When the sky is the limit

Program gives wings to students with a passion for aviation

Chelsea-Anne Edwards walks out on the tarmac to the plane she will fly. It’s a sun-drenched fall day and the third-year aviation student looks to the sky. “The clouds are pretty low,” she says. “The higher the clouds, the better.”

There isn’t fear in her voice, though. It’s just an observation for a young woman who has been a pilot for more than a year. She circles the plane and runs her hands along the rudder and the propeller. During her pre-flight “walk-around,” Edwards looks for fuel leaks, checks for missing bolts and inspects the tire tread. She checks the front edge of the wings and makes sure the first aid kit is on board.

Edwards takes off from the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre and flies for two hours, which seems like a long time for a mid-day flight on a school day, but it’s nothing compared to the journey she started two years ago — the one that has taken her from being a high school student in small-town Ontario to a young woman on a career path to become a commercial airline pilot.

Chelsea Anne Edwards under the wings of a plane

Chelsea-Anne Edwards at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre.

“I used to feel fear," says Edwards. "I used to second-guess everything when I flew solo without my instructor. I would think about it over and over again, but now that I’ve done so many trips, I’m confident. There is such a feeling of accomplishment each time I fly."

Grounded in education

When Edwards touches down, she will head back to Waterloo’s main campus for a late afternoon lecture. As a geography student in Waterloo’s seven-year-old aviation program, Edwards’ course load includes geomatics, climatology, cartography and remote sensing.

In a university recognized globally for innovative experiential education opportunities, Waterloo’s aviation program is a prime example of how rigorous academic studies can blend with hands-on learning to produce graduates ready to embrace the demands of the real world.

Waterloo’s aviation students earn a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Environmental Studies at the same time they become licensed pilots. A relatively new program, aviation has been offered in Waterloo classrooms since the fall of 2007, with flight training beginning the following year. The program is a demanding one, says Aviation Director Ian McKenzie. Students balance a regular course load with flight training. Required ground school and flight labs can take more than 10 hours every week, along with three to four hours of actual flying.

“The students who are successful in the program are the ones who have tremendous time management skills.” 

IAN MCKENZIE

Edwards says she knew in high school that she definitely wanted a university degree. “I knew I wanted to fly but I’m also a person who loves the academic side of learning,” she says.

Adjunct astronaut

At one afternoon lecture, Edwards takes notes while a new adjunct professor — a pilot, also raised in small-town Ontario — shares his experiences flying more than 100 different types of aircraft. Chris Hadfield, now an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, was the first Canadian to command the International Space Station (ISS).

He became a social media sensation in 2013 when he tweeted and shared photos on his Twitter account while on board the ISS. But on a fall afternoon in a basement lecture hall in Waterloo’s Environment 1 building, the students are most interested in Hadfield’s experiences as a pilot for the past 35 years.

Chris Hadfield lecturing to students at Waterloo

Chris Hadfield lecturing to aviation students at the University of Waterloo.

Hadfield first applauds the aviation students for getting a university degree, as he did more than 30 years ago. For pilots, he says, a health issue can suddenly derail the career of anyone who can’t pass the annual medical that’s required to keep flying.

That’s not the only risk.

He tells Edwards and the rest of the class that he lost one good friend a year when he served as a test pilot for the United States Air Force. He urges the young pilots to go far beyond the standard “walk-around” and checklists that pilots are required to complete before taking off.

Going the extra mile for Hadfield meant creating a “one- pager” for every aircraft he ever flew. The one-pager, he says, covers everything there is to know about the airplane: every unique feature of the vehicle from what to do in the event of an engine failure, to landing and post-landing systems.

“You have to know the systems of your vehicle better than anyone else … you have to understand the systems that can fail,” he says. Hadfield says he used his one-pagers to refresh his memory just minutes before take off. “Having the one-pager was vital to me … it was the only way I could turn my deep systems study into operational knowledge. You don’t want to be thinking about what to do in an emergency.”

High altitude, high risk

Edwards says in the high-tech world of flight, Hadfield’s lecture was a good reminder to understand the fundamentals, because that may ultimately save her life, and the life of her passengers.

“Like he said, ‘The GPS won’t kill you, talking on the radio won’t kill you … but flying the plane could kill you'.”

Academic understanding of aircraft systems only goes so far, Hadfield stresses in the second half of his lecture. Understanding must be enriched by hands-on simulations, he says.

Hadfield urges Waterloo’s aviation students to simulate an entire flight before take off. It didn’t matter if it was a biting cold day in Moose Jaw, Sask. — Hadfield would sit in the plane he was about to fly and “fly” the whole trip before he ever left the ground. He would repeat out loud what his actions would be in the event of every emergency he could imagine. He would say, “If my engine fails now, this is what I’m going to do.”

Even once he was in the air, Hadfield continued to simulate what he would do in the event of an emergency like an engine failure or if smoke was coming through the cockpit.

"Realistic simulation is the only way I stayed alive… You always need to be asking yourself: ‘What is the next thing that’s going to kill me?’” 

CHRIS HADFIELD

Hadfield also urged the students to create mnemonics, to help them remember important checks. “It will save you from making a stupid mistake one day,” he says, adding that a pilot friend of his recently died, along with his son, after forgetting to lower his landing gear. “You always need to be asking yourself: ‘What is the next thing that’s going to kill me?’.”

It’s not just pilots who are at risk, he says. Aviation students like Edwards, who hope to fly commercial airplanes one day, will be responsible for the lives of thousands of people.

“You guys here will have a lot bigger responsibility than a private pilot,” says Hadfield. “That’s why I’m being such a wet blanket.”

Air ambulance job is global

Hadfield’s cautionary tales are not lost on Waterloo aviation alumnus Stephen Lewtas, 24, who works for an air ambulance company based in Hamilton. He graduated in 2012 and is now living his dream — typically flying to several different countries in a single week. In one recent week, Lewtas flew to Iceland, Belgium, France, Greece, Egypt, Czechoslovakia and Saudi Arabia.

“I get to see the entire world,” says Lewtas. “It’s pretty amazing. I have two hours to be in the jet from the time I get the call. I never know where my next flight will be.”

Lewtas is currently flying a Bombardier Learjet 35, picking up people who have been critically injured or fallen ill while away from home. It’s the first time Lewtas has flown a jet and, while he “absolutely loves it,” the repeated simulations he goes through, long before he ever steps into the cockpit, have helped him manage the unexpected.

"When something comes up, you’ve already seen it more than 15 times in a simulator. You know exactly what to do, so it’s not a big event for you.” 

STEPHEN LEWTAS

Most Waterloo aviation alumni are, like Lewtas, working in their field, says McKenzie. Another grad, Scott Bowen, is with the Royal Canadian Air Force flying a CT-155 Hawk in hopes of one day becoming a CF-18 fighter pilot on an operational squadron.

Bowen, who graduated from the aviation program in 2012, says his physics specialization helped him understand systems and honed his problem-solving skills. “The ability to make timely decisions with the information available is one of the most important points about becoming an aviator,” says Bowen.

“The Waterloo aviation program prepared me well for my career because it’s not solely focused on producing pilots, but on seeing the big picture.”

Demanding dream

First-year classes started with about 35 students, but only about 15 graduate each year.

Attrition is high. Some students transfer to different programs because they can’t meet their flight benchmarks or don’t like the heavy workload. It may also be partly due to the expense of the program — it can cost $130,000 for tuition, room and board and flight training over four years.

The program is actively seeking support for funded scholarships to make flight studies more affordable for more students. While the aviation students graduate with science or environment degrees, McKenzie stresses their first love is flight.

“The students in this program are here because they want to fly. You ask any of them what they are going to do when they graduate and they say they want to be a pilot.” 

IAN MCKENZIE

Edwards, the first person in her family to become a pilot, manages the high cost with student loans and a demanding summer flight training and work schedule. She stays motivated remembering the thrill of taking her mother, a school bus driver, up for the first time.

She knows it will be many years before she has enough hours to fly a large commercial plane. But Edwards doesn’t talk about backup plans. It has never occurred to her to do anything other than be a pilot since that very first time she flew a plane in her first year in the program.

“You know when you’re a child and you dream of flying?” asks Edwards. “Well, I literally get to see that dream come true.”