Dolores Greenlaw

When Dolores Greenlaw earned her commercial helicopter licence in the mid-1980s, she was told she was only the seventh woman in Canada to do so. She has worked all over the world in the 30 years since then.

A female helicopter pilot based in Kelowna has won two scholarships from Whirly-Girls International, a foundation that promotes a greater role for women in aviation.

Although she has worked all over the world during the past 30 years, Dolores Greenlaw says the extra training and education she’ll get from the scholarships will help boost her career prospects during what is something of a downtime in the industry.

Many helicopter jobs are connected to the resource industry, and the low price of oil has resulted in layoffs for pilots both in Canada and abroad, Greenlaw said.

“These scholarships can help me broaden my tool kit,” Greenlaw said Monday.

It’s estimated by Whirly-Girls International that less than 20 per cent of all professional helicopter pilots worldwide are women. As low as that number is, it was even lower when Greenlaw decided she wanted to get her licence in the mid-1980s.

“I had a lot of trouble getting any of the training schools to even reply to my inquiries,” said Greenlaw, who traces her interest in helicopters to a ride she took in one when she was 10 years old.

Greenlaw got her licence from an Abbotsford training centre, and took her first flight on New Year’s Day 1986. She was told she was just the seventh woman in Canada to get a commercial helicopter licence.

Since then, she has worked around the province, and in Africa, Asia and the Arctic. She was the first woman to captain a Bell air ambulance in B.C., first woman to captain a Bell helicopter transporting oil and gas workers in the Northwest Territories, and first woman to captain Sikorsky helicopters offshore in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia.

In the helicopter industry, Greenlaw says, maintenance crews and support staff have generally provided a more welcoming attitude to women than some of her fellow pilots.

“Maybe it’s because engineers and technicians are sort of helpers and fixers that they’re more accepting of seeing women get into the industry,” Greenlaw said. “Pilots are maybe more ego-driven. Whenever I joined a new crew, I felt I had to prove myself right away. But once I did, things were OK.”

Greenlaw says she’s often asked for advice by young women interested in becoming helicopter pilots. She tells them to first consider getting training in aviation aircraft maintenance, or getting their fixed-wing pilot’s licence.

“It’s a competitive field, flying helicopters, and that kind of experience can give you an edge,” she said.

Whirly-Girls International, which dates back to the Second World War, has 1,920 members worldwide and annually provides scholarships worth US$150,000.

“Women used to get a lot of strange things said to them years ago when they tried to become helicopter pilots,” Colleen Chen, the organization’s vice-president of scholarships, said from New Hampshire, where she works for Assist Aviation Solutions.

“We don’t hear those kinds of things quite so much anymore, which is wonderful,” Chen said. “But given how few female helicopter pilots there still are, we’ve got some more work to do.”