Pioneering pilot honoured with stamps

“On my seventeenth birthday, July 13th, 1964, I remember we drove to Lethbridge and rather than stopping downtown to go shopping like we normally did, we continued on to the airport. Unbeknownst to me, my father had arranged my first flight with my instructor.”

That birthday gift planted the seed that would become Rosella Bjornson’s dream of becoming a career pilot. On Sunday, friends, family and admirers gathered at the very same hanger Bjornson had her first flying lesson to unveil a new Canada Post stamp featuring her image. The stamps were designed by the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, and made possible through Canada Post’s Picture Postage program.

The reason Rosella Bjornson is the woman featured on the stamp, is that she was the first female airline pilot and eventually the first female airline captain in Canada. When Rosella started her career, it was a profession dominated by men. “I heard quite a few excuses. ‘Well, women aren’t strong enough. Women would just get trained and then they’d get married and have babies and leave.’ They didn’t want to spend the money training a woman, so that was their excuse for not hiring a woman. The biggest obstacle was convincing them that a woman was capable of flying a larger aircraft and doing the job. That’s what I had to prove.”

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By over-qualifying herself and logging long hours in the cockpit, the airlines eventually had no reason not to hire her. In 1973, Transair, Canada’s fourth largest airlines at the time, hired Rosella as a First Officer, making her the first woman in Canada to hold the position. Things were looking great for the up and coming pilot, until she was immediately grounded. “Of course when I started, there were no policies in our contract that dealt with pregnancies.”

When Rosella had her first child, the airline would not offer her sick leave because it did not consider pregnancy an illness. She had to take a personal leave of absence. When her second pregnancy came around, she worked with Transport Canada to update their policies. With Rosella’s help, female pilots can fly under a doctor’s supervision for the first six months of a pregnancy. “Those are unique challenges and ones we take for granted today,” said Mayor Chris Spearman, who was in attendance for the ceremony. “When those were happening thirty, forty years ago that was groundbreaking. So we admire Rosella for her determination and for proving that it can be done.”

In 1990, Rosella was promoted to the position of captain, the first Canadian woman in that role. She considers it one of her proudest achievements.

“Well I feel very honoured. I really don’t feel like I deserve a stamp. I’ve had a lot of honours. I’m inducted in the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame as well. I guess the only thing that really differentiates me from all the other men who have had careers in aviation is that I’m a woman. And really that shouldn’t be significant.”

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Sheet after sheet of stamps were sold at the ceremony on Sunday, and more are available to be ordered as they are not available at postal outlets. To order stamps contact:

Bev Fraser

Box 56060

Fiesta Outlet

Stoney Creek, ON

L8G 5C9

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