Amelia Earhart likely pops into mind when you think about women flying aircraft. But nowadays, women are involved in every aspect of aviation, from hobby flying of small planes to corporate piloting, flying instruction and working as aircraft mechanics. In Canada, however, only 5.2 percent of pilots are women.
There are a number of women pilots in the Okanagan. Many belong to the Black Sheep, the nickname for the Canadian Rockies Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization established in 1929 by 99 licensed women pilots to promote aviation through education, scholarship, mutual support. The women shared a passion for flight and their goal was to honour a unique history.
Not surprisingly, Amelia Earhart was the first president. There are now thousands of members in 35 countries around the world.
TEACHING FIRST OFFICER
Kelly Sheret, 53, of Lumby, has been a member of the Ninety-Nines since 2003.
"I had applied to the Ninety-Nines for a scholarship... I used the money towards getting my Multi Engine Rating." She also won the Amelia Earhart Scholarship which she used to renew her Multi Engine Instrument Rating.
Both her mother and father were pilots. Kelly says she was not hit by the flying bug until 1998 when visiting a lifelong friend who owns her own flying school and who was already a member of the Ninety-Nines.
"I decided that day I wanted to be a pilot." Eventually Kelly obtained both her private and commercial license, and then became a flying instructor. As a professional, she was teaching flying lessons, flying boat counts, fire patrols and charters. Now, she is a freelance instructor and works as a first officer on a corporate airplane out of Kelowna.
Kelly also flies for pleasure. "I take my husband Kevin up and we love to sight see over the mountains." She does not own her own plane, but flies with a friend who owns a Cessna 172.
In 2010, Kelly flew to Haiti to deliver doctors and supplies from Florida on the corporate airplane where she is first officer. "This was the most awesome experience," she says.
FLYING TO SEE WHAT'S THERE
Betty Lee Longstaff, 64, is based out of Vernon. She’s belonged to the Ninety-Nines for 15 years and loves spending time with other women pilots. "They are all so passionate about aviation."
Betty Lee started flying 17 years ago. "Of course I loved it and could not stop." She is a private pilot who owns a Cessna 172. "I enjoy flying to other airports to see what’s there."
A high point for Betty Lee was when she was attending a Ninety-Nines section meeting in Walla, Walla Washington. "There were about 20 airplanes sitting on the ramp. I was surrounded by other women pilots all doing the same thing. It was a very empowering moment for me."
TO SEE WHALES AND ICEBERGS
Penticton’s Maryse Rajotte, 50, a Ninety-nines member for three years, appreciates that the organization offers mentoring programs and scholarships to encourage women to pursue aviation careers.
She started to fly as a teenager with the Air Cadets. Later, when Maryse tried to enroll in the Canadian Forces as a pilot, she was turned down. At 115 pounds, she didn’t weigh enough—the ejection seat would tumble if a pilot weighed less than 145 pounds. Instead, she joined the Forces as a mechanic and then as a flight engineer. This afforded her the opportunity to work on a variety of planes and helicopters in the realm of search and rescue.
Maryse also flies for fun. In Germany she learned hang-gliding and has flown at most of the top European sites for the sport.
Maryse own-shared the Penticton Flying Club airplane, a Cessna 172, and also flies one owned by a friend.
Her fondest memory in the air was flying a Cormorant helicopter from Italy to Canada.
"We flew from Italy through England, Scotland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador. When we flew over the ocean, I was fascinated watching the whales swimming around icebergs." The height of the Greenland glacier (over 10,000 feet) was equally impressive .
Women with Wings
Story by Dona Sturmanis
A 2012 social event for the Ninety-Nines in Winfield has inspired Pamela Nelson, 49, of Kelowna to become a pilot. "I was hooked. These women are amazing." She doesn’t have her pilot license yet, but when she does, she’ll become a "card-carrying member" of the group.
Her first flight in a small plane (Cessna 172) was with husband Daryl in 2002. "Flying was his passion, and he introduced me to the thrill of taking off, landing and viewing our world from elevations ranging from 3500 to over 11,000 feet above sea level." Now they own a Diamond DA40.
Together, they visit their grandson and his mom and dad in Grande Prairie, Alberta. They also love to attend fly-in social events and to go air camping, where they can pitch a tent at the airport or at a campground nearby.
Pamela and Daryl’s "big vacation" in the summer of 2013 was to Port Hardy, flying through the Pemberton and Whistler valleys.
"Traversing the central interior valleys, then through the peaks of the rocks and then into the skies over the Johnston Strait was absolutely amazing."
TAKE UP WINGS
"I feel that women have amazing opportunities in this field if they believe in themselves and work hard to achieve their goals," says flying instructor Kelly Sheret.
"I strongly encourage women to start a career in aviation," agrees Maryse Rajotte. "A woman becomes independent and every day is a new challenge."
As for the Ninety-nines, Pamela Nelson only has glowing comments. "The camaraderie and support of the group is amazing. They are very knowledgeable, have such diverse backgrounds and generally a lot of fun to be around. I learn something every time I am in their company."
Ninety-Nines at the Vernon Airport
Ninety-Nines in front of a Cessna 172 owned by Penticton Flying Club