Unac­quainted with Fear


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - by Mar­i­lyn Dick­son

How Eileen Vol­lick be­came the first Cana­dian woman to earn a pi­lot’s li­cense.

As Eileen Vol­lick soared into the sky for her first ride in an air­plane, she didn’t care that she was sub­jected to some­thing of an aer­o­bat­ics rou­tine. “The pi­lot who took me aloft thought he would ei­ther frighten me or find out how much courage I pos­sessed. It is against the rules to stunt, to do spins, loops or zooms. I got mine for half an hour.”

What­ever the pi­lot’s mo­tives — Vol­lick even sug­gested that the in­struc­tor might have been test­ing her tol­er­ance for fly­ing at un­usual an­gles — she didn’t take the ex­pe­ri­ence per­son­ally. In fact, she found the stunts thrilling.

“My first flight was an epoch of my life never to be for­got­ten,” she wrote in a June 1928 ar­ti­cle for Cana­dian Air Re­view. “No mat­ter what I may achieve in the fu­ture, the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of that flight will linger when all oth­ers are merely an event.”

That mem­o­rable first flight took place on June 9, 1927, shortly be­fore Vol­lick’s nine­teenth birth­day. Although she was com­fort­able in the cock­pit, she de­scribed feel­ing over­whelmed

by the view as she climbed sky­ward. “I saw the earth re­cede as the winged mon­ster roared and soared sky­ward. Fa­mil­iar scenes be­low be­came a vast panorama of checker-boarded fields, neatly ar­ranged toy houses, and sil­very threads of streams. The pure joy of it, gave me a thrill which is known only to the air-man who wings his way among the fleecy clouds.”

As the ti­tle of that mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle makes clear, Vol­lick’s ul­ti­mate achieve­ment helped to open the skies to other women: “How I Be­came Canada’s First Li­censed Woman Pi­lot.” A lit­tle more than ninety years ago, on March 13, 1928, she earned the sev­en­ty­sev­enth pi­lot’s li­cence is­sued in Canada, which was the first earned by a woman.

When Mary Eileen Vane Ri­ley was born on Au­gust 2, 1908, no Cana­dian had yet flown. The first pow­ered flight in Canada took place a few months later on Fe­bru­ary 23, 1909, near Bad­deck, Nova Sco­tia, when Jack McCurdy flew the Sil­ver Dart, built by a team led by Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell.

With the on­set of the First World War, fly­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for Cana­dian men came through the mil­i­tary, which re­tained con­trol of flight train­ing and li­cens­ing for nearly a decade af­ter the war. Women were not al­lowed in the mil­i­tary, so they had no ac­cess to avi­a­tion in Canada.

Born in Wiar­ton, On­tario, Ri­ley was the third daugh­ter of Marie and James Ri­ley. Eileen never knew her fa­ther, who was killed in a min­ing ac­ci­dent in north­ern On­tario near the time of her birth. Thrust into sin­gle par­ent­hood, Marie un­der­took var­i­ous jobs, in­clud­ing sewing and writ­ing. Her daugh­ter Au­drey re­calls that Marie even wrote chil­dren’s books us­ing a nom de plume.

Three years af­ter James’ death, Marie mar­ried a marine engi­neer named Ge­orge Vol­lick and moved with her daugh­ters to Hamil­ton. She and Ge­orge sub­se­quently had two daugh­ters and a son, and all six chil­dren went by the name Vol­lick. Ge­orge was of­ten away on oil tankers for long pe­ri­ods of time, so Marie was largely re­spon­si­ble for rais­ing the chil­dren. A strong woman with an un­con­ven­tional streak — a grand­daugh­ter re­mem­bers her as a live wire who wore unique hats — Marie sup­ported Eileen in her de­sire to be­come a pi­lot.

Af­ter com­plet­ing high school, Eileen Vol­lick be­came a tex­tile an­a­lyst and as­sis­tant de­signer with the Hamil­ton Cotton Com­pany. In 1927, from her home at Van Wagner’s Beach just out­side Hamil­ton, a fas­ci­nated Eileen watched the build­ing of Jack El­liott’s Air Ser­vice aero­drome at Ghent’s Cross­ing, the first fly­ing school in Canada where civil­ians could learn to fly. “From my window I could see the activities go­ing on at the aero­drome, of mak­ing the run­way, the build­ing of hangars, and fi­nally the in­stalling of planes.”

Ob­serv­ing the Cur­tiss JN-4 bi­plane’s early flights from her apart­ment window, Eileen be­came ob­sessed with a de­sire to fly, even though the op­tion wasn’t open to her.

Men had be­come pi­lots as part of the Cana­dian ef­fort for the First World War. As mil­i­tary pi­lots they didn’t re­quire pi­lot’s li­cences. When the war ended, the Cana­dian mil­i­tary is­sued civil­ian li­cences to men who left the air force but wanted to con­tinue fly­ing. A few bought sur­plus war­planes and started their own com­pa­nies haul­ing sup­plies and equip­ment and giv­ing joyrides.

Other pi­lots re­mained in the Cana­dian Air Force, later re­named the Royal Cana­dian Air Force, ex­plor­ing and map­ping the Cana­dian North or spot­ting for­est fires. These flights al­lowed mil­i­tary pi­lots to main­tain their fly­ing skills. With the mil­i­tary re­spon­si­ble for these du­ties, there was no ap­par­ent need for train­ing civil­ian pi­lots.

Dur­ing the 1920s, re­spon­si­bil­ity for civil avi­a­tion bounced be­tween the Cana­dian Air Force and the Di­rec­torate of Civil Government Air Op­er­a­tions, un­til it stayed with the di­rec­torate (later Trans­port Canada) from 1927. The government ini­ti­ated the de­vel­op­ment of fly­ing clubs as part of a national train­ing pro­gram, fi­nally pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for civil­ians — civil­ian men, that is — to learn to fly.

Eileen was in­spired to break in to the for­merly male-only do­main. “As I drove past the aero­drome a small still voice whis­pered, ‘Go ahead, brave the lion in his den.’ I pro­posed to learn to fly, and feared be­ing turned down or laughed at.”

Vol­lick wa­vered, won­der­ing what was re­quired to fly an air­plane and how to ap­proach Jack El­liott. “I have never been afraid to go af­ter any­thing I wanted and to stay un­til I got it,” she wrote, so “one day I ven­tured into the pro­pri­etor’s den, and asked him, ‘Can a girl learn to fly?’”

El­liott did not im­me­di­ately ac­cept Vol­lick as a stu­dent but sug­gested she write to the government with her re­quest. Not only did she want to fly a plane, she wanted to work as a pi­lot, some­thing that would re­quire a com­mer­cial li­cence. With the mil­i­tary in the process of trans­fer­ring re­spon­si­bil­ity for reg­u­lat­ing flight train­ing to civil­ian government of­fi­cials, the rules were in tran­si­tion.

In the let­ter from the Depart­ment of De­fence — the mis­sive was ad­dressed to Mrs. Marie Vol­lick, who must have writ­ten on be­half of her eigh­teen-year-old daugh­ter — the con­troller of civil avi­a­tion replied, “in fu­ture, cer­tifi­cates may be granted to pi­lots of ei­ther sex. It is nec­es­sary that a pi­lot should have reached the age of nine­teen years be­fore he may be granted a cer­tifi­cate to fly com­mer­cially.”

With per­mis­sion granted, Vol­lick im­me­di­ately be­gan fly­ing lessons. At five feet, one inch tall, she had to sit on cush­ions to reach the con­trols of the Cur­tiss JN-4 “Jenny” bi­plane. In June and July of 1927, Vol­lick made eleven flights to­talling six hours and twenty min­utes.

She quickly learned where to fo­cus.

“The most im­por­tant fac­tors are ‘tak­ing off’ and ‘land­ing,’” she wrote in the Cana­dian Air Re­view ar­ti­cle. “Any­one can fly straight and keep towards the hori­zon, but ris­ing from the ground and re­turn­ing, is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. The most try­ing sen­sa­tion of a flight comes when the plane glides rapidly earth­ward and one feels that fa­mil­iar ‘el­e­va­tor’ feel­ing. Even that sen­si­tive­ness passes af­ter a few flights.”

Vol­lick be­lieved that “a flyer must never make ac­quain­tance with ‘fear’ if he or she wants to be­come a suc­cess­ful pi­lot.” Soon af­ter her first few flights, she demon­strated her brav­ery with a feat that few other pi­lots would be pre­pared to re­peat.

“As proof that my sense of fear is small, I took the para­chute jump from the wing of the plane into the wa­ters of Hamil­ton Bay, from an al­ti­tude of 2,800 feet [850 me­tres]. It takes a great deal of con­fi­dence to walk the wing of an air­plane and jump into space, es­pe­cially when the con­trols are in the hands of a strange pi­lot. But I felt no fear.”

In a later in­ter­view, Eileen’s sis­ter Au­drey re­called that as she and their mother were watch­ing the para­chute jump they re­al­ized that the boat that was sup­posed to pick up Vol­lick was not in po­si­tion. Vol­lick re­leased her para­chute and then swam a con­sid­er­able dis­tance be­fore the boat re­trieved her. Au­drey also re­mem­bered that Jack El­liott was not pleased to have lost a para­chute.

News­pa­per re­ports of Vol­lick’s jump, and of her ambition to be the first woman pi­lot in the coun­try and to fly across Canada, prompted some in­ter­est­ing let­ters. A Van­cou­ver woman sought ad­vice on be­half of her son who wanted to fly. A young Sud­bury woman naively asked if El­liott’s school paid Vol­lick a salary while she was learn­ing to fly.

Vol­lick was of­fered a sky­div­ing con­tract to do a daily jump at the Cana­dian National Ex­hi­bi­tion, which she de­clined, not­ing, “Para­chute work, how­ever, was not my ambition. I wanted to fly.” She thought she might work as a mail pi­lot one day.

Un­til then, flight con­tin­ued to be ex­hil­a­rat­ing for Vol­lick, who soon tack­led early morn­ing fly­ing as a key to be­com­ing

a suc­cess. “Af­ter sev­eral flights off the ice on Hamil­ton Bay, I made ar­range­ments to fly as early as pos­si­ble.”

To ac­com­mo­date these flights the me­chan­i­cal crew fu­elled the plane and warmed the en­gine so that it was ready when Eileen and her in­struc­tor ar­rived be­fore sun­rise. Eileen left her “cozy cot”and drove to El­liott’s fly­ing school. She donned a pair of Ge­orge Vol­lick’s cov­er­alls, which her mother had restyled into a lined fly­ing suit that didn’t of­fer much warmth. For­tu­nately her wool-lined leather hel­met and fur-lined gog­gles helped to break the wind that streamed through the open cock­pit.

“With the tang of ice and frost upon pi­lot, plane and stu­dent, we rose from the hard­ened ground, winged our way over the icy bay, across the cold wa­ters of Lake On­tario, and af­ter ‘land­ing’ and ‘ris­ing’ sev­eral times, we flew back to port, full of early morn­ing pep, which the slug­gard abed can never fully com­pre­hend. Eight a.m. found me on my way to the Hamil­ton Cotton Co.”

Dur­ing a six-month break from fly­ing lessons, Vol­lick at­tended ground school with thirty-four male stu­dents, whom she de­scribed as be­ing polite and help­ful. She made de­tailed notes on top­ics that are still cov­ered in ground school classes to­day, such as en­gine de­sign, op­er­a­tion, and the­ory of flight. No doubt the time away from fly­ing al­lowed her to save money for more lessons, which she re­sumed again in Fe­bru­ary 1928. Be­cause of the snow, she flew the Jenny on skis rather than wheels. At a cost of thirty dol­lars, she flew ten more hours, to pre­pare for her flight test and to com­plete other li­cence requirements.

On Fe­bru­ary 28, Vol­lick flew the re­quired 175-mile (281-kilo­me­tre) cross-coun­try flight with her in­struc­tor, Richard Turner. It was –5.3°C when they left Hamil­ton, and as they climbed the tem­per­a­ture dropped at a rate of two de­grees per three hun­dred me­tres. Vol­lick hardly had time to get cold dur­ing train­ing flights, which av­er­aged half an hour, as she de­vel­oped var­i­ous skills for the flight test. But two and a half hours in the frigid air left her frozen as the breeze whipped around the wind­screen and swirled around her in the open cock­pit, rather like driv­ing in a con­vert­ible with the top down at –10°C.

Such was her love of fly­ing that Vol­lick even ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm for her pretest flight with the government ex­am­iner, even though he didn’t fly with any of the male stu­dents to as­sess their abil­i­ties. Stan­dards were in­deed more rig­or­ous for women pi­lots. “The day pre­vi­ous to the tests I had the ex­treme pleasure of tak­ing Cap­tain G.B. Holmes, Government In­spec­tor, for a flight, and he gave me great credit for the able man­ner in which I han­dled the plane.”

By the day of the flight test, the tem­per­a­ture had climbed to six de­grees, pro­vid­ing a more pleas­ant en­vi­ron­ment in which to fo­cus on the ex­am­iner’s skill-test­ing as­sign­ments. To earn a li­cence, a stu­dent was re­quired to land four times from a height of 1,500 feet (457 me­tres) within 150 feet (45 me­tres) of a spot marked by the ex­am­iner sit­ting in his car, and to land once from 5,000 feet (1,524 me­tres) with the mo­tor shut off.

On March 13, 1928, with six­teen hours and twenty-five min­utes of fly­ing in­struc­tion, Eileen Vol­lick earned her pi­lot’s li­cence. The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor re­ported the suc­cess­ful flight tests by eleven of the thirty-five cadets from Jack El­liott’s school, stat­ing, “while she will con­tinue to hold her present po­si­tion in the of­fice of the Hamil­ton Cotton Com­pany, Miss Vol­lick in­ti­mates she in­tends to take up com­mer­cial avi­a­tion in the near fu­ture, but is un­de­cided which branch to fol­low.”

Sex role stereo­typ­ing was alive and well; the next day, the

Spec­ta­tor com­mented, “Wonder what the lo­cal girl who has re­ceived her avi­a­tion li­cense would do if she dis­cov­ered a mouse in her plane?” There were no sim­i­lar com­ments about the ten male can­di­dates who also passed the flight test. Nei­ther did the

Spec­ta­tor re­port on the fact that the ex­am­iner had flown with Vol­lick the day be­fore her flight test but had not re­quired any of the male stu­dents to do like­wise.

Af­ter earn­ing her pi­lot’s li­cence, Vol­lick re­ceived sev­eral in­vi­ta­tions to give speeches or to per­form aerobatic demon­stra­tions in Canada and the United States. Fam­ily mem­bers re­call Amelia Earhart invit­ing Vol­lick to join her in a good­will fly­ing tour. The tour didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize, pos­si­bly be­cause Earhart was in­vited to be a pas­sen­ger on a transat­lantic flight in June 1928.

While vis­it­ing her sis­ter Gla­dys in March 1929, Vol­lick at­tended the ded­i­ca­tion of Holmes Air­port in New York City and met James Hop­kin, a steam­fit­ter. Six months later, they were mar­ried at St. Pa­trick’s Church Rec­tory in Hamil­ton and moved to Elmhurst, New York. They had two daugh­ters, Joyce and Eileen.

Fol­low­ing her mar­riage, Vol­lick gave up fly­ing. At that time mar­ried women did not seek paid em­ploy­ment un­less their

hus­bands were un­able to pro­vide for their wives and fam­i­lies. It is also pos­si­ble that Vol­lick didn’t con­tinue with her ear­lier aspirations be­cause fly­ing com­mer­cially would have re­quired ad­di­tional Amer­i­can qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

Though Vol­lick tri­umphed over so many so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions in learn­ing to fly and be­com­ing Canada’s first li­censed fe­male pi­lot, once she was mar­ried her hus­band and chil­dren took pri­or­ity. Though she dearly loved her fam­ily, Vol­lick of­ten re­gret­ted giv­ing up fly­ing. On Septem­ber 27, 1968, she died at the age of sixty in Elmhurst.

Vol­lick gave up fly­ing in or­der to raise her fam­ily, but she clearly passed on an in­ter­est in ae­rial ac­tiv­ity. In 2008, her daugh­ter Joyce Miles cel­e­brated her sev­enty-sixth birth­day with a three-gen­er­a­tion para­chute jump. Joyce, her son Jim Miles, and her grand­daugh­ter Danielle Yer­don all jumped from three thou­sand me­tres. Also in 2008, Vol­lick’s ninety-two-year-old sis­ter Au­drey Hop­kin re­al­ized her own dream of many years when she took the con­trols of an air­plane and flew the in­struc­tor and Vol­lick’s daugh­ters Joyce and Eileen Barnes across On­tario’s Bruce Penin­sula.

De­spite Eileen Vol­lick’s achieve­ments, all ma­jor ac­knowl­edge­ments of her suc­cess were granted posthu­mously. Many fam­ily mem­bers have par­tic­i­pated in cel­e­bra­tions of her legacy. In 1975, In­ter­na­tional Women’s Year, the First Cana­dian Chap­ter of the Ninety-Nines, the in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion of women pi­lots, awarded Vol­lick the Amelia Earhart medal­lion for her out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to avi­a­tion. In 1976, the Ninety-Nines and the On­tario Her­itage Foun­da­tion erected a his­toric plaque at Hamil­ton Civic Air­port to celebrate Vol­lick’s ground­break­ing achieve­ment. And in 1978 Vol­lick was hon­oured at the In­ter­na­tional For­est of Friend­ship, a serene park near Amelia Earhart’s birth­place, Atchi­son, Kansas, that hon­ours in­di­vid­u­als from many coun­tries who have made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to avi­a­tion. A me­an­der­ing path­way weaves among trees na­tive to the coun­tries of hon­ourees.

On Au­gust 2, 2008, the one hun­dredth an­niver­sary of Vol­lick’s birth, the Wiar­ton Kep­pel In­ter­na­tional Air­port near Owen Sound, On­tario, rec­og­nized her by nam­ing the ter­mi­nal build­ing af­ter her. A dis­play in­side the Eileen Vol­lick ter­mi­nal cel­e­brates her ac­com­plish­ments. That same day the East Canada Sec­tion Ninety-Nines is­sued a cus­tom­ized postage stamp to celebrate her con­tri­bu­tion to Cana­dian avi­a­tion.

Vol­lick was aware of her con­tri­bu­tion to Cana­dian avi­a­tion his­tory, but she was also re­mark­ably mod­est about it, con­sid­er­ing the young age at which she took to the air. It was her fame as Canada’s first li­censed fe­male pi­lot that led to sev­eral in­vi­ta­tions to fly­ing events. Those in­cluded her in­vi­ta­tion to the event where she met the man she would marry, and it was their mar­riage that led to her move to the United States and her re­tire­ment from avi­a­tion.

Had Vol­lick not been in­ap­pro­pri­ately in­tro­duced to stunts, spins, and loops dur­ing her first thrilling flight, would she have been more con­tent with less-ex­cit­ing fly­ing and have stayed in Canada to con­tinue as a pioneer­ing avi­a­tor af­ter earn­ing her li­cence? The cul­ture of the time makes that doubt­ful. Nev­er­the­less, and de­spite her short time as a pi­lot, Eileen Vol­lick broke stereo­types and made a new fu­ture pos­si­ble for the women who came af­ter her.


Left: Eileen M. Vol­lick with W. Flem­ing in a Jack El­liott Air Ser­vice air­plane at Hamil­ton, On­tario, circa 1927–28. Right: Vol­lick in flight gear.

Far left: The air­port near­est Wiar­ton, On­tario, Eileen Vol­lick’s birth­place, re­named a ter­mi­nal for her in 2008. Cen­tre: Some of Vol­lick’s personal mem­o­ra­bilia. Above, from left to right: Vol­lick’s late sis­ter Joyce Miles, ar­ti­cle au­thor and pi­lot...

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