Aspiring pilot travels across Canada to fly at N.W.T. aviation school

Fredericton's Ashlee Steed opted to attend a flight school across the country in Fort Smith, N.W.T., to get her private pilot licence.

'My advice for other women, don't ever doubt yourself for a second... lean into that fear.'

Ashlee Steed posing after piloting her first flight in Fort Smith, N.W.T., at the Terry Harrold School of Aviation. (Submitted by Ashlee Steed)

A woman who is determined to become a commercial pilot is travelling thousands of kilometres across Canada every few months to make it happen.

Ashlee Steed is a flight attendant with WestJet who lives in Fredericton. Twice this year she made the roughly 3,000 kilometre trip (as the crow flies) to Fort Smith, N.W.T., to attend the Terry Harrold School of Aviation.

She's earning flight hours for her private pilot licence, the first step in becoming a commercial pilot.

"It's quite the trek," admits Steed, who has been on the wait list for Moncton Flight College's modular pilot training program since last January. 

Being a flight attendant with easy access to flights, she looked north to Fort Smith and a new small-town flying school.

"I saw an opportunity and went for it," said Steed, who has family connections in Fort Smith and lived there as a child.

"I don't want to fly when Moncton Flight College is ready for me to fly. I want to fly when I want to fly," she said.

Steed on her first official training flight in Fort Smith, N.W.T. (Submitted by Ashlee Steed)

Steed, who doesn't come from an aviation family, started in aviation working cargo in her 20s at Northwestern Air Lease Ltd., a family-run airline in Fort Smith.

A co-worker encouraged her to apply to be a flight attendant at WestJet and she got the job. Twelve years later, Steed says she was ready to move her career into the cockpit.

"It's not a job you see a lot of women doing ... I just thought, 'Hey, I can do this,'" she said.

There are benefits to training in a small town, said Steed, who is completing her hours on her own time. Twice this year, she took time off from work to travel to Fort Smith for several weeks to clock hours in the air.

"I had the instructor and two airplanes to myself," she said. At the time she was the company's first and only student. 

Steed says learning to fly in the North is an invaluable experience, like learning to navigate the terrain without roads as landmarks.

"I'm looking at shapes of lakes on my map and I'm, you know, trying to figure out where I'm at," she said.

Raphael Gelinas, chief flight instructor at Terry Harrold School of Aviation, says Steed is making the most of her time in Fort Smith.

"It's pretty impressive.... Fly and study, fly and study," said Gelinas, about Steed's dedication.

Steed clocked the 45 flight hours required for her private pilot licence in less than two months. Most people who work on getting those hours full time take three to four months, he said.

"She's a very determined person," he said.

Raphael Gelinas is the chief flight instructor of the Terry Harrold School of Aviation in Fort Smith, N.W.T. (Submitted by Ashlee Steed)

Steed now has to pass a written test for her private licence. She'll need about 200 hours to complete her commercial licence, plus more written tests.

Steed says she plans to do that in the North and possibly start her flying career there.

She's also among 10 finalist for two aviation scholarships offered through the I Hart Flying Foundation, a public non-profit based in California that aims to get more women into aviation. A panel will decide next Wednesday who wins two $7,500 scholarships.

"My advice for other women, don't ever doubt yourself for a second," said Steed. "And when you do feel afraid, just lean into that fear."


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