Two "Air-crazy" authors discuss Canadian Women in the Sky

Two "Air-crazy" authors discuss Canadian Women in the Sky

Posted on December 8 by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail in Interview
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Elizabeth Muir’s recent book Canadian Women in the Sky: 100 Years of Flight, shines a light on the often little-known contributions of women in aviation in our country.  Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail , author of Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the North and the first female president of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, delves deeper into Muir’s reasons for writing the book, and the surprising things she learned.


Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail: What inspired you to write this book?

Elizabeth Muir: I found out that only 5% of all Canadian pilots, flight engineers and instructors are women. That really upset me. I had hoped that more young women would be entering non-traditional professions and vocations such as geology, paleontology, archeology, aviation  - but the lowest percentage was in aviation.


DMC: What was the most surprising thing you learned?

EM: I didn’t know anything about the aviation profession. I knew I loved to be in a plane, flying somewhere. So everything I learned was new to me and to hear some of the women’s stories, and how passionate they were about flying was wonderful and I suppose surprising. From the beginning of flight it was a man’s world – even the first passengers were male.


DMC: Have you noticed any differences between the situation in Canada and the United States?

EM: It’s interesting how much more “advanced” the United States appears to be than Canada in this arena, but still, only around 5-6% of all pilots are women there, too. But in the early days of flight, United States was much further ahead in its acceptance of women aviators. For example, they had a licenced woman pilot seventeen years ahead of Canada. And women pilots from the US were welcomed in Canada whereas Canadian women who aspired to be pilots were criticized by a lot of people in society who felt women’s place was in the home. It must be noted, though, that the early Canadian women pioneers in this field were envied by many women.

The first woman to pilot a plane in Canada was an American who had been invited to put on an air show in British Columbia and women in Canada (and in the US) made scrapbooks about American women pilots, especially Amelia Earhart. Of course, this situation existed in other professions as well. Canada was considered much more conservative in its attitudes, whereas United States had been born out of rebellion, and in the 1800s and early 1900s, women seemed to have much more freedom. However, there were restrictions on women there, too.


DMC: I’ve been writing recently about the women ferry pilots during the Second World War in the US and Great Britain, such as the WASPs and the Air Transport Auxiliary. I hear you’ve encountered the same mythology of women doing cross-Atlantic ferrying that I’ve come across.

EM: Yes, at presentations I’ve done, I’ve had three people so far tell me about this program that allowed women to ferry planes across the Atlantic to where they were needed for wartorn Europe. This in fact was not so. Only male pilots were allowed to ferry these planes. It’s interesting how legends develop. Some day I’d like to do more research in that area. It reminds me of the legends about Laura Secord. You know there was no cow in the original scenario, but that detail has grown to the point where an American film company was going to make a film about Laura Secord from the point of view of the cow!


DMC: So what are some of the actual contributions to aviation women have made?

EM: One program with opportunities for women today is Skywatch in Ontario, an initiative to stop pollution on the ground. It uses women pilots only, but unfortunately, the Ontario government has cut back funds drastically. Canadian women pilots have also been involved in Air Solidarité, helping to set up programs in Africa such as schools and women’s literacy programs. During the Second World War, women pilots in British Columbia developed a school to help women learn how to make parachutes. And in the 1940s, five Canadian women flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary in Great Britain. And of course, there are many women bush pilots today, assisting in the opening up of the north, and ferrying geologists, trappers etc and people needing urgent medical care.


DMC: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

EM: Two things. That there is so much room for young people, especially women, to enter this arena, but also that there are some incredibly amazing women out there that have been pioneers in the industry and continue to set high standards. At the book launch, three of the women in my book spoke about their experiences. They are incredible women, intelligent, dedicated, engaging and just plain lovely.