A Woman and her Whirlybird
This Okanagan Woman broke down barriers to fly the skies
By: Shannon Linden
From the time she was a little girl, Dolores Greenlaw has kept up with the boys.
“I was 11 years old when I wanted to play hockey,” she recalls, “but no one would let me play on the boys’ team.”
Undeterred, the feisty kid from Meadow Creek organized a bunch of girls. Suited up in full gear and figure skates, they played neighboring towns.
After high school Greenlaw worked for forestry. The summer of 1985, as wildfires ravaged interior forests, she was pulled from her office job and put into the control zone. In charge of camp coordination and dispatch responsibilities, she organized air traffic areas and multiple helicopters.
After flames were doused, the pilot of a 204 helicopter took her for a ride over Macbeth glacier, and despite the stunning view, a strange sensation overwhelmed her. "Suddenly I realized I was in the wrong seat. I wanted to fly the helicopter myself."
So began a colorful career Greenlaw continues to craft. After training in Vancouver, she captained her first flight, January 1, 1986. “I was the only one who wasn’t hung over,” she jokes.
The first female to fly with Helijet, she went straight to the big, twin-engine machines but looked more like a flight attendant.
“When I started with Helijet they weren't quite sure what to do with me. They put shoulder pads in a man's jacket, accentuated the waist, and then there was the skirt. It was A-line, with all these tiers of fabric.” She could hardly walk, let alone fly.
Like finally getting hockey skates, Greenlaw held out for a uniform of her own. She flew between Vancouver and Victoria for a number of years before moving to Vancouver Island Helicopters where she was offered a captaincy on the air ambulance, a Bell 222.
Inspiring sights, like whales swimming 500 feet offshore, brought peace to the persistently stressful job. Greenlaw’s sense of humor didn’t hurt either. “When life and death are at stake,” she says, “you keep your cool by acting like you’re delivering pizza, not patients.”
Some have restless feet; the open skies called to Greenlaw to spread her wings. She moved to Canadian Helicopters International (now CHC Global), where she jokes that she was a bus driver to the oil rigs, transporting workers offshore.
In keeping with Greenlaw’s gusto for great starting dates, her first flight was memorable. “The Thai people are very superstitious,” she says. “I got everything out of the way; a woman pilot, flying on Friday the 13th.”
From Asia to Africa, the adventures were many and the calls from other companies kept coming.
“I sent a resume to the Middle East, with just my initials on it,” she says. “I got a phone call from Abu Dhabi helicopters and when I answered with my Darth Vader voice, the guy asked if I was female.”
When Greenlaw confirmed his suspicions, her would-be employer said, “Bummer.”
It wouldn’t be the last time she had to prove herself worthy, despite her delicate gender.
Moving to Canadian Helicopters Limited, she went from flying in hot climates to the frigid air off Baffin Island, in the Canadian Arctic.
Early warning systems, remnants from the Cold War with Russia, are scattered across the top of the Arctic and the sights are stunning. “I flew near Santa’s house,” Greenlaw says, smiling.
These days she calls Kelowna home but Myanmar (Burma), a sovereign state in Southeast Asia, is where she flies.
Captain on a Sikorsky 76 C++, she typically works five weeks in; five weeks out. Flying to offshore oilrigs, sometimes she lands on tankers, sometimes on platforms. “Drilling platforms are lower to the water and bounce when you land. Very wiggly wobbly,” she acknowledges.
Nearly 30 years of soaring the skies, Greenlaw has witnessed spectacular scenery and met interesting passengers.
“I flew politicians and celebrities. The most terrifying thing for me was having to look at my 12 passengers and do the safety briefing,” she admits. She didn't even realize Billy Joel was on board until someone in customer service asked what she thought of him.
But the Dalai Lama was her favourite. “He was going from Vancouver to Victoria for a speaking engagement. I was unsure of the protocol. All these monks got in; changed seats, got back out. Got in, changed seats again. Apparently it had something to do with the sun,” she says, laughing.
Quietly seated behind her, the Dalai Lama tapped Greenlaw’s shoulder, pointing down to the Victoria airport as she flew over. He had a good chuckle when she showed him a map of the harbor they were actually heading for.
“Being in his energy was a high point in my career,” Greenlaw says. “Everyone he touched claimed they made a major change in their lives shortly thereafter.”
Including Greenlaw, who relishes her time off with Latin dancing. “I started five years ago. I went from having work boots and flight suits in my closet to high-heeled shoes and dresses. I’ve met great people and it's so fun!”
“I might have been a dancer,” she muses, “Although these days I wouldn’t mind being a kept woman.”