Northern Lights honours extraordinary women in aviation

Avatar for Ben ForrestBy Ben Forrest | October 2, 2018

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, seconds.

In the early 1970s, when retired Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Maj Micky Colton was growing up in southern Ontario, her mother put up an inspirational poster that listed two gifts an adult can give a child.

Two very close friends who were both part of the initial Canadian Forces Pilot course which included women in 1982. Retired Maj Deanna Brasseur, 2017 Northern Lights Pioneer Recipient 2017, presents her dear friend retired Maj Micky Colton, a long time CC-130 Hercules pilot, with the 2018 Pioneer award. Andy Cline Photo

One gift is roots, the poster said. The other is wings.

“Mom, thank you for the roots,” said Colton on Sept. 29, as she accepted the 2018 Pioneer Award at the Northern Lights Aero Foundation (NLAF) gala in Richmond Hill, Ont.

“And thank you for the wings.”

As part of the RCAF’s initial cohort of women pilots and the first woman to log 5,000 hours on the CC-130 Hercules aircraft, Colton is seen as a trailblazer and a foundation-setter.

But she was rarely serious in her short acceptance speech, peppering it with jokes that met with laughter, applause and–ultimately–loud cheers from a crowd of industry professionals in a ballroom at the Sheraton Parkway Hotel & Suites..

“It’s really hard to be on the stage with so many underachievers,” she quipped as an opener, acknowledging her fellow award winners’ impressive career accomplishments.

“I’m blown away. I really, really am.”

Later, she compared her “Elsie” award–named after Elsie Gregory MacGill, the world’s first female aircraft designer–to an Oscar.

“I should probably be holding it going, ‘You like me! You really like me!’ ”

In truth, she was humbled and grateful to have been nominated and to receive the award, she said. MacGill was a woman of drive, determination and courage.

“And those attributes are demonstrated so beautifully by the women in this room,” she added. “I know that the future of aviation in Canada is in very good hands.”

All kidding aside, Colton is seen as the definition of a pioneer.

Born in Kitchener, Ont., she applied to the RCAF in 1980, only a few weeks after the Canadian Forces started accepting female civilian recruits to their pilot program.

She received her pilot’s wings in 1982 and spent most of her time in the military as a search and rescue (SAR) pilot, operating the CC-130 Hercules.

Her tenure included time at 436 Squadron in Trenton, Ont.; 429 Squadron Winnipeg, Man.; 435 Squadron Edmonton, Alta.; 424 Squadron Trenton (twice); and 426 Squadron Trenton (twice).

Colton served twice as the CC-130 standards and evaluation officer in Trenton’s Transport and Rescue Evaluation Team, and accumulated about 6,900 hours on the Hercules before retiring from the regular force in October 2011.

The day after retiring she joined the Air Force Reserves, serving until May 30, 2018.

“As one of the initial cadre of female pilots in the RCAF, she has blazed a path for future generations of women pilots,” said another presenter at the event.

“Her courage and determination to succeed as a military pilot regardless of the obstacles placed in front of her, have clearly established her as a classic role model for others to follow.”


NLAF recognized seven other outstanding women with 2018 Elsie awards, including Government Award winner Emily Crombez, the first female type-rated on the CL-415 waterbomber in North America.

The Northern Lights Class of 2018. Front row, from left: Emily Crombez, Government; Niloofar Moradi, Engineering; Julie Beverstein, Flight Operations; Dr. Alexandra Kindrat, Education; Julie Mailhot, Business; Larissa Chiu, Rising Star; Katie Gwozdecky, Rising Star; Micky Colton, Pioneer. Back row: Jacquie Perrin, presenter, Joy Parker Blackwood, president and treasurer. Andy Cline Photo

Crombez began her career as a bush pilot in northeastern Ontario, after graduating from Confederation College’s Aviation Flight Management program.

She spent three seasons flying the iconic de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver on floats and now flies the Boeing 737 for WestJet.

“A spark has to exist to fuel the effort, commitment and sacrifices required to do something greatly,” said Crombez in a speech.

“That spark, for many, comes in the form of enthusiastic beginnings from encouragers, facilitators and motivators.”

Crombez attributed her success in part to her family, and noted she’s had many mentors and educators who helped her along the way.

“I have come to know that we are not destined to succeed; rather, we require grit and determination to do so,” she said.

“I am honoured to represent all females in aviation who are determined to practice their craft, strive to lead, and enthusiastically pursue their passions.”


Niloofar Moradi recalls being curious about anything space-related as a girl growing up in Iran.

That interest grew into a passion, she said–“a passion that drove me throughout my career to do just a little more, and reach a little bit higher.”

Her family immigrated to Canada and she studied mechanical engineering at Concordia University in Montreal, graduating in 2010.

Moradi began her career at Rolls-Royce and later joined Pratt & Whitney Canada as an aerodynamicist.

In 2016, she earned a master’s degree at École de Technologie Supérieure in Montreal, and she has contributed design work to several P&WC engines, including the PT6C-67A.

Moradi now works in P&WC’s turbine mechanical design department, where she designs and integrates turbine components.

“Let’s encourage the younger generation to find and follow their passion,” she said in her acceptance speech. “And let’s be the wind beneath their wings.”


Julie Beverstein attended her first Northern Lights gala three years ago and remembers being “completely wowed” by the women receiving awards that night, she said.

Larissa Chiu and Katie Gwozdecky, Northern Lights Rising Star honourees, receive gifts of Hamilton Watches from Thomas Sandrin, Hamilton Watches brand manager. Andy Cline Photo

“I [felt] completely invigorated and inspired and thought, ‘I’ve got to do more,’ ” she added. “And so I did, but I didn’t do it alone.”

Beverstein has been flying for 20 years, starting with lessons at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport while earning a bachelor of science degree at the University of Toronto.

After additional flight training at Seneca College, she worked for five years as a flight instructor at Air Georgian and joined Porter Airlines in 2009.

She is now assistant chief pilot, Recruitment and Retention, at Porter and is one of the leaders of Women Soar at Porter, an internal group focused on bridging the gender gap.

“I look forward to the day that this event is … about celebrating the successes of all individuals in aviation and aerospace,” she said.

“It will be then that we’ve achieved what we’re here tonight to do.”


As a high school teacher, Dr. Alexandra Kindrat believes she is at the front lines of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

“I look up to each and every one of you,” she said while accepting the Education Award at the Elsie gala.

“I bring all of your knowledge and resources and all of your willingness to help all my students into my classroom on a daily basis.”

Kindrat is a private pilot and research scientist from Montreal who serves on the teaching faculty at NASA’s High School Aerospace Scholar Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Her work includes research on mathematics instruction, and research related to micro-gravity at the Johnson Space Center, encouraging her students to pursue careers in STEM.

“It’s really nice to have a group of individuals like yourselves to turn to when I need inspiration for my students,” she said.

“I’m very, very grateful and honoured.”


Julie Mailhot’s career trajectory has been one of steady progress, starting as a customer service agent with Air Canada in 1987 and eventually leading to her current role as chief operating officer at Air Georgian.

But rather than dwelling on those achievements, Mailhot used her acceptance speech for the Elsie Award for Business to address aviation’s gender gap.

“Although much has changed since I was one of the only female flight dispatchers at Air Canada many years ago, we are not progressing fast enough,” she said.

“Especially for women choosing to have a family, working in a male-dominated environment can exacerbate the challenges already present in balancing a personal and working life.

“However, I am very hopeful that we will eventually remove the barriers that prevent women from entering aviation.

“The conversation is shifting, with several airlines listing bold diversity and inclusion targets with their recruitment and retention initiatives.”


As the NLAF honoured its past, it also focused keenly on the future of aviation, in part by recognizing Larissa Chiu and Katie Gwozdecky with 2018 Rising Star Awards.

Chiu received her private pilot’s licence in 2016 and is on the aviation executive at the University of British Columbia, where she is pursuing a bachelor of science degree.

Gwozdecky is also a private pilot, and a graduate of the University of Toronto in mechanical engineering.

During her studies she was part of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT), where she helped secure a student levy that raised nearly half a million dollars to fund the first amateur satellite from U of T.

“It really means the world,” said Gwozdecky referring to the Rising Star Award.

“We really need to continue to inspire young women to not only learn about this organization, but also to take part, and make sure that we know and remind them that they can pursue their dreams.”

NLAF itself can be seen as a dream in the process of coming true.

Joy Parker Blackwood, the organization’s president and treasurer, noted how it launched in 2009 with no money and no idea what the future would hold.

It steadily gathered funding, stability and prestige, passing many milestones and forming many industry partnerships on its way to becoming one of Canadian aviation’s premier events.

This year’s gala was the largest ever, with 414 guests, and that growth is a key reason it moved to the Sheraton in Richmond Hill from a smaller venue in Vaughan, Ont.

“There’s a saying that if you can see it or imagine it, you can do it,” said Blackwood in a speech near the end of the evening.

“Knowing that–knowing where we all want to go, what we all want to achieve to increase women’s participation in our industry–I bet we will celebrate more important milestones until equity, equality and enthusiasm are one.”


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