The Ninety-Nines fly for the Ministry of Ontario of the Environment (MOE)’s pollution detection program Operation Skywatch, featured in a documentary “Angels of the Sky”.  We also participate in local Science Fairs to encourage an interest in aviation.skywatch team


A Brief History


Recruiting New Pilots


OPERATION SKYWATCH is a co-operative aerial surveillance venture between the 99s First Canadian Chapter, Inc and the MOE. It encompasses the flight monitoring and photographing of land, water and air pollution in southern and Northern Ontario by volunteer pilots of the 99s First Canadian Chapter, Inc and MOE Personnel.

Public awareness regarding pollution has grown to the point whereby concerned private citizens are willing to volunteer their time, energy and skills to help protect their environment from the damaging, and sometimes irreversible, effects of pollution. It is in this spirit of concern and personal commitment to the community that the women of the 99s First Canadian Chapter, Inc. have volunteered their time and piloting skills to fly for OPERATION SKYWATCH.

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In the spring of 1978, the 99s First Canadian Chapter, Inc was approached by representatives of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Mr. Ron Johnson and Mr. Bob Winson, to participate in an experimental program of aerial surveillance patrols for the Ministry. Members of the First Canadian Chapter enthusiastically accepted the challenge and the opportunity presented by the Ministry to contribute to the community in this rather unique and positive way.

From June, 1978 to December, 1980, a typical surveillance flight involved two 99s (pilot and observer/photographer) departed Buttonville Airport in a rented aircraft (or their own aircraft) for a specific location, as per assignment sheets provided by Ministry officials. At the target site, a right-hand orbiting procedure was executed around the target by the pilot while the observer/photographer took pictures out the open window of the aircraft.

Buttonville Airport served as the headquarters base for OPERATION SKYWATCH and photographic mission sheets, along with 35mm film, both supplied by the Ministry, were kept in a locker at Buttonville. During this time, the pilots provided the aircraft at their own expense.

Due to the tremendous initial success of the program in the Toronto Region, OPERATION SKYWATCH was officially launched in Ontario by the 99s First Canadian Chapter, Inc, and the Ministry of the Environment on June 14, 1979.

Also in 1979, the Ministry of the Environment prepared a highly informative training manual for OPERATION SKYWATCH pilots for use as a guide in learning aerial surveillance techniques. Ministry officials commenced training seminars for OPERATION SKYWATCH pilots in order to show how the photographs were interpreted and evaluated.

It was during this time that Ron Johnson, a Communications Officer with the Ministry, as well as the motivating force behind the OPERATION SKYWATCH Program, designed the present attractive Logo we have and gave the Program its official name.

As the Program proved to be very cost effective for the Ministry, as well as highly successful, commencing January 1, 1981, the Ministry of the Environment assumed responsibility for aircraft rental costs and pilot checkout costs. Ministry personnel from the Water Resources Branch, the Waste Management Branch, the Legal Services Branch, in addition to Regional Investigators, began flying with OPERATION SKYWATCH pilots to photograph priority sites of concern – to their respective branches.

In 1983, a C-172 belonging to Toronto Airways Limited at Buttonville Airport was modified to serve as a platform for both oblique and vertical aerial photography for OPERATION SKYWATCH. A camera porthole was cut on the floorboard between the seat rails and forward of the right front seat of the aircraft and a special camera mount was designed to specifications to accommodate three different camera systems over the porthole for vertical photography.

In July, 1985, the Investigations and Enforcement Branch was created within the Ministry of the Environment and provided with a strong mandate to increase the Ministry’s activities in the area of environmental enforcement and to monitor, assess and enforce ongoing pollution reduction programs. Mr. Ron Johnson transferred to the Investigations and Enforcement Branch as Chief Photographer of the OPERATION SKYWATCH Program and was provided with a fully equipped lab with state-of-the-art stereographic equipment. Government environmental officials from many foreign countries have toured the Ministry’s photo lab over the years and have marveled at the simplicity and uniqueness of this very effective surveillance Program.

As the Program grew and expanded, OPERATION SKYWATCH pilots approached the Ministry of the Environment for a yearly Grant to cover various costs associated with the Program, such as car mileage, parking fees, baby-sitting costs, stationery, postage, letterhead, recruitment costs, etc. In 1988 the Ministry gave the Program a Grant of $2,500 and has provided the OPERATION SKYWATCH Program with an annual Grant of $5,000 each year since then. In 1991 the Grant was increased to $7,500. Due to government cut backs in spending, the grants have been discontinued.

In 1988, the 99s New York/New Jersey Section hosted a joint seminar for First Canadian Chapter pilots and Ministry of the Environment personnel, and U.S. environmental officials. Following the seminar, the 99s New York/New Jersey Section established an OPERATION SKYWATCH Program and commenced flights in 1989. The American approach to the Program differs from that of the 99s First Canadian Chapter, Inc. in that a hotline phone number has been established within a local government agency in New York State and 99s there and in New Jersey report suspicious sites during their own personal flying.

During the New England Section meeting in May, 1991, Operation Skywatch pilots from the 99s First Canadian Chapter, Inc. presented a slide show on the Program to Section participants in order to assist pilots in Connecticut to establish an environmental surveillance program in that State.

From January 1981 to January 1994, a total of 1745 hours were logged by pilots from the First Canadian Chapter for Operation Skywatch flights.

Starting with the first surveillance flight in June, 1978, the Operation Skywatch Program has been the focus of considerable media coverage – TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. Due to this coverage, a scrapbook was started in 1978 and contains a narrative and pictorial history of our beginnings and our evolution.

In the fall of 1992, filming commenced on the production of a documentary on Operation Skywatch sponsored by Global TV. The documentary was completed in 1993 and it was an exciting undertaking for the First Canadian Chapter as the finished product is not only aired on TV, but copies distributed to schools and career centres to inspire young women to consider a career in aviation.

Recently, the 99s First Canadian Chapter, Inc. celebrated 33 years of service with the Operation Skywatch Program and is proud to have been the first chapter of The Ninety-Nines to participate in volunteer environmental aerial surveillance with a local government body. The program has provided our chapter pilots with the opportunity to combine their love of flying with a very worthwhile purpose – to contribute in a small but significant way to cleaning up our environment.

For more information about OPERATION SKYWATCH please contact:

Akky Mansikka at


We cover Southern Ontario from Windsor, to Orillia, to Kingston – we have done flights as far as Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury and Ottawa. Skywatch operates year round, but the majority of flights take place in the summer.

Operation Skywatch main concern is safety – through our program we have provided our pilots with first aid and survival courses.

The Skywatch program further promotes women in aviation. The pilots gain satisfaction from combining their love of flying with cleaning up the environment. In l 993 the Operation Skywatch documentary aired on Global TV – copies are now in schools for environmental education and to inspire young women into aviation careers.

Operation Skywatch is composed of pilots from various backgrounds. We have flight instructors, corporate pilots, teachers, dispatchers and many others volunteering their time to keep Skywatch successful and safe. Our pilots are highly qualified and must pass a flight test to become a Skywatch pilot. The investigator from the Ministry of the Environment takes pictures of the necessary site either oblique photos through an open window or overhead using the vertical camera mount. This camera mount was designed to fit in the aircraft without interfering with the pilot’s controls. While the pictures are being taken, the pilots must do precision flying to maintain the appropriate heading and altitude to ensure continuity of the photographs.

Before each flight the pilot discusses with the inspector where the sites are and what needs to be accomplished. We compare their topographical maps to our aviation maps. Weather is checked to make sure the ceiling and visibility are appropriate. Another main concern is the area surrounding the site. Are there any towers, hydra wires, hills or populated areas that will restrict how close we get during the photo shoot? Also if the site is in an airport control zone we need to co-ordinate our flight with air traffic control.

We use headphones and an intercom to communicate with each other during the flight. This helps the pilot hear the directions given by the inspector over the engine noise and air rushing through the open window, and still monitor radio communications. During each flight pilots use radio communications to report their position as well as listen to where other aircraft are. A visual look outside the aircraft must be maintained to ensure spacing from obstacles and other aircraft. We have never had an accident. Safety is our number one concern.

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Recruiting New Skywatch Pilots

  • Must be a member of the 99s
  • Must meet qualifications – Commercial Pilot’s license with a minimum of 1,000 hours
  • Pass a ground test and flight check conducted by Canadian Flyers.
  • Operating base is the Markham Airport.  MOE has a contract with Canadian Flyers.  The Ministry covers the cost of the flight.
  • The pilot is entitled to purchase a pair of quality sunglasses; Skywatch will reimburse up to $100 for the sunglasses. The pilot forwards the bill for the sunglasses to Denise Egglestone.
  • The Skywatch pilot is responsible for maintaining flight currency at Canadian Flyers (once every 60 days)
  • Further, the pilot can claim mileage fees; the claim for mileage can be hand-written or typewritten on a piece of paper, signed by the pilot, and submitted to Denise Egglestone
  • New Skywatch pilots can participate in Survival Courses, CPR Courses, and any other courses that are presented for Skywatch pilots
  • There are lockers where headsets, cushions, a first aid kit, and the latest Canada Flight Supplement are stored. A survival kit ise also available for long northern Skywatch flights.

An article was written by Akky Mansikka and published by COPA.

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