Nova Scotia

Cape Breton pilot recognized as a 'pioneer' for women in aviation

A North Sydney, N.S., woman was recognized on Sunday by a group that shines a light on the work of women pilots and inspire more female aviators.

'Basically don't give up. If you really want to do something, keep trying it'

Capt. Mary Cameron-Kelly was the first female pilot of the Aurora, a long-range patrol aircraft. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Colleagues of Capt. Mary Cameron-Kelly say she's genuine, humble and a pioneer for other women pilots in Canada.

The North Sydney, N.S., woman was recognized on Sunday by a group that shines a light on the work of women pilots. In doing so, they hope to inspire future female aviators. 

"I love my job and what I do and it's a lot of fun," said Cameron-Kelly. "It's something I've always wanted to do."

Capt. Mary Cameron-Kelly once flew the Aurora from Hawaii to Greenwood, N.S., in one non-stop flight. (Emma Davie/CBC)

She was recognized by the Ninety-Nines, an international group of women aviators who banded together in 1929 to support and encourage each other. 

Today, the Canadian Ninety-Nines are on the 11th year of their program to put women pilots on postage stamps. A different pilot is picked each year.

Cameron-Kelly said when she "was kind of overwhelmed" when she heard she'd been selected.

Inspired by Apollo missions

Known now for being the first female pilot of the Aurora, a long-range patrol aircraft, Cameron-Kelly has an impressive 7,000 flying hours under her belt and has been training other pilots since 1994.

But it all started watching the Apollo missions from her childhood home in Cape Breton.

As she grew up, those space missions stuck with her. She knew she wanted to fly. Cameron-Kelly decided to join the military because her father fought in the Korean War.

The stamps can only be purchased on the Ninety-Nines website. (Emma Davie/CBC)

"I thought it would be exciting and a good adventure to do that route," she said.

"At that time women were starting in different roles, and it was being more open. Yes, they were going to have some hardships, but it's a lot better now."

The 'rush' of first takeoff

It took Cameron-Kelly four tries before she was accepted for pilot training. In the meantime, she got her private flying licence and began working as a technician on the Aurora.

"I wanted always to come back to Greenwood and fly the Aurora," she said with a grin.

"I can still remember back in 1992, my first takeoff. All I can say is it was a rush, because I'd waited so long to do it."

On Sunday, Cameron-Kelly was joined by family, friends and colleagues at the Greenwood Military Aviation Museum.

"She's a really good example of a woman who can achieve her goals," said Marilyn Dickson, who works with the Ninety-Nines.

"Once she set her mind to it, she was determined and she persisted."

Marilyn Dickson works with the Ninety-Nines, a group of women pilots who want to see more women in the aviation industry. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Dickson said the goal of the stamp program is to educate the public about Canadian women pilots and encourage more young women to think about flying.

"There's still not as many women going into aviation as we would like to see, either as a career in the military or with the airlines," she said, adding that only six per cent of professional pilots are women.

The stamps aren't official commemorative stamps from Canada Post. They can only be purchased through the Ninety-Nines' Canadian website.

The stamps also come with a biography of the pilot. Dickson said the group encourages people to attach those to their outgoing mail.

"I use them in my Christmas cards. It's a great way to let people know more about some of the wonderful women that we've featured over the years," she said.

Among the crowd on Sunday were a dozen young cadets. Cameron-Kelly offered words of encouragement.

Capt. Mary Cameron-Kelly speaks to her family, friends and colleagues at Sunday's event. (Emma Davie/CBC)

"Basically don't give up. If you really want to do something, keep trying it. I'll be honest with you, it took me four tries to get in for pilot training … I just was persistent and I had really good support."

Sunday was also Cameron-Kelly's 37th anniversary of joining the Canadian Armed Forces.

But she has no plans to retire anytime soon.

"When I stop having fun, it's time to give up the flying but I'm just having too much fun right now."

With files from Emma Smith