Inuk teen trains to become a helicopter pilot
“I thought it might be cool to be the only one"
Vanessa Kilabuk recently visited Montreal, but she got to see a part of the city most people never get to.
The 15-year-old, Iqaluit-raised, Ottawa-based teen enjoyed a view over the still-icy St. Lawrence River, Mont Royal and the island-city’s skyscrapers from the seat of a AS350 helicopter—with her hand on the controls.
“It felt pretty weird,” Kilabuk recalled. “But it was pretty cool.”
Kilabuk completed her first introductory hour piloting a helicopter last month, the first of the 100 hours needed to earn her commercial pilot license.
Her instructor Antoine Stoll, based out of St. Hubert, Que., introduced her to the sky in the AS350, a three-bladed, single-engine aircraft known for its versatility.
Stoll showed his student how to use the cyclic, the joystick-like handle that controls the main rotors, which allowed Kilabuk to fly straight and turn.
Seated behind her in the aircraft was her father, Jason Kilabuk, beaming with pride. The Pangnirtung-raised pilot flew helicopters commercially for many years in Nunavut, for a time working on the Distance Early Warning site clean-up efforts.
Kilabuk Sr. is now an aircraft maintenance engineer with First Air.
“She did surprisingly well for her first flight,” he said with a laugh. “Better than I ever did.”
He credits her natural skill to exposing his children to the sky from an early age.
Kilabuk was always enamoured by aircraft, but particularly helicopters.
“I just found them fascinating,” he said. “The helicopter is so versatile—it’s the machine that goes where other aircraft can’t.”
While a growing number of Inuit women pilots have made a name for themselves as aircraft pilots in recent years, Kilabuk has yet to meet an Inuk woman helicopter pilot.
“I thought it might be cool to the be the only one,” said the Grade 9 student at Ottawa’s Canterbury High School.
At just 15, Vanessa can continue training, though she can’t fly solo until 16 or get a pilot’s licence until 17.
Kilabuk calls it a “four-year plan”: she’ll fly roughly 25 hours a year, mostly over her summer holidays, to get the training hours she needs to complete her commercial licence.
But Kilabuk said she’s still not entirely sure it’s the career she hopes to pursue—she said she’s still exploring her options.
As a former helicopter pilot, her dad admits it can be a tough industry to break into.
While there’s been some growth in the number of helicopter operators working in the North—particularly with the mining industry—it hasn’t translated into more jobs for pilots, he said.
“I just wanted to pass it along to my kids,” he said.
Inuit from Nunavut who are training to become a pilot, a flight attendant or to work in airport operations—with plans to return to work in the territory—are eligible to apply for the Government of Nunavut’s aviation scholarship, which offers support of up to $7,500.
The deadline to apply is Aug. 17, 2018; visit the GN’s website for more details.