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Governor General calls Southwest Airline pilot a hero for showing nerves of steel

Last Updated Apr 19, 2018 at 5:40 pm EDT

Governor General Julie Payette delivers remarks during a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Statistics Canada at its headquarters in Ottawa on Friday, March 16, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

MONTREAL – Canada’s governor general says a Southwest Airlines pilot who landed her plane safely after a mid-air engine explosion is rightfully being called a hero and a role model to many.

Julie Payette told aviation officials Thursday that Capt. Tammie Jo Shults showed strength as she deployed years of training as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot to avoid greater injury.

“Everyone in the last two days, rightly so, said the pilot had nerves of steel, she was extraordinary,” the former astronaut said in a Montreal speech.

One person was killed and seven others were injured after the twin-engine Boeing 737 blew an engine at 30,000 feet Tuesday and got hit by shrapnel that smashed a window.

Media reports following the incident have drawn attention to the fact that Shults is a female pilot, in an industry still heavily dominated by men.

But Payette asked why anyone would be surprised that a woman who is extraordinarily well-trained could excel in the face of danger.

Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association, told the largely female luncheon audience that more needs to be done to address the severe underrepresentation of women in the industry, particularly at the airline association itself.

IATA is taking a small step in a few weeks with the appointment of its first female board member.

“I think that for our industry, hiring and promoting diverse talent will make us stronger, better and we’ll enjoy a much better business environment,” he said.

IATA says the percentage of female aviation executives lags other industries. Just three per cent of aviation CEOs were women last year, compared with 12 per cent in other sectors.

By contrast, about one-third of human resources directors are women, compared with 23 per cent in other industries.

Kendra Kincade, founder of Elevate Aviation, which encourages women in the industry, said seeing Shults’ action will be an example for young women to consider aviation.

“I think she just made us feel more secure in having women as leaders. I think she just helped propel that,” the Edmonton air traffic controller said in an interview.

Val Wilson, president of Women in Aerospace Canada, said the shortage of women is on display every year at the world’s largest air show which takes place alternatively nearly London and Paris.

“It’s a sea of black suits,” she said in an interview. “There are very few women that were there representing their companies other than in administrative positions.”

Wilson, who is vice-president of Toronto area aerospace supplier Dishon Ltd., said the situation is slowly changing as more younger women enter engineering schools, which is frequently a stepping stone to higher positions.

She said the paths are similar for other industries and working conditions are no more a roadblock in aviation. Wilson added that she doesn’t believe sexual harassment is any bigger an issue in aviation than other sectors.

Wilson expects it could take another 15 years before change is seen in the C-suites.

She said companies need to be aware of any hiring bias and should interview women for open positions.

Former astronauts Payette and Roberta Bondar are huge role models for women interested in aviation careers, she added.

“Roberta is always very positive when she speaks and Julie is in a position now to really do some good for women. So I think it’s very positive for us.”

Payette said that recruitment of women isn’t enough, noting that questions about female representation have been asked for 30 years.

She said efforts must be made to retain and promote women so they assume leadership positions.

It’s been 40 years since Judy Cameron was hired by Air Canada, becoming the first woman hired as a pilot for a major Canadian airlines. Five years earlier, Rosella Bjornson became Canada’s first commercial pilot.

There are currently 210 female pilots at the country’s largest airline and Air Canada Rouge, representing six per cent of total pilots employed.

Women account for similar shares of pilots employed by WestJet, Air Transat and Jazz.

According to Nav Canada, the private company that manages Canadian civil air navigation, less than 25 per cent of the workforce at the country’s air traffic control centres are women.

About 19 per cent of the Royal Canadian Air Force officers were women in late 2017, including five per cent pilots, 15.7 per cent in air operations and almost 18 per cent in aerospace engineers.

Aerospace schools are also trying to promote careers in aviation to women.

Montreal’s Academy of Aeronautics says 11 per cent of its student pilots are women, an increase from past years.

It says there is a surge of inquiries this year from high school graduates.

Fang Lui, secretary general of the International Civil Aviation Organization, told an IATA conference this week that work needs to be done to attract women.

“Both the public and private sectors need to be more proactive to achieving gender parity in aviation.”

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Companies in this story: (TSX:AC, TSX:WJA, TSX:TRZ, TSX:CHR).