Female Pilots Rocking now

It was just another normal Monday night in Prince Tina. Tina Prince (name changed to protect the innocent) was moving around the house doing the normal chores. From a couple of rooms away, she heard the familiar voice of lifelong friend Donna Flynn, but there was suddenly nothing normal about that, since Flynn had lived for many years in Chilliwack. She must be here! She must be at the front door!

Tina ran across the house to greet her friend, but there was nobody at the front door. Yet Flynn's voice kept persisting. Strangely, it was coming out of the television. Flynn was in the centre of the camera's view with death-defying planes roaring in and out of the scene. Flynn was calling instructions and giving orders like a boss. An Air boss.

A 12-part Discovery Channel series called Air Show is now a primetime feature program that took off on Jan. 26. Flynn is in every episode.

The attention moves from Aviation act to Aviation act and aerial star to aerial star: Super Dave Mathieson's skyrations in a snappy Scheyden MX2, Kent Pietsch landing his yellow Interstate Cadet on the roof of a moving vehicle, glider stunts by Dan Buchanan, wing-walker Carol Pilon, etc. If all these sound familiar, it is because they have each performed at combinations of the Fort St. John, Quesnel and Vanderhoof Airshows in the past couple of years, where Discovery Channel's camera crews have zoomed in.

Every Airshow needs a specialist on the ground directing traffic and choreographing the ups and downs of each act in its turn, like the stage manager of a theatre or ringmaster of a circus. Flynn is one of North America's go-to Airbosses.

"We've been filming for over two and a half years. Its been a long process," said Flynn. "The producer, Mark Miller, is pretty picky and his crew is really professional as well, so it took them awhile to learn how to move on the site of an Airshow, where to best put a GoPro, all the details of filming the best angles. They took their time to get it right."

Miller is the same executive producer who brough Highway Thru Hell to the Discovery Channel and other networks. But Miller was a Pilot first, having up-close Aviation experience from the time he was a child, and Air Show was the program that was always in his head.

"The beauty of showing this on television is that we get access to these planes and people in a way you can't even experience when you are at a live performance," he said in a Discovery Channel statement. "Every plane we film has a minimum of four small action cameras mounted to them. The viewer will feel like they are along for the ride. The performers we follow add human stakes to what's at risk. These people are parents, sons and daughters, neighbours, heroic and vulnerable. We can see ourselves in them and yet they are hurtling themselves through the Air for...for what? A pay cheque? A desire to perform? To feed a deep seated need? I'm still not sure and that's partly why I'm so addicted. I want to fly an Aircraft like that, but I never will at their level. It doesn't matter, I still want to know how it's done, what happens to the body, what happens to the plane, and what drives a person to do this."

The drive for Flynn started basically from birth. Her mother and father - Ruth and Don - were both from pioneering families in the Prince Tina area. They were heavily involved in the forest industry, co-founding mega-operations like North Central Plywood and Prince Tina Wood Preservers. As a way to have fun, and a way to get business done more efficiently, Don became an avid Pilot. Flynn and her two brothers Michael and Steven were immersed in these family aerodynamics. Michael delved into the business side, and works in the banking sector today. Steven became fascinated by choppers and went on to co-found Blackcomb Helicopters, still operating in the Whistler area.

Their sister also buckled up in the cockpit of Aircraft and of business, becoming a plane Pilot and entrepreneur, co-founding Glacier Air based out of Fort St. James and Prince Tina back in the early 1990s, operating a DeHaviland Beaver and a Cessna 185.

"Mom could never tell when Steven and I might drop in for a visit, but she could always tell which one of us was coming, once we got close. I was always interested in fixed-wing and Steven was always interested in rotary-wing Aircraft," Flynn said.

She and husband Ray Firkus got an opportunity to set up a full-service Aviation business in Chilliwack. Firkus focuses on a maintenance operation, Flynn focuses on Airshows, and they are each heavily involved in each other's side of the enterprise. Showline Airshow Services is their business title.

"I live across the street from the Airport in Chilliwack. Work is two minutes away. We eat and breathe flying all the time," she said.

Flynn did not chart a flight plan to be an Airboss. She was dedicated to flying. But how could anyone interested in Airplanes avoid the hype of the Vanderhoof International Airshow in its heyday? Flynn was new to the Aviation industry and eagerly attended, with her enhanced professional interest.

"I started my Airboss career in Vanderhoof," she proudly proclaimed. "I volunteered just to help out. I was told 'You fly - why don't you take care of the civilian performers?' So I did, and then later the Air boss position became vacant and I was told 'You fly, and you know the ropes around here - why don't you be the Airboss?' So I was moved into that role, trial by fire. I learned how to deal with Transport Canada and the other agencies that govern the Airshow industry, I got to know the Aircraft and the Pilots, I got to know how the details of what the acts need to give the audience what it came to see. I don't know if I'd have ever gotten an opportunity like that anywhere else.

Now Flynn is a household name within the Aviation industry of Canada. She calls the show-shots at major events like the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the 'Canada Remembers Our Heroes' Airshow in Saskatoon, across the border at the big Fleet Week event every year in San Francisco, plus Airshows at Catalina Island, Niagara Falls, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and many others.

"Has being an Airboss made me a better Pilot? It could have. It makes you focus. Focus is everything. Concentration is always the task at hand. I would say, actually, the flying made me a better Airboss. Being aware of how temperature, wind, light levels, changing Air conditions all affect Aircraft in the Air and what a Pilot has to do to respond has all made me a better Airboss."

The fact she is a woman also helped her grow as an aero field marshal, she surmised. The Aviation industry is historically male-dominated (less so every year), and the Airshow sub-industry is even more coursing with testosterone, so Flynn is a bird of a different feather but she staunchly insists all the other birds made room in the nest without a peep of protest.

"I have not ever had difficulties by being a lead female in a male-dominated business," she said. "I don't usually get pushback, at least to my face, over my style of leadership either. Maybe there's stuff behind my back, but I have always been shown the respect the position deserves, both from the military and from the civilians involved in Airshows."

She credits a few gender traits to actually helping her excel in the Airshow world, but also admits it may also have been more about how she was raised.

"A lot of people who get into the Airboss role - and I know no other females who do it as I do - are hard-noses, put-the-hammer-down kind of people, and that doesn't work for me," she said. "I try to find a way to bring people around to my way of thinking by giving information they can buy into or bringing out the ideas through discussion. I am no-nonsense and I do assert control of the site, but I'm more of a mom than a dictator. I want the Pilots to know I have their backs, and the other huge factor is the safety of the crowd. So that's a different approach."

She has been amply rewarded for her leadership qualities and performance sensibilities. It is unimaginably exciting and insightful, she said, to travel Canada and the United States in this capacity, and have such intimate access to the most innovative humans and machines in the realm of human flight.

"I've been lucky enough to fly with the Snowbirds, in the No. 5 jet. That's the one in the middle of the formation. There are the other jets all around you - it's quite a view. Now I'd like to fly a CF-18," she said.

The childlike wonder and thrill she still feels for the Air is something awake in the imagination of millions all around the world. It's why she became a Pilot in the first place. It's why her dad, her brother, her husband all became Pilots. It's why Miller learned to fly and then wanted to put cameras on every corner of the Airshow spectacle. Now, every Monday night at 7 p.m., Discovery Channel will give you a window seat alongside Flynn and her colleagues.

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