Blue skies ahead for UW aviation student

By Natasha McKenty

Winnie Ho's fascination with airplanes took flight during a childhood visit to Toronto's Canadian International Air Show.

In an industry where less than seven per cent are female, the fourth-year Science and Aviation student at the University of Waterloo fully embraces the responsibility of being a role model.

“I know that I'm a mentor, even now [as a student],” she told CityNews. “High school students, for example, most of them aren't even exposed to aviation. So, they don't even consider it at all.”

As one of only a few females in the program, Ho is pursuing a Bachelor of Science, with a specialization in Earth Sciences. But she admits that her flight path was almost thrown off course – by one of her elementary school teachers.

“There was a presentation I did in grade seven about what I wanted to be. I said I wanted to be an airline pilot, and that was the first time I'd ever actually heard, 'Oh, you can't do it because you're a girl.' My teacher said, 'Your parents will never let you do that. You're a girl; it's too dangerous for you.'”

She admits the comment “set her back.” From that moment on, she kept her desire to become a pilot to herself.

Today, as she nears completion of her IATPL (Integrated Airline Transport Pilot License) at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC), her dream of sitting at the controls of an Air Canada Boeing 787 is thriving.

During the pandemic, the ambitious pilot also acquired her seaplane rating.

“It's so cool to land on water. But, unfortunately, not everyone gets to do it,” she said. The Cessna 172L on floats is currently her favourite aircraft to fly.

And her hard work is already being recognized; she is a two-time recipient of The Captain Judy Cameron Scholarship, named in honour of Air Canada's first female pilot, former Boeing 777 Captain and Northern Lights Aero Foundation Director, Judy Cameron. The $5,000 scholarship was created by the airline to provide financial support towards the high cost of flight training, to help the next generation of women “follow in her trailblazing footsteps.”

Ho admitted that the first time she spoke with the retired captain, she was overwhelmed.

“I was so scared,” she laughed. “Because Captain Judy Cameron is such a pioneer in aviation; she's so cool to me. And she genuinely wanted to get to know me. I got to get to know her on a personal level, too.

“She tells me to 'just go for it.' So, that advice has really stuck,” she beamed.

And the words of that grade seven teacher continue to empower and encourage her to break the bias. Ho, a teaching assistant in the UW aviation program and an active member of the Northern Lights Junior Board of Directors, aspires to be the mentor she once needed.

Today, she also volunteers with the Canadian Association for Girls in Science (CAGIS), a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) club for girls aged seven to 16, with 13 chapters across Canada.

“[Surprisingly], they actually haven't [explored] aviation before. So, I'm going to be doing a little science experiment about weather and its relation to aviation.” She shares that her hope is to help girls see that “aviation is really cool.”

“I'm starting off small right now, just trying to get [their] attention, [and teach them] that aviation is a thing,” she jested.

The determined future commercial airline pilot also donates her time to Girls Can Fly, a local event run by WWFC offering free flights to girls ages eight to 18 (May 14).

“I'll continue to [volunteer] during my career because as I get more experienced, I will have more ability to inspire girls – especially when I'm the captain of a triple seven (Boeing 777).”

For the young woman who knows how it feels to bet against, her angle of attack is to fuel the passion of all who dream of flying.

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