy became the carrier’s first ever father-daughter pair to pilot an aircraft, doing so on a Dash 8-400 — which they flew together five times.
“That was pretty special,” she said.
Less than two years later, in 2017, she concluded her time with Jazz and moved over to Air Canada — initially starting with its Rouge division. Traynor was placed in the right seat of the A320 right off the hop, flying routes throughout North America and down to the Caribbean.
Her next goal? Getting her spot in the captain’s seat, though she was cautious not to do so “too soon.”
She added: “You can’t just jump in because you have the opportunity. You have to know that you are also ready for that responsibility.”
And when did she know she was ready?
“It was just to the point where I was going to work and I felt so comfortable with everything that was going on that I wanted to take on more of a leadership role,” she said. “But at the time, I was still the first officer, so I couldn’t step on any toes. But I had that desire to do more.”
She gathered her confidence and gave it a shot and, in May 2020, Traynor earned the distinct honour of being Air Canada’s youngest female captain.
Though aviation is in uncertain times, it’s undoubtedly an exciting achievement. She expressed her desire to stay with Air Canada for the foreseeable future, hopefully winding up on a wide-body like her 777-flying partner, Colin Walker. But she has set even loftier goals now that she’s earned her spot in the captain’s seat.
“Spaceship. That’s my ultimate goal,” she said. “Hopefully commercial space travel in like 25 years.”
And with a track record like hers, it’s hard to imagine she won’t get there eventually.