Nfld. & Labrador

She flies high: At 90, N.L's first female pilot looks back

Nearly 69 years after she took flight for the first time, Newfoundland and Labrador’s first female pilot is looking back on her accomplishments.

Phyllis Penney-Gaul is the subject of an exhibit at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander

A display at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander pays tribute to Phyllis Penney-Gaul and includes a copy of her original student pilot permit. (Julia Cook/CBC)

Nearly 69 years after she first took flight, Newfoundland and Labrador's first female pilot is looking back on her accomplishments.

Phyllis Penney-Gaul — who is now 90 and living in British Columbia — broke the aviation gender barrier when she flew alone for the first time in Gander on July 15, 1947. 

A display featuring her accomplishments is currently being featured at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander.

Penney-Gaul told CBC News she first became infatuated with flying when she was a little girl growing up in Harbour Grace and children were allowed to leave school to watch transatlantic flights take off. 

She even witnessed Amelia Earheart make history by becoming the first women to complete a transatlantic flight on her own.

"My dad was the one who picked her up at the airport, and drove her to the hotel," she said. 

"Knowing Amelia ... it was a memorable time, believe me."

'It wasn't an issue at all'

She carried her interest in flying throughout her schooling at Acadia University during the Second World War, and when she returned to Newfoundland after the war, she picked up a job at the Gander Airport.

When Phyllis Penney-Gaul became the first Newfoundland woman to get her license to fly planes in 1947, she didn't know she was a ground breaker. Our Julia Cook spoke to her, and Sandra Seaward of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. 10:53

It was there that she decided to join a local flying club.

Although all of the club's other members were men, she said it didn't faze her. 

Tell the children you can do anything if you try hard enough- Phyllis Penney-Gaul

"At that time it wasn't an issue at all, nobody even mentioned it," she said. 

"I didn't think of it in those terms. I just thought if the opportunity was there, why not take it?"

The club's members took turns flying in a piper cub, and eventually, Penney-Gaul said she earned the right to fly on her own.

"When I realized that I had to take off and then really land the cub afterwards, there were moments of anxiety," she said.

"But I felt pretty comfortable about it all, I wasn't scared. I was more excited I think than anything else."

Hopes to fly again 

Phyliss Penney-Gaul became the first female pilot in Newfoundland in 1947. (North Atlantic Avation Museum)

In the 1950s, Phyllis Penney-Gaul married and moved away to Montreal and later to Vancouver. 

But while she still loved flying, life got in the way, and she never made a solo flight again 

"You reach an age when you've got other responsibilities, and I had my fun when I had the opportunity," she said in an interview with the Central Morning Show.

A few years ago, however, she was able to go up in a small plane with a co-pilot near her retirement community

"I did go out, and they let me sit in the pilot seat … We flew over here and dipped our wings, and it was fun."

She said she's still optimistic that she might fly again some day soon.

"Tell the children you can do anything if you try hard enough," she said.

A big deal

According to Sandra Seaward, the executive director of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander, Penney-Gaul's contributions to Newfoundland aviation history are very important.

"It's still pretty difficult to break into a man's world," she said. 

"Phyllis certainly did that back in the day when being a pilot for a female was unheard of. It was a big deal." ​​ 

In continuing Gander's tradition of naming streets after famous aviators, Seaward said Penney-Gaul recently received a street of her own. 

Penney Avenue will be located off Magee Road near the location of a new elementary school. 

​The aviator's son and his family visited last year, said Seaward, and they were able to take photos and a street sign to bring back to her.

But while Seaward said she is happy to celebrate Penney-Gaul's accomplishments, she said there is still only female pilot working with Air Canada in Newfoundland.

She said Newfoundland and Labrador still has a ways to go in that regard. 

"This is 2016, not 1947. Times haven't progressed as far as we'd like."