Fearless Aviator Eileen Vollick Blazed Path to the Skies for Generations of Female Pilots in Canada

Taking off on the frozen waters of Burlington Bay near Hamilton, Ontario, in a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” equipped with skis in the place of wheels, 19-year-old Eileen Vollick made history on March 13, 1928, when she successfully passed the Government Civil Aviation examination and became the 77th licensed pilot in Canada, and the first woman to do so.

Weighing only 89 pounds with a height of 5'1", Vollick used pillows to prop herself up to see out of the biplane and skillfully demonstrated her knowledge of takeoffs and landings on the frozen bay. All applicants had to make four landings from 1,500 feet and land within 150 feet of a designated point on the ground. An additional landing had to be executed with the motor off, and the pilot had to land within 5,000 feet of a designated point. Other requirements of the test included performing five figure-eight turns between two designated points and completing a 175-mile cross-country trip. Vollick passed the test along with 10 of the original 35 male cadets who participated in her Elliot Flying School class.

As a teenager growing up on the beach near the Bay, Vollick had seen the airport being built and wondered how much courage and talent it took to fly an airplane. From her bedroom window and on her way to work each morning, she’d watch takeoffs and landings at Jack V. Elliot’s Air Service and longed for the opportunity to fly. She may have had some trepidation when venturing into the male-dominated club, asking, “Can a girl learn to fly?,” but she was never fearful of flying.

She had to write to the government for permission to fly commercially as no woman in Canada had previously applied. The 18-year-old heard back from Ottawa on June 14, 1927, with the decision that future certificates would be granted to women over 19 years of age who passed necessary tests, opening the skies to Canadian women and putting them on par with others internationally. France’s Raymonde de Laroche had attained fame as the world’s first licensed female pilot in 1910, with women in many other countries on her heels. (Learn more about the timeline of women in aviation.)

But before the seemingly fearless teenager earned her wings, she tested her nerve and gained initial fame as the first Canadian “girl” to parachute from a plane into water from 2,800 feet.

At 19 when she finally became an official student at Elliot’s Flying School at Ghents Crossing, she dedicated herself to 6 a.m. lessons before going to work at 8:30 a.m. at the Hamilton Cotton Company as a textile designer. She didn’t miss a single technical lecture held three times weekly at night as she was intent on learning as much as possible about flying and planes. 

Her mother altered one of her father’s mechanic suits cutting it down to a small size. Vollick took to the air immediately—passing her first student flight that may have intimidated others due to an excess of spins, loops and zooms, but she was energized and remained focused. 

Throughout the years, Eileen Vollick was awarded numerous honors, including the Amelia Earhart medallion posthumously in 1975. In 2008, on the 100th anniversary of her birth in Wiarton, Ontario, she earned the distinction of being the first and only woman in Canada to have a facility named in her honor, when the Wiarton Keppel International Airport named its two-story passenger terminal after her. Also in 2008, Vollick was celebrated as Canada’s first licensed female pilot on a postage stamp designed by the Canadian Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots.

The aviation pioneer passed away in 1968; read an article Eileen Vollick wrote about her experience in becoming Canada’s first licensed female pilot.

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