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Women in Aviation: Showing them the way

As a wife, mother and grandmother with a career in aviation that spans more than 50 years, it’s not farfetched to use the word “remarkable” when describing Thunder Bay native Liz Wieben. Wieben’s journey in aviation began at a time when there were few women in the workplace let alone flying in the bush.


January 10, 2014
By Anna Pangrazzi

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As a wife, mother and grandmother with a career in aviation that spans more than 50 years, it’s not farfetched to use the word “remarkable” when describing Thunder Bay native Liz Wieben. Wieben’s journey in aviation began at a time when there were few women in the workplace let alone flying in the bush. She worked in an era when a woman’s pregnancy meant it was time to retire. Wieben has witnessed significant change in so many realms and has always been at the forefront of those changes. This past fall, she received the Elsie MacGill Northern Lights award for education for her contributions to aviation. As a professor at Thunder Bay’s Confederation College from 1986 to 2005, Wieben was an outstanding role model to many young women in the flight program. This was after a lifetime of flying.

By high school the word was out  
By high school the word was out . . . don’t try dating her, she’s only interested in flying! Photo: Elsie MacGill Northern Lights Award


 

Wieben shared with Wings her insights about working in male-dominated field.

Q.: You started flying at 11 and by high school, it had become your passion. How did that happen?
A.: I was born into an aviation family. My father, Orville Wieben, was a test pilot on the Hell Divers and Hurricanes at the Canada Car and Foundry in Thunder Bay during World War II. After the war, he started Superior Airways Ltd. and the whole family worked in the business. All my siblings were pilots at some point. I flew with my brother, Don, all over northwestern Ontario and although I was airsick most of the time, by high school the word was out . . . don’t try dating her, she’s only interested in flying!

Q.:  You solo’d at 16, became a licenced pilot at 17, a commercial pilot at 18 and an instructor at 19. What kind of challenges did you encounter?
A.: I started in the aviation business when it was legal for companies and the government to say, “We don’t hire women,” and there was no recourse . . . that closed the doors to the airlines, ATC and the military. As long as I was in the family business, however, my job was protected but that didn’t prevent passengers from refusing to fly with me, or the poor treatment I encountered away from base. When I married my husband, Robin Webster, we moved to Australia, back to Canada and to the U.S. before finally settling in Thunder Bay. During that period, we had four kids and I encountered many challenges. I was constantly being tested everywhere I went and even though legislation was changing, attitudes about employing women were not.

Q.:  You are a small woman. Were there other challenges flying in the bush?
A.: When we finally settled back in Thunder Bay, Robin and I started our own air charter business called Wiebenair Ltd. My longest stint flying in the bush was in a DHC-2 Beaver on the shores of Lake Superior and I faced all the challenges other pilots face such as advection fog, big waves and long days of heavy physical work. I also had to watch out for my own personal safety in some of the remote areas we flew. Then there were the comments about my height: “Sure, they send a woman, but why such a little one?!” As our children grew up, we thought it was important that at least one of us try to be around, so I eventually took a job teaching at Confederation College.

Q.:  Who has influenced your career? Did you have any mentors?
A.: It would have helped greatly if I had known other women pilots. At the time, I wasn’t even aware that women flew in World War II. My father was a big mentor and actively promoted my flying. Even my mother supported me, although she was afraid for my well-being. And there were some fellows who helped me along the way. There was one guy in the U.S. who helped me get hired on a DC-3, cloud seeding, and another guy, Frank Bayne, a retired army helicopter pilot, who gave me a chance at Confederation College. In the mid-’80s, I received a substantial Amelia Earhart Scholarship from the 99’s and would never have gotten an ATP without their help.

Q.: How do we get more women interested in aviation?
A.: I think the College Flight Program helped a lot in increasing the number of women flying. I can vividly remember the night I thought that things are really changing. There were four women pilots in the circuit and myself with a female student. An Air Canada plane came in and the pilot commented, “what’s going on here? You guys got the women’s Air Force out? I think the new crop of women pilots should try to be more visible role models by talking with younger women about their work.  Being a role model can be a very powerful tool. We also need to do a better job with daycare.

Q.:  What advice would you give a young woman pursuing a career in aviation?
A.: Get the best aviation education you can get at an aviation college and get to know some women who have been in the industry for a long time. It can really help your confidence to have those positive influences. I also think it is important to choose a supportive mate.


Anna Pangrazzi is a Wings writer and columnist.