Amy Somers disembarks from one of two state-of-the-art flight simulators at the College of New Caledonia (CNC) on Wednesday, Jan. 10.
After a jarring 10-minute test flight, this reporter has just crash landed a single-engine Cessna onto the Vanderhoof Municipal Airport runway, the layout of which has been programmed into the simulator’s hard drive.
He’s a bit dizzy, his stomach is turning and his heart rate is elevated.
“No wonder,” says Somers. “Those were some dramatic turns you were doing up there.”
Somers, a charter pilot and flight instructor for Guardian Aerospace in Vanderhoof, spends an average of five hours in the simulators each week, helping aspiring pilots practice maneuvers and read instruments under the auspices of the Aviation Business program at CNC.
Furnished like airplane cockpits, the simulators replicate reality with stunning precision, displaying on a panoramic view of computer screens the digital landscape of the Nechako Valley. Hydraulics imitate turbulence and speakers emit the drone of a propeller. There’s even an ignition key.
“They’re tremendous training aids,” said Ty Roberts, a seasoned pilot and flight instructor who directs the CNC program, a two-year course providing aviation training and career opportunities to people in northern B.C.
During summer, when Somers isn’t training students, she expects to log more than 300 hours of solo and charter flights.
Airplanes are her passion, but with the aviation industry in decline and flight-school enrollment at a low point in northern B.C. and elsewhere, Somers is starting a local chapter of Women in Aviation International (WAI) to revive interest in flying, mainly among women.
“It’s not a male dominated industry. People still think it is, but women fly too,” said Somers.
Since the early 1990s, the number of women in the aviation industry has increased steadily, but women still represent only five per cent of the total pilot population, said Somers.
“There’s quite a few of us up there that have lots of hours under our belts,” she said.
So far, the response to the chapter has been encouraging.
Within one week of organizing radio and newspaper interviews with journalists in Prince George, Somers has received responses from several women, including a former RCMP pilot with more than 8,000 hours of flying experience. Another woman contacted Somers and expressed interest in helping her 14-year-old granddaughter join the chapter.
“It’s never too young to join,” said Somers, who acquired her piloting credentials even before getting a driver’s license.
Although Somers is primarily focused on building up a membership of women, men are equally welcome. After all, the club’s main objective is to create opportunities for members through networking, the very key to succeeding in the aviation industry, says Somers.
“Usually it’s cutthroat,” she said about the high degree of competitiveness in other types of industries.
“In aviation, it’s about helping each other get to the next step.”
Guardian Aerospace, a locally-owned company that has been providing flight charters, training and aircraft maintenance in the Nechako Valley for more than 10 years, is Somers’ main ally in revitalizing aviation in the area and introducing more women to flying airplanes.
In addition to offering business connections, legal knowledge and aeronautical and career advice, the company has lent Somers its flight school office in Prince George for holding the chapter’s first meeting on Saturday, Jan. 19 at 2 p.m.
Guardian Aerospace is also offering members a 25 per cent discount on ground school training.
“This is all about creating awareness, especially for women,” said Operations Manager and Chief Pilot Eric Stier.
“In the last five years I’ve seen more women find interest in flying, and I think maybe they could use some support to spur them on.”
Stier says aviation in northern B.C. is lacking to an almost embarrassing degree. The nearest WAI chapter is in Vancouver and the closest flight training school to the south is located in Kelowna. To the north, it’s in the Yukon, he says.
Stier, too, acknowledges the aviation industry’s steady decline, saying that, over the past decade, many flight schools have disappeared. To put it in perspective, Guardian Aerospace remains the only flight school in northern B.C. for several hundred thousand square kilometers, he said.
“If we don’t do this, who will?” said Stier.
“I don’t see anybody else stepping up to the plate.”
Prince George and the Nechako Valley are equipped with some of the largest runways in Canada and have enormous potential to become hubs for aviation training, said Stier.
One day, says Stier, a shortage of pilots will hamper the industry, and as instructors leave the classrooms and take to the skies, flight schools in metropolitan areas will be unable to absorb additional students, creating opportunities for training institutions in northern B.C. and elsewhere.
“It’s also a business case for Vanderhoof,” he said.
“If we wanted to be one of the major training centers in the world, we could do it.”
Becoming a commercial pilot is financially onerous, costing about $65,000 beginning from the ground up. Acquiring a private license can cost upwards of $15,000.
“The numbers are becoming daunting, and young people don’t necessarily consider aviation as one of the best options compared to computers and other things,” said Roberts, who managed a flying school in Vanderhoof consisting of some 40 local students in the 1980s.
“Twenty years ago that wasn’t the case.”
After World War Two, as Roberts was growing up, the level of interest in becoming a pilot surged. Training was cheap and becoming an aviator was considered one of the finest jobs or careers available.
“Airplanes were flying everywhere,” said Roberts.
Today, the aviation industry has been hit hard by peak oil prices, rising tuition fees and the global economic crisis.
About 50 people, only several of whom are from Vanderhoof, including one woman, have enrolled in the Aviation Business program since it was established in 2011 as part of a government-funded initiative to diversify the forestry-dependent economy in northern B.C. following the mountain pine beetle epidemic.
To attract more people, CNC has broadened the use of the simulators and added more specialized courses not offered in the Aviation Business program at CNC.
Although enrollment in flight-training school is down, demand persists – and Vanderhoof, with its relaxed atmosphere, varied weather and diverse terrain, is one of the most extraordinary and unique parts of the world to become a pilot, said Roberts.
“There are still people who want to train and we’re here to offer them the opportunity to do that.”
For more information, visit WAI at www.wai.org, and Guardian Aerospace at www.guardianaerospace.net. To pre-register for the first WAI meeting on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m., call Amy Somers at 250.944.0605 or Guardian Aerospace at 250.567.2655.