Eileen Vollick

Designed by Suzanne Wiltshire, the stamp shows Eileen Vollick in the Curtiss Jenny with an inset portrait of Eileen.

On August 2, 1908 when Eileen Riley was born in Wiarton, Ontario, no Canadian had yet flown. Six months later Jack A.D. McCurdy flew the Silver Dart at Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Within a few more years many young Canadian men learned to fly with the Royal Air Force during WW I. Aviation activities following the war reinforced the notion that aviation was strictly a male domain. Male pilots bought war surplus airplanes and got involved barnstorming or hauling supplies and equipment to the Canadian north.

The first flying school didn’t open in Canada until 1927. In 1928 the first Canadian female earned a private pilot’s licence. It is remarkable that the young woman who was able to break into this male atmosphere was a mere 18-year-old textile worker.

As Eileen watched the building of Jack Elliott’s flying school she wrote, “I could see the activities going on at the aerodrome. Each day as I drove past the aerodrome a small still voice whispered, ‘Go ahead, brave the lion in his den’. I proposed to learn to fly, and feared being turned down or laughed at. I wondered how much courage or talent was required to fly an airplane. I felt the urge to fly, to become a pioneer and blaze the trail for the women of my country. Though it was through my efforts women were admitted into the flying game, had I not been first, some other enterprising girl would have paved the way to put women on a par with other countries.”

Elliott did not immediately accept Eileen as a student. He suggested she write to request government permission to learn to fly commercially. Three months later the authorities informed Eileen that women who passed the necessary tests and had reached 19 years of age would be granted a certificate. Male students could qualify at age 17. Rather than challenge this discrepancy, Eileen booked her first flight.

“The pilot who took me aloft thought he would frighten me. It is against the rules to ‘stunt’ with a passenger – spins, loops, zooms, all very thrilling and decidedly the acid test for a new flyer. I got mine for half an hour.” These tactics didn’t work. Eileen found these stunts thrilling. Perhaps they inspired her later interest in aerobatics.

“In the cockpit I felt quite at home, fear never entered my head. When I saw the earth recede as the winged monster roared and soared skyward and the familiar scenes below became a vast panorama of checker-boarded fields, neatly arranged toy houses and silvery threads of streams, the pure joy of it gave me a thrill.
A flier must never make acquaintance with fear if he or she wants to become a successful pilot. As proof that my sense of fear is small I took the parachute jump from the wing of my plane into the waters of Hamilton Bay from an altitude of 2,800 feet. It was a record, being the first Canadian girl to leap from a plane into water. It takes a great deal of confidence to walk the wing of an airplane and jump into space, especially when the controls are in the hands of a strange pilot. Parachute work however, was not my ambition. I wanted to fly.” A parachute jump was not a licence requirement. Eileen simply wanted to demonstrate her lack of fear in the air.

“So up in the morning early long before the streets were warmed I left my cozy cot, drove to the airport, donned a flying-suit and with the tang of ice and frost upon pilot, plane and student, we rose from the hardened ground, and winged our way over the icy bay, across the cold waters of Lake Ontario, back to the city, then after ‘landing’ and ‘rising’ several times, we flew back to port, full of early morning pep, which the sluggard abed can never fully comprehend. Once more aboard my car and back home to breakfast. Eight a.m. found me on my way to the Hamilton Cotton Co., where I was textile analyst and an assistant designer.
Before a license can be issued, the pilot must make four landings, from a height of 1500 feet, within 150 feet of a spot designated on the ground, one landing from 5000 feet with the motor shut off, five figure 8 (eight) turns between two designated marks, and a 175 mile cross-country flight. The day previous to the tests I had the extreme pleasure of taking Captain G. B. Holmes, Government Inspector, for a flight, and he gave me great credit for the able manner in which I handled the plane. On March 13, 1928, along with ten other cadets of the Elliot Flying School, I successfully passed the Government Civil Aviation examination, completing the requirements for pilot’s licence, number 77.
They give credit, these loyal air-men, for having an iron nerve, and skill of an old war time pilot, ‘nerve’ is a natural gift from God. ‘Skill’, I owe to my instructors. I have had three of whom I cannot speak too highly, Earl Jellison, Leonard Tripp, and Richard Turner whose invaluable assiduous instruction and help, enabled me to earn the proud title of ‘Canada’s First Licensed Woman Pilot’ and made my dreams come true.”

From Eileen Vollick, How I Became Canada’s First Licensed Woman Pilot Excerpted by Marilyn Dickson

 

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