Inspiring (and supporting) more women in the left seat

Pictured is a group of women who met at a COPA Flight 97 event in St. John's, NL. Often at these types of gathering, you'll find women excited to meet other women! From left to right: Sharon Cheung, COPA National, Meghan Rooney, St. John's International Airport Authority, Megan Russell, COPA/CASARA/Provincial Airlines, Minette LeDrew, COPA/CASARA, Sheri Ford, COPA/CASARA, Bev Williams, CASARA National and Verna Wirth, CASARA National.

Written by: Sharon Cheung, Marketing and Communications Director, COPA

Pictured is a group of women who met at a COPA Flight 97 event in St. John's, NL. Often at these types of gathering, you'll find women excited to meet other women! From left to right: Sharon Cheung, COPA National, Meghan Rooney, St. John's International Airport Authority, Megan Russell, COPA/CASARA/Provincial Airlines, Minette LeDrew, COPA/CASARA, Sheri Ford, COPA/CASARA, Bev Williams, CASARA National and Verna Wirth, CASARA National.

As we know through statistical data sourced from Transport Canada (TC), the number of private pilot licences in Canada has been steadily decreasing over the last decade. The Transport Canada charts below show the current state of flying in Canada, with the numbers for women who fly remaining at a median of 7%.  



Promising and recent data (as of 2023) from the regulator indicates that in 2023 numbers rose to 12% of the 6,354 pilot licences issued by TC, 58 per cent more than in 2010. Over half of these licences (52%) were for recreational purposes.  

In honour of International Women’s Day, let’s identify how we can help up these numbers.  

Talk about your flying with friends and family
One of the first steps to attracting new pilots is to demonstrate what’s possible within general aviation. This can include talking about your flying with friends and family and answering their curious questions about your hobbies.  

Emilie Perron, our 2021 Neil J. Armstrong Ab-Initio Scholarship recipient was introduced to flying by a hockey friend’s grandfather in 2020. From that first flight, her interest in aviation grew and she applied for our scholarship with the help of local COPA members. Emilie remains active with COPA Flight 23 – North Bay today.  

Share your why 
The second step is to share why you enjoy flying. Tell others about your tales of adventure, the challenges you overcame, the personal growth you developed, how you travel in a unique mode of transportation from point a to b, how you’ve fostered a community of mentors and friends, and anything else that inspires others to gain interest in aviation.   

Build visibility to organizations that create change 
While COPA itself works to make flying accessible, there is no denying that other groups exist in our ecosystem that do a lot of good for others. We build a bridge with these groups by sponsoring and supporting their educational initiatives.  

These organizations include Elevate Aviation, the Ninety-Nines, the Canadian Women in Aviation, the Urban Pilot’s Network, and the Black Aviation Professionals Network. We also play our part by building visibility of recreational flying when involved in these networks. If you know of someone who would feel more comfortable starting out their flying journey with others who look like them, introduce them to these groups. There is a common phrase that is often said when it comes to representation, “to see her, is to be her.” I agree with this sentiment, the more we see pilots who look like our parents, our neighbours, ourselves, the more pilots we will inspire. 

Additionally, these groups tend to offer scholarships tailored to their communities. Promoting women-focused pilot training scholarships among women, for example, helps increase the number of pilots in Canada.  

Be involved in groups that introduce others to flight
Our COPA Flight 53 in Picton, Ont., organized their inaugural Find YOUR Wings career expo in 2023. Pilots from the community came out and supported the event to help girls and young women broaden their horizons around careers in aviation and local Discover Aviation intro flights were offered by COPA members. There are dozens of similar events across Canada, such as the Red Deer Girls in Aviation Day, which is regularly supported by COPA. 

Offer a Discover Aviation flight
Organize your own introductory flights through our Discover Aviation program. Whether hosting an event that offers group flights to girls and women or personal flights, COPA covers the event insurance and top-up liability for our volunteer pilots. In many cases, we will support through in-kind or monetary contributions.  

This COPA program is open to anyone age 8 and up, and in 2023, 35 of our COPA Flight chapters hosted Discover Aviation events. Consider dedicating one event to specific groups of pilots-in-the-making.  

Be welcoming and find ways to build bridges
I hear questions from young people all the time – ‘what if we want to fly, but we don’t feel welcome in the hangar with the other pilots?’ The same can be said for any other group, whether women or people of colour who are stepping foot into a flying club for the first time. Being welcoming and encouraging them to meet your flying peers can go a long way! Take the time to say, ‘hello’ to someone new and ask them what interested them to take that first step. 

Reflect on your own chapter and its leadership
I have yet to meet a COPA Flight that isn’t filled with supportive members. If one member has an interest in, let’s say, ‘survival training,’ the next week, I’ve heard of fellow members brainstorming ideas to bring this activity to life.  

Let’s shift this thinking to the culture of your COPA Flight – does it create leadership opportunities for all its members? Does it actively work with other groups, like the 99s? 

Offer mentorship
Developing interest in aviation is one thing, but taking action to pursue a certification or licence is another. The knowledge that our COPA members possess is intrinsically valuable to the viability of flying in Canada. Aspiring or new pilots could benefit from your mentorship and experience.  

I have been working towards my Private Pilot’s Licence. Despite a network of generous pilots more than willing to share their lessons with me, I have dropped on and off with my training over the last 12 months for a variety of reasons. Having friends like Minette LeDrew from COPA Flight 97 reach out to offer support and remind me to, “enjoy the process, you only learn to fly once!” or leaders like Mark van Berkel from our national office regularly check-in with me to offer encouraging words like: “it’s never a good time, so now is the best time” have helped me beyond measure to stay committed to my goals.  

Seek mentorship
Ok, this one comes from my colleague, Hanna Abdo, Communications and Events Specialist. I asked him to read this article over, and he highlighted how there are many women already in the field available and willing to support upcoming female pilots. He then pointed out all the women we’ve highlighted during gender equality week this year and will again in upcoming member profiles. So, I suppose this point is twofold, seek mentorship but also recognize that no one truly achieves anything on their own.  

Understand the realistic barriers for entry
Gender equality issues aside, there are many multi-dimensional barriers that prevent someone from pursuing their flight training. This can be financial or mental barriers, it can be policy-related changes, it can be lack of training aircraft or decaying airport infrastructure, and it can even be societal (how flying can be viewed as harmful to the environment). While COPA is working to mitigate against some of these barriers or debunk any myths, we need our COPA Flight chapters and members to join us in these discussions, regionally. It’s easy to point out all the flaws within a system if we’re not in the arena ourselves, I challenge you to join us and strengthen our influence. One way to do that can be by renewing your COPA membership and/or donating to our Freedom to Fly Fund. 

Do the research to understand the multi-complex issue
There are ongoing efforts by both industry and government to support more women in aviation. In 2020, the US Congress mandated for the creation of the Women in Aviation Advisory Board, which brought in representatives from major airlines and aerospace companies, associations, engineering business associations, academic institutions, and more. In 2022, they published a report that highlighted some of the reasons women do not enter or stay in aviation, this mostly centred around themes of less exposure to opportunities, lack of mentorship and/or sponsorship into leadership roles, lack of support as it related to gender stereotypes (e.g., only boys become pilots); tokenism; confidence gap; lack of parent or child awareness; lack of scholarship or financial aid; perception of equality; lack of female role models; lack of leadership opportunities and/or development. 

Ask what the other necessary steps are for promoting flying in Canada?
Looking at the stats can be discouraging or frustrating. Women’s groups have existed for years, and educational programs from various organizations have been around making an impact but perhaps it’s time to add to these efforts and seek out alternative solutions that can inspire more generations of aviators to come.