As a part of Women of Aviation Worldwide – we interviewed a couple of women that work in the shops at Heli-One. We are proud to introduce you to Sue (Suzanne) Walker who works as a process cleaner in our Support Workshops. Sue has had a long career in aviation – her first role was at Pacific Western Airlines (PWA) as an aircraft cleaner in 1977 and has been at Heli-One for the last 9 years. She shares with us her unique story of how she got into the industry and how opportunities have changed for women over the years.
How did you get into the aviation industry?
I entered the aviation industry in 1977, fresh out of high school looking for a job. I went to PWA to work in the flight kitchen and got great benefits like free flights. After new management took over – no more great benefits so I went to a different industry for about ten years. Shortly after my husband and I started a family, he got injured and wasn’t able to work so it was my turn to step up. I decided to try Canadian Airlines. I started there as an aircraft cleaner, cleaning the planes. Then an opportunity came up to work in the hangar and they asked if I wanted to be a Process Cleaner and I said, “why not? Let’s try something different!”
What a process cleaner did was clean the different parts of the aircraft. It’s a male-dominated field. I’m the only female. I was responsible for what they called the Accessory Shop. I had bets going that I wasn’t going to last more than two weeks. Well, I lasted 18 years.
It started out as a 3-month job, and turned into 18 years. I worked in all the different shops and got a lot of experience. In 2002, Canadian was taken over by Air Canada and they gave us two years before we were laid off. I joined another aviation company for a short time and then a role came up at Heli-One. I figured what I did in fixed-wing, I could do with helicopters. I got the opportunity to learn more things with helicopters and here I am – 9 years later.
Did you receive any specialized training for your role?
I was very lucky that I was in the generation where I could learn on the job. Within the company you could take different courses, which I did. And in a male-dominated field, it’s also learning how to be accepted by men.
After a long stint away from aviation – why go back?
I’m intrigued by learning. I’ve always been intrigued by mechanical things and how things tick. When I was at Canadian, all the men taught me the different things they were doing. I would ask if I could stand by and watch and they said “no problem”. All the different support workshops – I could see how they worked together. It’s been constant learning all the time. It’s something different. I’ve never been an office kind of person. I’ve always gotten my hands in there and made it work.
How do you feel things have changed for the younger generation of people, particularly women, who want to enter the aviation industry? Is it easier now with the educational opportunities?
It has to do with your personality too – if a woman comes in here and expects to be treated like a woman, I don’t think you’re going to make it. You have to put your “big boy pants” on. If you can accept them (males), they will accept you. Communication is a big thing. I don’t think they have as many courses for women in aviation then as they do now. I was just looking for work. I was fortunate that I was given the opportunity to learn on the job. The schooling is out there for anyone who wants it. It wasn’t there back then, things have changed a lot.
Do you feel like aviation is more accessible for women?
Definitely. When I first started – it was just myself and another woman in cleaning. Now there are mechanics in different shops – like Christine (Yaco). Anything that she wants to do – it’s more accepted now than when I first started.
Do you have any advice for women looking to enter the aviation industry?
If you put your mind to it – you can do it. If you can blend in and show respect, you’ll get that respect back. Guys will be guys. If you accept their world, they’ll accept you and help you as much as they can. The guys I work with now, I couldn’t ask for a better team. They help me so much, teach me so much and I think I teach them too. The whole company, they don’t treat you as a male or female, it’s just one big family.
If you have a goal and want to do it – just go for it. Do your research and if you have a passion, go for it. If there’s a career that you like – do it! If it’s in a male-dominated field, it will be more challenging but it depends on the people. If you’ve got good communication skills then most people will accept you whether you’re a male or female. I’ve been very fortunate to do this and everyone’s accepted me. I guess I must be doing something right! And I continue to do so until I retire. Or win the lottery.