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Taylor captures Elsie MacGill Northern Lights Award

Sept. 30, 2011, Toronto - Roberta Taylor was the daughter of two pilots, and on her way to becoming a frequent flyer around the time she was learning how to walk.


September 30, 2011
By Carey Fredericks

The family owned a bush airline when she was growing up in Thunder Bay, Ont., then known as Fort William.

"We were raised in that environment, so I don't even remember the first time that I was up in an aircraft because it would've been as a toddler," Taylor recalled in a phone interview.

She got her commercial licence before she turned 20 and would spend more than 45 years blazing a trail for other women in the field of aviation.

Taylor, 65, is this year's winner of the Elsie MacGill Northern Lights Award, which recognizes notable Canadian women in aviation and aerospace.

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Established in 2009, the award is named for homegrown aviation pioneer Elsie MacGill.

Despite contracting polio at age 24, the Vancouver-born MacGill racked up a lengthy list of accomplishments and some notable firsts. Among them: She was the first Canadian woman to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, the first woman in North America with an advanced degree in aeronautics, and the world’s first woman to become an aircraft designer.

Taylor started off as a commercial bush pilot in northwestern Ontario. She later relocated with her husband to British Columbia and started Taylor Aviation in 1978, a maintenance repair shop and aircraft sales business in Cranbrook.

She flew fire patrols in the Canadian Rockies for the B.C. Forest Service, and also volunteered in air search and rescue.

Taylor qualified as a civilian search master and became a regional deputy co-ordinator, tasked with providing training and organizing volunteer pilots, navigators and spotters for civilian air searches.

In "Clockwatcher," author Blair Farish recounts a Cessna crash in the Purcell Mountains and attributes his survival to Taylor who persevered in turbulence and tough terrain to carry out a painstaking search and direct rescuers to the site.

Despite her accomplishments and credentials, Taylor said the workplace culture at the time was male-dominated, and many people were reluctant to deal with a woman, whether she was working in aircraft sales, ferrying or test-flying aircraft, or working in her own business.

"They often asked to speak to my husband or to a male pilot or someone because there was this culture that aviation is a man's world," she recalled. "There were times when people did not want to get into my airplane because the pilot was a woman and I would have to work … with them and find out why they were resistant."

Taylor said attitudes changed over time. But there were occasions when she would have to prove her competence by showing her credentials. The efforts of Taylor and MacGill have helped to pave the way for other women seeking careers in aviation. Yet female pilots in Canada appear to be in short supply, with a relative handful working as pilots for the country's biggest airlines.

As of October, WestJet will have 43 female pilots among a total of 1,050. Of the 3,000 pilots at Air Canada, 133 are women.

The incoming class of the Bachelor of Aviation Technology degree program at Seneca College in Ontario is generally made up of 10 per cent women, with 90 seats available in the first year, according to Lynne McMullen, director of the School of Aviation and Flight Technology.

Northern Lights Award chair Anna Pangrazzi, who has flown for 34 years, said she finds it hard to understand why women comprise roughly five or six per cent of the pilot population while by comparison, the percentage of female lawyers and doctors is typically around 40 or 50 per cent.

She said it could stem partly from the perception that the profession is still considered "a very macho thing to do."

"People try to portray it as something very difficult and hard — and it really isn't," Pangrazzi said. "It's challenging, but it's not any more challenging than getting a medical degree or a law degree."

Pangrazzi said they want to encourage young girls to think of careers in aviation and aerospace. They want to have the Northern Lights Award website serve as a resource and hope to start connecting with schools, which would include setting up a speakers bureau for women in the field to go out to address students.

"It's a wonderful profession and it's very exciting and challenging. It's hard to understand why we can't get that number up."

Taylor was injured as a passenger in a serious car accident which ended her flying career. She switched to social policy work and now teaches at the University of Victoria in the Faculty of Human and Social Development.

Pangrazzi said Taylor has been "instrumental" in working to organize on behalf of women in the field, and was the first person to produce a conference on Canadian women in aviation in the early '90s.

Taylor has also conducted a research study on the sexual harassment of women pilots, and delivers presentations called "Lessons From Our Mothers" emphasizing to today's women the importance of understanding history and the progress of their female predecessors. She is also engaged in a community project to ensure the federal government protects a safe operating environment for float planes, paddlers and rowers in the Port of Victoria.

While she stopped flying in 1990, Taylor relished her time in the skies and wishes more people could have the chance to sit in the pilot's seat.

"I think it gives you some time away from the hustle and bustle, away from life on the ground where you can actually get a broader perspective of life."