First Nations trio is 1st all-women training crew for Indigenous flight school

For the first time in the 30-year history of the FNTI's First Peoples' Aviation Technology program, the student, instructor and examiner are all First Nations women.

'That just blew my mind,' says flight student Rainbow Ford

Flight instructor Daniella Petitti, commercial flight student Rainbow Ford, and pilot examiner Jo-Anne Tabobandung. (Submitted by Joanne Tabobandung)

For the first time in an Indigenous flight program's history, the student, instructor and examiner are all First Nations women.

"When I found out that [the] chief flight instructor was a woman, I was so excited because until FNTI I've never known another female pilot," said Rainbow Ford.

"When I was gearing up for the flight test and got thinking about it, I was so excited about the fact that both my instructor and my flight examiner were female and Indigenous. That just blew my mind."

FNTI is an Indigenous-owned and governed post-secondary institute located in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario that delivers programs for Indigenous people across Canada. Its First Peoples' Aviation Technology program has been around since 1990.

Flight Instructor Daniella Petitti and student Rainbow Ford. (Submitted by Joanne Tabobandung)

Ford grew up in Lytton First Nation, about 155 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. As a girl she spent a lot of time looking at the skies, watching planes on the flight path to Vancouver. 

"I would see them and I just knew that flying is what I wanted to do," she said.

After high school Ford went to flight school in California, but after a year being away from home she decided not to continue. 

Thirteen years later, she was unhappy and wanted to get back on track to pursuing her dream of becoming a pilot. 

She applied to FNTI's aviation program and was accepted. The program is three years long and the curriculum covers flight training, navigation, radio operations, flight and simulator training as well as private and commercial licence requirements.

At the beginning of December she was recommended by her flight instructor for her commercial pilot flight test. 

'It was a lot different back then' 

Joanne Tabobandung from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory is the dean of aviation at FNTI and also a pilot examiner. 

She grew up in Mississauga, Ont., and her mother worked for Air Canada. She said she always wanted to be a pilot. 

In high school she wasn't encouraged to pursue a career in aviation. She was in her early 20s when, 30 years ago, she took the same program that Ford is in now. At the time was the only female student in her class.

Daniella Petitti and Joanne Tabobandung mid-flight. (Submitted by Joanne Tabobandung)

"It was a lot different back then than it is now," she said. 

"That's why now, being in the position that I'm in, I want to ensure that my students don't go through some of the same challenges that I had." 

She said if you want to work hard, it should be for yourself not because you have to prove you belong.

Tabobandung said that in the last five years, enrolment of women in the aviation program has been increasing.

Approximately five per cent of all commercial pilots are women but FNTI's aviation program's enrolment is almost 40 per cent female, all of whom are Indigenous.

Medical lab assistant to flight instructor

Daniella Petitti from Waterhen Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan is a flight instructor with FNTI's aviation program and is also a graduate of the program.

Petitti previously worked as a medical laboratory assistant in Calgary. She said she had always been interested in aviation, but in her 30s felt like she had missed her chance. 

Petitti was talking about aviation one day with a man who had come to the lab who she thinks was a pilot. She mentioned that she knew of an upcoming ground school being offered at Spring Bank Airport in Calgary but at the time didn't have enough money saved up to pay for it. 

She said the man ended up leaving her $500 at the desk with a note saying "For ground school."

She found her way to FNTI's program after looking for schools that offer the private pilot licence and she said it was a perk that it was an Indigenous school as well. 

After completing the program, Tabobandung asked Petitti if she would be interested in coming back to the school to be a flight instructor. 

Pettiti said there's no age limit for changing your career. 

"Aviation needs people," she said. 

"And if we had more Indigenous people, that would be really great, too."


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.