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Kathy Fox in Profile

Nav Canada’s vice-president of operations lives her passion for aviation


September 27, 2007
By Ken Pole

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When she was about five, Kathy Fox used to climb trees near her Vancouver home and pretend that she was flying a helicopter. “I can’t tell you why helicopters, but aviation has been my passion since I was old enough to know what an airplane was. I think I got it in the blood through my mother, although she herself was not interested in flying and was a little nervous about her daughter taking it up,” she recounted. Her genetic predisposition apparently came from uncles who were involved in gliding in the 1930s in out of Medicine Hat, Alta. One died in an accident at 22 but another, Norman Bruce, went to England during World War II to build and test gliders. Back home, he went on to become the ‘father’ of gliding in Western Canada.

Fox never did learn to fly helicopters. “I would have liked to, but it was just so expensive,” she explained in an interview, her voice tailing off wistfully. However, she has logged 4,200 hours in fixedwing aircraft through a career that eventually led to her current job as vice-president (operations) of Nav Canada. Nav Canada is the private corporation that has owned and operated this country’s civil air navigation service (ANS), having purchased the system from the federal government in November 1996 for $1.5 billion. Moving over from Transport Canada, Fox now oversees some 3,700 of Nav Canada’s 5,400 employees such as air traffic controllers and flight service specialists. They work in Area Control Centres (ACCs) at Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Moncton and Gander as well as 42 control towers, 66 flight service stations, six flight information centres and 51 community aerodrome radio stations providing weather information in the North, all underpinned by a network of over 1,000 ground-based aids to navigation including 45 radar sites.

As for fixed-wing experience, although Fox first flew at 13, with a family friend in a Cessna in Cartierville, Que., she couldn’t take her first official lesson for another three years, at the Calgary Flying Club in 1967. An uncle paid, but that was it for quite a while. “I didn’t have the money,” she explained. “I had to make a choice between university and learning to fly. I chose university because some of my goals would require a degree.” Shortly after enrolling at McGill University in Montreal, she responded to a campus ad for skydiving, thinking, “well, if I can’t fly airplanes, I can jump out of them!” Fox eventually becoming president of the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association. “I was active in the sport from 1968 until about 1980,” she said, logging 650 jumps. “I retired as president in 1978 but I did take a couple of teams over to the world championships and to an international competition in 1980.”

When she graduated with a BSc in mathematics and science, she began looking for work in aviation even though she still hadn’t learned to fly. “I can’t say that there were many flying jobs open to women at that time, certainly not in the airlines.” So she dropped in at a Canadian Forces recruiting station in Montreal, but was not thrilled at their offer of work as a nurse or dietician. She noted that Deanna Brasseur joined up that year as a secretary/clerk, going on to become a commissioned officer and an air weapons controller before she was selected as one of the first three women to be trained as Canadian Forces pilots, eventually becoming one of the first to fly CF-18 fighters. Maj Brasseur is still in uniform, in the Directorate of Air Strategic Plans at National Defence Headquarters.

“I don’t regret my career at all,” Fox said. “I would do everything exactly the same.” But that doesn’t assuage a vague hankering to fly something like the CF-18 and she’s aware of programs whereby pilots can ‘fly’ MiGs in Russia. “My original goal as a youngster in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was to go into space and I actually applied the first year they took applications. I think it was 1982-83, when they hired the first six Canadian astronauts,” which include Dr. Roberta Bondar and Navy Capt Marc Garneau, who’s now president of the Canadian Space Agency. “I was turned down and when I see the qualifications of the people who were selected – double doctorates and so on, I can see why. So I guess I’ll just have to wait for a commercial ride into space to come available at a price I can afford.”

Meanwhile, back in her university days, some friends had gone to work at Transport Canada and, after teaching for a while at a private highschool, Fox followed suit in 1974. Evocative of her approach to skydiving, she recalled thinking that “if I couldn’t fly airplanes, I could tell them where to go!” Although licensed as a controller in early 1976, she still harboured dreams of flight. So she finally got her private licence in Sept-Iles, her first ATC assignment, in 1978 before being transferred to the St-Hubert tower in 1979, when the flying part of her career really took off.

Fox became involved in a flying cooperative, Quebec’s counterpart to a flying club, and worked through her commercial, instructor, multiengine and IFR licences. Against that backdrop, she along with two other pilots and a mechanic set up Dynamair Enterprises in the St-Jean-sur-Richelieu area, growing it into a flight school, charter operation and maintenance centre. In addition to instructing, flying charters and doing the financial management, she also was holding down her ATC job, having moved from St-Hubert to Montreal/Dorval and then back to St-Jean as head of ATC training. From there, she went back to Dorval and finally to the Montreal ACC before moving to Ottawa in 1992 for a management job at Transport Canada, at which time she sold her interest in Dynamair. It was her ATC job that gave Fox the means and the time to pursue not only her other aviation interests but also an MBA from McGill.

Fox still instructs part-time at Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Flying Club, which shares space with the National Aviation Museum. “My ratings are still valid and I actually do a lot of flight testing for Transport Canada, for private and commercial licences. A lot of my charter flying was in the US and in Canada, but primarily Eastern Canada. I did things like medevacs up to Baffin Island and a lot of charter work.” While she has flown an array of types, she said the Cessna 441 Conquest 2 twin turboprop probably was the most sophisticated. “It was certified up to flight level 350 and 280 knots true,” she said, laughing at her recollection that air traffic control “didn’t particularly like us when we’re up at the high levels, mixing it up with the jets.” Other than that, she has flown a lot of the basic multiengine Piper Aztec- and Seneca-type aircraft and a lot of single-engine Cessnas, Pipers and Beeches.

Then there’s her involvement in precision flying, which is to pilots what rallying is to car drivers. She was approached in 1995 through The Ninety-Nines, the international pilot organization founded in 1929 by 99 licensed women and which counts thousands of members worldwide, including Fox, who also belongs to the Canadian chapter of Women in Aviation and its US-based parent. The Ninety-Nines contact led to the formation of the first allfemale team to compete in the world championships. They went to Dallas/Fort Worth in 1996, New Zealand in 1999 and Sweden in 2000. Most competitors use locally-based private or school aircraft, a notable exception being the Polish team, which shipped its own Wilga, a vintage PZLdeveloped reconnaissance platform which flies very slowly and is particularly well suited to precision flying. “We would typically use 150s and 152s, slow and with a high wing for good visibility,” Fox said. “I flew Swedish- and New Zealand-registered aircraft in those countries.”

Apart from the Canadian Forces trying to pigeonhole her fresh out of McGill, Fox has never personally encountered any gender problems. She said that when she was flying Conquests for Dynamair, it wasn’t unusual to have an all-female crew. “You’d get a few quizzical looks from the passengers, but nothing ever came of it.” That said, she does know women who’ve had passengers refuse to fly with a female at the controls. And while she knows instructors who’ve had students who preferred male instructors, she personally hasn’t encountered that either. “I’ve trained lots of people, male and female, over the years.”

Asked whether women bring a different set of skills or attitude to flying, Fox said she has heard that women generally are less prone to risktaking. “Never having been a man, I don’t know,” she laughed. “I think that when you come to basic flying skills and decision-making, it should be gender-neutral.” Fox feels that her flying experience has given her a better understanding of her customers’ needs. “I can certainly appreciate what a pilot is going through and I can also appreciate it from the business end. I know what the challenges are in running a commercial aviation business in this country.”

Fox has never personally owned an aircraft. When she co-owned Dynamair, she had ready access and nowadays, since most of her flying is instruction or testing, the student or candidate foots the bill. “I don’t fly enough now to justify ownership, which is not say that will always be the case. But given my responsibilities now, I just don’t have enough time.”

Those responsibilities involve interaction with operators who, despite early gripes with Nav Canada’s fee schedules, “by and large have been pretty complimentary about the changes that Nav Canada has been able to effect.” There still are occasional complaints about service or about one airport or another, but she pointed out the millions of dollars being poured into ANS system modernization. “From a technology perspective we’ve done a lot, but … with increases in demand over the next few years, we’re going to have to look at how we can modernize air traffic control procedures to accommodate that demand safely and efficiently.”

Improved communications is a high priority. “We’re seeing more and more transition to datalink communications from VHF and that’s certainly going to affect the high-flyers, the long-range aircraft,” she said. “We’re already seeing it over the north Atlantic and we’ll see it in the next few years over the northern part of Canada. The good thing about that is that it requires a lot less infrastructure on the ground, so it’s less expensive for everybody involved.”

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADSB), which uses the satellitebased global positioning system, is a long-term goal at Nav Canada, another promising development in that it enables pilots and ground controllers to ‘see’ traffic more precisely. Aircraft equipped with ADS-B used a digital datalink to transmit their airspeed, altitude and whether the aircraft is turning, climbing or descending. Receivers integrated into the ATC system or aboard other aircraft accurately depict real-time traffic. Also, ADS-B works at low altitudes and on the ground and is effective in remote areas or mountainous terrain where there is limited or even no radar coverage.

Fox predicts “big changes” in air traffic management, globally as well as domestically. On the international front, “we’re being told by the International Air Transport Association and its member carriers to expect big growth in the next few years. We want to make sure we’re ready.” Much of the change is technologydriven. “I’ve only been out of operational controlling for 12- 13 years and already I’m a full generation behind in terms of the tools that are available to controllers today,” she said. With the advent of technologies such as the long-awaited Canadian Automated Air Traffic System, commissioned in Moncton in June, controllers have to deal with much less routine manual processing of flight data and instead can concentrate on actually controlling. “A lot of the information is available to them right on a display; they don’t have a whole bunch of paper strips,” Fox said. “We’re going to see incremental improvements over the next few years. It’s an exciting time to be here.”