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Canadian Indigenous aviation grads soar to new heights

By Kim Latimer | December 20, 2023

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 15 seconds.

Mario Flett is the first to complete the Indigenous pilot program at Custom Helicopters Ltd. Custom Helicopters Photo

Operator-led Indigenous pilot and aviation training programs in Northern Manitoba are celebrating the recent success of in-house graduates. It comes at a time of critical pilot shortages.  
   
Mario Flett is the first to complete the Indigenous pilot program at Custom Helicopters Ltd. He’s now a first officer, co-pilot on the helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) Sikorsky S-76C+ and part of the trauma flight team. Home for Mario is St. Theresa Point First Nation in Northern Manitoba.  

“I hope to inspire a lot of people doing this,” said Flett. “Coming back home, seeing all these people, I was already tearing up flying in on my first approach to the nursing station…. It somewhat feels like a healing for the community.”    

Flett is the first graduate of the Rotary-Wing Indigenous Pilot Pathway program. The pathway falls under a larger, fully-funded training initiative called “The Atik Mason Indigenous Pilot Pathway” by the Exchange Income Corporation (EIC), with the guidance of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. EIC owns a group of northern air operators in Manitoba, Northern Ontario, and across Canada, including Custom Helicopters, Perimeter, Bearskin, Calm Air, Keewatin Air and more.

“Mario successfully completed the recruitment process resulting in his selection into the program,” said Jed Hansen, president and CEO, Custom Helicopters. “We worked with the Chief and Council of Mario’s community to identify a candidate that not only showed the strong desire to be a helicopter pilot but had the aptitude, energy and dedication to succeed.

“I believe we are the only [helicopter] company in Canada that has a program like this,” Hansen continued. “We are committed to what we do, the people we work with and the communities in which we operate. We not only provide an essential service in these communities, we want to be a valuable part of them. This investment is substantial and we have no doubt it will meet all of our expectations.”

When asked about his experience, Mario said: “My favourite part about flying is just the adrenaline when you wake up and thinking about flying that day. It just makes you feel unreal and grateful that you get the opportunity to fly a magnificent machine. Once you’re in the sky, you feel free.”

Hansen added: “We hope other kids live the dream to feel free. The team looks forward to growing this program in the coming years.”

Ryan DeGroot, vice president of aviation at EIC, said there are a few different career pathway programs available, including Indigenous Pilot Pathway and Life in Flight. “All programs have been developed to provide financial assistance for career training, support participants along their journey, and provide the opportunity for a great career in aviation.” 
   
The program’s namesake, Atik Mason from St. Theresa Point First Nation, was the first Indigenous graduate from the Life in Flight program. He’s now a first officer on Perimeter’s Dash 8, as well as a pathway flight instructor and a mentor to new program participants.    

The Atik Mason pathway is exclusive to Indigenous applicants and is training pilots in Thompson, Manitoba, with plans to expand to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. The intent is to bring training to the North.  
 
“As part of our commitment to Truth and Reconciliation, we wanted to break down barriers to flight training faced by Indigenous candidates. As an example, we wanted to keep participants close to their home communities where they have cultural support. In Thompson, we now have a flight school during the summer months, and we’ll be doing the same in Rankin Inlet,” said DeGroot.   
 
“In 2020, we also launched a Life in Flight AME program to focus on the development of aircraft maintenance engineers,” he adds.   
 
Fast forward to today, and Perimeter Aviation is now celebrating the career of Cato Wood. Also from St. Theresa Point First Nation, Wood is an AME apprentice and the first Indigenous participant to graduate from the AME arm of the Life in Flight career track program (started in 2020) — open to all Canadian applicants.    

Wood recalls being drawn to aviation early in life. “Travelling across Canada by air was a life-changing experience for me as a child,” he said. The program was his stepping stone.    

He trained while being employed by Perimeter Aviation in collaboration with the Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME) program at Red River College (RCC) Polytechnic in Winnipeg.    

“I realized he had great potential because he was catching on very, very quickly,” said Mark Ireland, maintenance manager at Perimeter. Perimeter provided experience and Wood is now working towards writing his Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs) exam.      

“Cato’s journey is a testament to his dedication and hard work while being part of a supportive work environment at Perimeter Aviation,” said Joey Petrisor, president and CEO, Perimeter Aviation.  “Congratulations, Cato, we are proud of your achievement and wish you a fulfilling career ahead.”  
 
An average of 45 pilots are enrolled in the Life in Flight program each year, all at different stages of their training across Canada. The Atik Mason Indigenous Pilot Pathway currently has 18 pilots in training in Thompson, Manitoba, and will be expanding to include 12 pilots in training in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

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