Rosella Bjornson

The East Canada Section of the Ninety-Nines is pleased to celebrate Rosella Bjornson and her career with our 2014 stamp. Designed by First Canadian Chapter member Suzanne Wiltshire, the stamp features Rosella as a newly hired Transair First Officer and then as a Canadian Airlines Captain. The First Day Cover incorporates a profile of Transair’s Fokker F-28 aircraft and will be cancelled in Lethbridge where Rosella had her first official flying lesson.

Rosella Bjornson stamps will be released in Lethbridge on July 13, 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of her first flying lesson.
Rosella’s interest in flying ignited at a young age when, as a youngster she sat on her father’s knee and held the controls as he flew his Aeronca Champ. Her seventeenth birthday gift was an easy choice for her parents – flying lessons! She had her first official flying lesson at the Lethbridge Flying Club July 13, 1964.

When Rosella told her guidance counsellor she wanted to be an airline pilot, he laughed and told her “that wouldn’t be possible because she was a girl”. Rather than give up or try to fight the system, she accepted this information as feedback. A determined Rosella knew she would need much more than the minimum requirements in order to poke her way into this male domain. She contacted Air Canada to ask what qualifications they wanted for their pilots. When told they preferred to hire university graduates as pilots, Rosella enrolled in the University of Calgary Bachelor of Science program. She moderated her winter academic studies by flying during the summers, earning her Commercial Licence and Instructor Rating. She saw instructing as her way to build the experience (hours) required by the airlines.

This later turned out to be providential. In Rosella’s spare time she earned Multi-engine and Instrument Ratings and chatted with pilots in the coffee shop. When she completed her Airline Transport Rating and began applying for a job with an airline, she received the standard negative replies – except from Transair, based at the Winnipeg International Airport. Several Transair pilots knew Rosella and had observed her work ethic. Transair was in the midst of expansion and needed more pilots. Rosella had the exact qualifications they required. The chief pilot even offered her a job choice, Captain on the Twin Otter or Copilot on the Fokker F-28 (Fellowship).

In April 1973 Transair, Canada ‘s fourth largest airline, hired Rosella Bjornson as First Officer on a Fokker F28 jet. She became the first woman First Officer in Canada, and also the first jet qualified female airline pilot in North America. She was the first woman to be hired by a commercial airline in Canada, and the first woman member of the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association, joining a fraternity of about 2800 male airline pilots.

One would think Rosella had arrived. However, it wasn’t all to be smooth flying for this young woman.

Being first in a field may well lead a person to confront inconsistent policies or practices. The company’s lack of policy for pregnancy leave for pilots presented new challenges. Transport Canada wouldn’t grant a Category 1 medical to anyone who was pregnant. Transair grounded Rosella. The company would not offer her sick leave because it did not consider pregnancy an illness. She was forced to take a personal leave of absence. Upon her return to work, she was offered a course on the 737, which resulted in her commuting between Toronto and Edmonton. Her second pregnancy was more readily accepted by the company but Transport Canada was slow to grant her a waiver to continue flying. Again she was grounded. Later, Rosella successfully worked with Transport Canada to change their ruling. Now a pilot can fly under a doctor’s supervision for the first six months of a pregnancy.

In 1990 Canadian Airlines International promoted her to Captain, the first Canadian female airline captain, a position she continued to hold with Air Canada, flying 737’s. With her wonderful sense of humour, Rosella is a gracious, highly skilled role model to the Canadian women who have subsequently been hired by the airlines

By Marilyn Dickson

You can order Rosella’s and other women who played a role in our Canadian aviation history… stamp page link here

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