Maj. (Ret’d) Deanna Brasseur can still recall with crystal clarity the moment a career in aviation first entered her mind.

At 12 years of age, the self-described “army brat” was exploring the Royal Canadian Air Force station where her father and the rest of her family were stationed.

“I used to ride my bicycle out to the end of the approach to the runway, and lean it up against the fence and watch the airplanes come over for landing,” she explains. “I remember thinking specifically to myself ‘Boy, they’re really lucky they get to do that because if girls were allowed to, I would like to do that’.”

Thirty years later, Brasseur recalled that prophetic thought while she stood in an air control tower, moments before she was to speak to 2,000 middle school students at a 1995 air show in Grand Bend, Ont.

“I looked out on that spot on the road where I had stood 30 years before. At about that point, an F-18 came in on approach and I just about lost it — I had to go outside and have a little moment with my Kleenex. Because of course, you know that fighter pilots aren’t supposed to cry.”   Even though she broke that cardinal rule, Brasseur is nothing if not a pilot, and an important one at that. She was one of the two Canadian women to break into the male-dominated world of F-18 flying.

As a pioneer in female aviation, Brasseur was an ideal choice to make a keynote presentation during the Canadian Women in Aviation (CWIA) conference, a bi-annual event that plays host to female aviators from across Canada. This year’s conference, held in Ottawa at the beginning of June, welcomed 110 attendees, split evenly between the military and civil sectors.

Brasseur — whose presentation was aptly titled “The Sky is Not the Limit” — has spoken at the CWIA conference since its inception in 1991, offering her experience as an example of what can be achieved.

“It’s a terrific event for women who are involved in any aspect of aviation,” Brasseur says. “In the aviation business, women are not the majority. It’s not uncommon for only one, or maybe two women to be involved in an organization or an operation regardless of what it is. You’re somewhat isolated.”

Brasseur continues: “In order to get more women involved in the industry, you have to have examples to show the young kids the way.”   Humble Beginnings  The career path of one of Canada’s first female military pilots has an unlikely starting point — a dentist’s office.

“I started as a typist in the military,” Brasseur explains. “I was an administrative clerk working in a dental unit — pulling dental files and putting them away, typing routine orders and answering phones.

“In 17 years (I went) from typist to fighter pilot — not bad!”  Brasseur made the leap from filing to flying in part because of a well-timed opportunity. Shortly after leaving her first job and exploring other military options, Brasseur had the chance to participate in the Study of Women in Non-Traditional Environments and Roles, otherwise known as SWINTER.

“I was waving my little volunteer hand in 1979,” she says. “They picked me for the pilot study.”

SWINTER was designed as a trial to answer whether women were capable of taking on new responsibilities in the army, navy and air force, such as combat roles and isolated postings. While this generation’s young women may balk at the question, Brasseur herself says that, for safety’s sake, it needed to be asked.

“With an organization as traditional as the military, and as important in the overall national and domestic security arena, you can’t really use that organization as a sociological testing ground.

“There’s too much at stake,” Brasseur continues. “If, for whatever reason, it doesn’t work you can jeopardize your operational effectiveness, and that is why we recommended trials.”

The trials were never carried out when, as Brasseur says, “it was realized we were not going to jeopardize the operational effectiveness by including women in the combat trade.” And that cleared the way for Brasseur and her colleagues to blaze a new trail.  “Friday the 13th was a lucky day for the air force, I say,” referring to the date in 1981 when Brasseur and three female colleagues were graduated as Canadian Forces (CF) pilots. Then it was on to obtaining operational status, which Brasseur did in 1989.  “Personally, I like to refer to it as the last heretofore unpioneered gender barrier in the world,” she says. “Women were in space before they flew fighters operationally, so it really was the last domain to allow women to fly in combat.”

And while there were hardships along the way, Brasseur is proud of her accomplishments and uses events like the CWIA conference to motivate others to match them, something no other woman yet done.

“There’s good reason for that,” she explains. “First of all, it takes about five years (for) an F-18 pilot — through initial recruitment, basic officers’ training, language training, through all of the phases of flying training — to finally be operationally ready.  “In the big picture, that’s a long stretch,” she adds, noting that only 16 years have passed since she first broke the F-18 barrier.   A Fellow Pioneer  Maj. Maryse Carmichael, Deputy Wing Operations Officer at CFB Bagotville, also opened a door for her fellow female aviators. Carmichael is the first and only woman to become a member of Canada’s Snowbirds aerial demonstration team.

“At the time, I was also the only (woman) in the world that had been part of one of the major demonstration teams,” Carmichael says. “The United States Air Force Thunderbirds . . . they just selected their first female pilot.”

Carmichael also participated in this year’s CWIA conference, both as an attendee and as an organizer of the event’s first career day for local teenagers interested in aviation.  “We realized over the years that the number of female pilots is not really increasing — and that’s the same on the military side and civilian side,” she says. “We are still sitting just under two per cent, and it’s been like this for 10 or 15 years.”

About 50 kids from the Ottawa area — both female and male — attended the career day, which featured five to 10 minute presentations from people working in several different aviation-related roles.

Carmichael points to the CWIA event not only as a resource for those considering an aviation career, but also as a valuable experience for those already in the industry. She agrees with Brasseur that male-dominated aviation workplaces can be a lonely place for a female employee.

“As an example, we have only one female fighter pilot at this time in Canada,” Carmichael says. “Sometimes there are things that you want to talk about, something that perhaps the guys might not relate to.”

As for hardships, Carmichael’s three brothers made the transition into a male-dominated profession a little easier. She also contends that a pilot’s required uniform, may actually help level the airfield.

“I think in the air force it might be a bit easier,” she says. “When we’re flying, we have a helmet, we have a mask — it doesn’t matter — it doesn’t matter if it is a man or a woman.” Speaking for herself, Carmichael never personally encountered any resistance from her male counterparts on the Snowbird team, who she says considered her “just one of the nine pilots doing the show.”   A Different Path  The choice of a certain university led Maj. Karen Breeck, MD to her military career, in which she currently serves as Deputy Medical Advisor to the Air Staff.

“I have no military background. I actually probably didn’t even know we had a military,” Breeck says jokingly. Breeck was already interested in medicine when she began attending Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., a province with a longstanding military history.

“There were four people in the class ahead of me that had joined into the medical officer training plan,” she explains. Breeck and four of her classmates followed suit the next year.

“We wanted to see the world, we wanted adventure,” she says. “We also thought it would be nice to not have to hold down two or three other side jobs in order to afford med school.

“It just seemed to all make sense,” Breeck continues. “I was willing to go anywhere, see anything – I wanted to travel and I didn’t have any other specific ideas of what I was going to do . . . I had already been involved with international work, so I was interested in disaster medicine and it seemed that the military might be a way to marry all of those interests.”

Breeck filled two roles at the CWIA conference: she served as military site co-ordinator for the event and also hosted a session entitled Gendered Aviation Health Issues.

“There are a lot of very specific medical support issues for air operations,” Breeck adds, noting the risk assessments required under Canada’s Aeronautics Act, which necessitates an air-worthiness program for all pilots. Breeck’s presentation addressed the specific issues that female aviators face on the job.

“[The session] focused mostly on pregnancy and operational flying,” she says, adding that many women do not think about the health problems they may encounter. “They accept the risk of flying. To them that’s their normal office — up flying in a jet,” Breeck explains. “A lot of them have never thought that getting pregnant, staying pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy are not compatible [with that]. When speaking with them, for the most part, there’s a large degree of surprise — [they’re not] even thinking about reproductive hazards.”

Unlike Brasseur and Carmichael, Breeck took a path well traveled by female CF personnel in the past — but that doesn’t make her role any less significant.  “I am in a helping profession and that’s still very easy for a woman,” she says. “I certainly don’t feel like a big trailblazer.

“Having said that, the medical officers and the nurses are often the first females to get things done,” Breeck adds. “Wendy Clay was the first female medical officer. She went on to be the first female pilot in the CF to get her [non-operational] wings.”   Common Goals  All three women agree that, regardless of the path they choose, females belong in aviation at every level — and they all see events such as the CWIA conference as an ideal opportunity to increase female membership in the industry, and particularly the CF.   Having started her own military career as a teenage member of the Air Cadets, Carmichael has always encouraged other young women to follow in her footsteps.  “I always try to promote the Canadian Forces, and promote women within the Canadian Forces and make sure the public sees what we do,” she says. “With the Snowbirds, that was an easy thing to do because we were in constant contact with the media.

“Young girls were happy and surprised, but I [also] found that older ladies would often say ‘Oh, I would have loved to do this’. But 40 to 50 years ago, it was not something that was as accessible as it is right now.”

Breeck adds: “We all love aviation in our own ways, and we all think it’s a great career opportunity. We think a lot of women just don’t get exposed as young girls in the same way that guys tend to on what aviation options there are.”

Brasseur uses her experiences as the basis for her own business as a professional motivational speaker, encouraging people to strive for whatever dreams they have — but she is still most passionate about women in the military, and in aviation in general.  “Canadian women have as much a responsibility as Canadian men to defend their country, to be full participants as Canadian citizens,” Brasseur says. “Personally, I place a very high value on service to your country.”

When young girls approach her at events like the CWIA conference, she tells them “to work very hard at school — to study and get good marks — and if they’re interested in a flying career, they need to be committed and not to stop at any point along the way until they have their wings.

“Some say ‘Well, my Mom said…’,” she continues. “I tell them ‘Don’t listen to your Mom! I’m telling you if you want to learn to fly, you can learn to fly!’”

“In other words,” Brasseur concludes, “I just tell them to go for it.”