You might say Lauren Kattenbusch was destined to fly.
The daughter of a pilot, she and her father would put together model airplanes while she was growing up. Her mother also worked in the aviation industry and the most common conversation in their Fall River, N.S., home was about flight.
“I was always around airplanes,” said the 23-year-old Kattenbusch.
After graduating from high school, she attended university, studying sciences at the University of Ottawa, but still, she knew her true career waited for her in the sky.
“I wasn’t long in the plane before I knew that I wanted to fly it." — Victoria MacKenzie
After a couple of years in Ottawa, Kattenbusch applied to Gander Flight Training and headed east.
Victoria MacKenzie’s path to the cockpit was different. Being a pilot wasn’t her plan when she filled out an application for a flight attendant position with Provincial Airlines.
She got the job, but it wasn’t long before the 28-year-old from St. John’s found she wanted to be controlling the plane instead of serving the passengers on it.
In her two years with PAL, she saw several of her flight attendant colleagues make the transition to flight school, and her path was set.
“I wasn’t long in the plane before I knew that I wanted to fly it,” she said.
Earning their stripes
On July 22, Kattenbusch and MacKenzie earned their commercial pilots licences, marked by a third white stripe.
The licenses mean they have the ability to fly any single-engine, non-high-performance aircraft in Canada. That does not include airline passenger planes.
The pair did their sign-offs and received their three bars on the same day.
“It is exciting,” said MacKenzie. “It almost seems like it didn’t happen.”
According to the International Society of Airline Pilots, just over five per cent of the pilots worldwide are female.
At Gander Flight Training, Kattenbusch and MacKenzie are two of the 15 female students who have been working to raise that percentage.
“We’ve seen that number increasing in recent years,” said Gander Flight Training general manager Darlene Colbourne. “We certainly focus our recruitment on that.
“(The numbers are) up because of our increased marketing initiatives and (by) showing females that (aviation) is not only for the males. It is certainly a career that females can enjoy.”
Colbourne started in her position more than two decades ago. She took a break for several years but returned to the flight school a couple of years ago.
“Sometimes aviation gets in your blood and it doesn’t leave you,” said Colbourne explaining her decision to return.
Not just would-be pilots tilting the balance
One of the things she noticed on coming back was a change in the gender balance.
Currently, of the 80 students working to be pilots at the school, 15 are women. But it doesn’t stop there. The chief flight instructor, two other flight instructors and the school’s owner are female.
Recently, seven of the 15 female students gathered Inside a flight school classroom to talk about their aims. They come from Corner Brook, Cape Breton, St. John’s and elsewhere, and as was the case with Kattenbusch and MacKenzie, their background stories differ.
For example, frequent traveller Paulina Stagg had just returned from a vacation in Dubai when her boyfriend half-heartedly suggested she learn to fly because she did so much.
She took him up on the suggestion.
“Every time I get in the plane, I get butterflies,” she said.
They also know their chosen career paths will likely make them role models.
“There are a lot more women talking about it now,” agreed Taylor Hefferan. “Since coming here, we’ve had seminars and things that celebrate women in aviation.”
Nevertheless, there are still battles to fight and stigmas to shatter, and they’re getting support as they do it.
“I get a lot of praise from my home community, and not only from my home community but also my province for following my dreams,” said Chantel Gould, a member of the We’koqma’q First Nation in Cape Breton.
Since beginning their training, the student pilots have gone into high schools to speak about their experiences and goals. While on a recent trip to Nova Scotia, Kattenbusch and fellow aspiring pilot Courtney Trimm were mistaken for flight attendants, even though they were in their pilot’s garb.
They quickly corrected the mistaken impression.
“It is so liberating,” Trimm said of being able to help change views and attitudes. “It’s … badass. It is so exciting.”
Having a desire to enter an industry is one thing. Finding the path that allows you to do that is another.
Each of these women wants to get into the flight industry, but outside of Kattenbusch, they were left looking for a roadmap at the outset.
They feel like that’s changed in recent years for the better.
“I see changes for sure. When I left high school, I didn't know this place (Gander Flight Training) existed. It is only when I started thinking about making a change in my life that I and looking for flight schools,” said Shannon Murphy, noting Gander Flight Training now goes to high schools promoting itself … to both young men and women.
They know they won’t get there right away, but finding a place in the captain’s chair in the cockpit of a plane flying for a major airline is the goal for these women.
For now, they know that could be flying bush planes in the north, staying as close to the tree line as they can.
And wherever it happens, in whatever type of aircraft, it’s flying.
“You’re in control,” said MacKenzie. “It’s cool, it's fun and you get to say you’re doing something that not a lot of people do.”
Nicholas Mercer is a local journalism initiative reporter for central Newfoundland for Saltwire Network.