Canada's first female commercial pilot honoured with Alberta Order of Excellence

Rosella Bjornson was landing a plane in Calgary when she radioed to ground control and was mistaken for a misbehaving stewardess.

Rosella Bjornson was the first female commercial pilot in North America

In 1973, Rosella Bjornson became the first woman in Canada to be hired as a commercial airline pilot. (Rosella Bjornson)

Once, while landing a plane in Calgary, Rosella Bjornson radioed the tower and was mistaken for a misbehaving stewardess.

The year was 1974 and Bjornson was the only woman in North America working as a commercial pilot.

"We were landing at the Calgary Airport, and of course I was using the radio. And the ground controller said, 'When did Transair start allowing flight attendants to use the radio?'

"I laughed and I said, 'I'm not a flight attendant. I'm a pilot.'"

Back then that seemed a typical day on the job for Bjornson, a trailblazer in the aviation industry.

"I think had a few check pilots who were very skeptical but their attitude was, 'Let's see what she can do.' If you pass the test, there's not much they can say."

Bjornson, 71, was the first woman hired as a commercial pilot on a North American airline, and the first female member of  the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association, International.

On Thursday, she will receive the Alberta Order of Excellence in a ceremony at Government House, an award honouring her achievements in the industry and a lifetime spent advocating for the advancement of women in aviation.

Flying with father 

Bjornson decided she wanted to become a professional pilot in the early 1950s, when she was a little girl.

Her father, who served as a pilot in the Second World War, would sit Bjornson on his knee as he would fly his Cessna 170 over the family farm near Lethbridge.

Though female pilots were unheard of, Bjornson never had any doubt she was capable.

"I flew with my father. He had a little airplane on the farm and I thought that was so cool and I wanted to do it, too," she said.

"I was the oldest daughter and I drove all the machinery, all the combines, the tractors and trucks. And I could do it, so there could be no reason why I couldn't fly an airplane."

Rosella Bjornson and her father often flew together over the family farm near Lethbridge. (Rosella Bjornson)

She earned her private licence during the summer break before Grade 12, and took to the controls "like a duck to water." 

When she found a brochure from Air Canada that said they preferred pilots with post-secondary education, she enrolled at the University of Calgary, ignoring the high school guidance counselor who scoffed at her career aspirations.

"While at the university I was spending a lot of time at the airport," she said. "I kept watching for any information about women flying for the airlines, and there was none." 

'Over the moon' 

Undeterred, she continued training for her full certification, and in 1973 was hired as a co-pilot by Transair.
Rosella Bjornson, Canada's first female airline pilot, has continued to advocate for the advancement of women in the industry. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

"I was just so excited and so happy when they called and asked me if I wanted to become a first officer on their F-28. Wow." 

In 1990, while employed by Canadian Airlines International, she was promoted to captain — another first for Canadian women in aviation. 

Before retiring in 2004, she worked for other airlines, including Pacific Western Airlines, Zip and Air Canada.

An inductee in Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame, Bjornson has also been recognized by Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame and won a National Transportation Award of achievement. 

It's a wonderful life.- Rosella Bjornson

She was part of the successful lobby effort to change Transport Canada regulations to allow female commercial pilots to continue flying while pregnant.

She still flies often, taking off from her home outside Sherwood Park, which has a hangar and a registered runway in the backyard.  She continues to advocate for women in aviation.

The situation has improved but the cost of training, steep competition and a lack of awareness has kept women a minority in the industry, she said.

"It's still better than being the only one, but young women don't realize that aviation is a career option,

She wishes they would.

"It's a wonderful life."