High Flyers in History: Women in Aviation

Arts Alive, March 1998

aviation5Quick, name a famous female pilot. You said ‘Amelia Earhart’. Name another. Specifically, name a Canadian. Drawing a blank?

Well, Canada has a rich tradition of female aviators. A traveling exhibit from the National Museum of Aviation in Ottawa, High Flyers, illustrates the role women have played in Canada’s aviation history. The hope is that sharing this important history may spur young women to follow in these pioneers’ steps, and to look at aviation as a field that can provide many opportunities.

The exhibit celebrates this group of strong-willed pioneers and pays tribute to Canadian women in aviation from before World War II through to today.

There are numerous interesting characters introduced, and stories told. For example, in 1919, Madge Graham, who was married to Canada’s first bush pilot, Stuart Graham, served as navigator on a five-day voyage in which Madge, Graham and a mechanic flew a water-logged wooden flying boat, at tree level, from Dartmouth Nova Scotia to Grand’Mere Quebec (750 kilometres). The escapade elicited this from the American Rear Admiral Byrd, who specialized in feats of exploration: “Flying seaplanes over land is suicide, and taking a woman along is criminal!”

aviation1

Back then, female aviators were a novelty—the press called them ‘Flying Flappers’, ‘Angels’ and ‘Sweethearts of the Air’. Normally, pilots wore heavy gear as protection from fumes, noise and the elements. But when photographers were around, famous female aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran wore blouses, scarves, make-up and tailored slacks. Their worry was that figure-veiling suits would repel non-flying women, and it was believed that if women looked fresh and glamorous after a flight, it would show other women that flying was safe and restful.

By the 1930s, women pilots were attracting more attention. In 1936, the Vancouver-based Flying Seven became Canada’ first women’s flying club. (It was this group that conducted the 1939 ‘bomphlet raid’ on Vancouver, dropping 100,000 pamphlets pleading for “dimes or dollars to buy our boys more planes”.)

 aviation3 aviation4

World War II should have been a boon for female aviators. Instead, the Canadian military deemed the job of pilot as inappropriate for women. One pilot, Helen Harrison, applied to the RCAF with an instructor’s license and a seaplane rating, multi-engine and -instrument endorsements, experience of flying civil and military craft in three countries, and 2,600 flying hours. She was turned away in favour of men with little more than 150 hours to their credit.

So women aviators worked to ‘back the attack’. Some taught flying and navigation—until the RCAF trained mail teachers. Five Canadian women headed to Britain and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organization that ferried aircraft to squadrons, factories and storage units around Britain. Women were involved in aircraft assembly lines, and Elsie MacGill was the aeronautical engineer who supervised the Canadian production of 2,000 Hawker Hurricanes. Finally, in 1941, the RCAF began to admit women, mainly as aerial photographers. And the CWAF (the RCAF’s women’s division), carried the motto: “They serve that men may fly.”

Post-war, things didn’t get any better. Marion Orr, who was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1981, had to go all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office for approval to open her own school and airfield. Stewardesses were in demand, but interviews involved leg and teeth inspections, and marriage meant instant dismissal. Trans-Canada Airlines, Pacific Western Airlines and Canadian Pacific Airlines told Helen Harrison that she was too weak to handle the controls. Dawn Dawson made it as far as the interview—only because the receptionist had spelled her name ‘Don’.

aviation2Gradually, things improved—after a lawsuit or two. Lorna DeBlicquy, a flying instructor, bush pilot and flight-test examiner who started flying at age 15 and had 6,000 hours to her credit, sued Air Canada after two of her male students were hired and she was denied an interview, on the basis that she was too short and would require a specially-designed uniform. In 1977, DeBlicquy became Canada’s first civil aviation inspector and, in 1995, was awarded the Order of Canada.

Finally, in 1973, Trans-Air hired Rosella Bjornson as the first and only female in a field of 2,800 pilots. Then other commercial airlines began hiring women. Today, although some still face prejudice and even hostility, increasing numbers of female pilots are working in military and civil aviation, and still more are air-traffic controllers and engineers.

aviation7 aviation6

So it’s been a bumpy ride. But every female aviator believed the struggle was worthwhile. As Amelia Earhart said: “If enough of us keep trying, we’ll get someplace.”

Advertisements

On the Post-9/11 Plague

Blitz Magazine, November 2001

On September 9th, it was time to start another book. I randomly plucked one from a shelf and began to read. The book was The Plague, by Albert Camus. By September 12th, I realized that the choice was an eerie coincidence.

plagueThe Plague, published in 1947, is the story of a city visited by the bubonic plague, and of the psychological and functional changes forced upon the city’s people. However, the plague is only a symbol. What Camus was really writing about was the German occupation of France.

We are now the plague-stricken, with our affliction being terrorism and everything that created it. The parallels between the novel and what we are now experiencing, and what we will experience, are too numerous to cite—you’ll have to read the book. But in it, Camus touches on the media and writes about how, when journalists become bored with reporting the death tolls, and on the frustratingly-slow recovery process, they turn their society’s disaster into morbid entertainment. Their news becomes limited to the information supplied by the Prefect. In the time of crisis, they lose all credibility.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York, I’ve been sickened by the media/Hollywood treatment of it. The image of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center just had to be shown again. And again. And again. And again. The major news organizations used it as a logo. There were/are the Creative Writing 101 titles: ‘America Under Attack’, ‘Helping America Heal’, ‘America’s New War’. The White House joined in, with Dubya’s speechwriter making him say things like ‘Dead or Alive!’ then helped with the branding of it all with the incredibly ridiculous ‘Operation Infinite Justice’. Dateline is still busy wringing every last melodramatic ounce from the disaster. Advertisers are running promotions around it: ‘Buy an RV and we’ll give $100 to the New York relief effort!’, and ‘Buy a 2002 SUV and help keep America moving!’

Other truly nauseating examples were the special editions of the magazines. Those from Time and Newsweek were little more than collections of photographs taken on and around that horrible day. As what? Keepsakes for scrapbooks and photo albums, to be pasted in along with the baby pictures? On September 16th, Fox scheduled Independence Day for its Sunday night movie. On the already moronic Entertainment Tonight, the story from the odious Mary Hart was how ‘The Stars’ managed to get home from the Toronto Film Festival. Then she interviewed a producer, who unwittingly summed up all that’s wrong with Hollywood when he said: “This kind of thing is entertainment as long as it’s fantasy. Once it happens, it ceases to be entertainment.”

plague1In The Plague, the citizens struggle to live their lives normally, in denial, helplessly going through the motions, obedient to every edict from the Prefect. Dissenters are quashed.

The novel’s main characters are heroes; doctors and volunteers, who spend their days lancing the buboes on the bodies of the stricken, in hopes that release and disposal of the noxious fluid will help bring an end to the pernicious plague.

There is only one character who self-destructs—the profiteer. This man makes a lot of money by appealing to the base instincts that arise in people during times of crisis; once the plague has run its course, he loses his mind, his friends and his freedom.

Camus was writing about World War II, and we know that this type of situation, and its effects on any society, has been the same for centuries. But the nature of media has changed; its scope and capabilities have changed. One would hope that, with all this sophistication, the behaviour of those who work in all forms of media would change for the better. I’m not seeing it.