On Wing Chan – for HeliOps Magazine

There is no ‘day in the life’ of Wing Chan – they’re all different. One minute she’s doing bioinformatics on coral transcriptome analysis; the next, she’s back in the cockpit teaching hovering. A unique combination of interests – for Wing, it’s the design for an exciting life.

“It’s funny… I was quite young when I decided that’s what I wanted to do – flying and marine science – and I couldn’t find a single person who knew this was possible. Nobody actually considered you could do both. Well, I guess even one of them is quite hard – let alone both of them. So, when at school our teacher asked us, ‘Is that really what do you want to do?’ I thought, ‘Yeah. Helicopter and marine science, I’m going to give it a go!’ ” 

Wing took the dive.

Following the completion of her CPL(H), in breaks between obtaining her PhD in genetics and marine studies in Australia and New Zealand, her first job – flying scenics in Australia’s stunning Whitsunday Islands – solidified every decision she’d made about her career so far. Soaring over picture-postcard beaches and some of the country’s most pristine coral reefs, Wing took the opportunity to both showcase the sheer beauty and educate inspired passengers about the intricacies of marine conservation and preservation. 

“I think a lot of what got me here was curiosity from when I was a kid,” she says, recalling fond memories of coastal expeditions with her father hunting for yabbies and wondering at the formation, colours and intricacies of the shells on the beach. “When you grow up, I think that curiosity becomes a passion, and then your interest is to protect it. So, as an adult, I’m interested in conservation and restoration – hopefully without ever losing the childlike curiosity!”

Wing then did the same thing down at the other end of the country, flying out of Phillip Island, famous for its Fairy Penguins and fur seal colonies. While she loves the idea of combining all three full-time – flying stunning vistas, educating, and using the heli for scientific research as well – she might take a couple of years to build experience and formulate a plan to move in that direction again.

In the meantime, however, Wing realizes purpose daily in her current role as an instructor. “Instructing has definitely meant some of the most challenging and rewarding flying for me. It is amazing to be part of the journey of a student pilot and see how they walk the path that I once walked.”

She’s especially delighted to have come into a workplace that has achieved a 50/50 balance of male and female pilots – not to tick boxes, but because the CEO of Melbourne Heli, Chris Wakefield, believes that employing female instructors establishes female role models in the industry, which will eventually lead to more women in aviation.

“In fact, in our very first conversation, he told me that he had been thinking about women in aviation for a long time; that we don’t have a lot of female students – but when we do, they are normally very good,” Wing says. 

Pondering why that is, she says that women have to consider a myriad of daunting questions – ‘What about having kids, what about family, what about job security, what about the future?’ – before deciding to take up a career in aviation. 

“And if that doesn’t prevent her from flying, then she is determined – this person will be very determined to succeed in aviation. That’s why, even though we might have a relatively small number of female pilots, they’re very successful, and they’re really good. That’s what Chris said to me when I started, and I think that’s a very good and very accurate observation of women pilots.”

Witnessing women ‘in the space’ is an important factor when it comes to encouraging them into a field. One thing Wing really noticed as she grew in her industries was a lack of female presence in aviation altogether; another was a stark contrast in the development of initiatives to assist their progression to more senior positions. 

For example, in 2018, Wing was one of 80 female scientists worldwide selected to participate in Homeward Bound, the brainchild of Fabian Dattner, a highly regarded leadership expert from Melbourne. The project spans ten years, with the idea of instilling 1000 women with a background in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) the skills to lead with impact and influence for the greater good; eventually ensuring balanced representation and diversity at the global leadership table.

“We have a lot of female scientists in the early stages of their career, but as you progress into higher and more senior levels, the proportion is much lower. Fabian views this as a challenge because we all bring different skills and perspectives, and it’s important to have an equal representation of the genders in, say, making decisions about the future of our planet.” 

It’s a twelve-month program, initially on a video call basis, pinnacled by a three-week intensive voyage to Antarctica where participants visit research stations and receive talks from the scientists based there. 

“On that trip, we had many different female scientists from across the world – a lot of them were more senior ones; a couple were more junior PhD candidates like myself. It was definitely amazing to actually go down to Antarctica and to see the wildlife there, a major thing to be with some of the finest female scientists in the world, and such a privilege to be part of a global initiative of change.”

It’s the kind of approach that Wing thinks the aviation industry would benefit from duplicating. 

“That’s a really good thing about it – you can build up a really strong network. And then you can know you have people across the world. I know I could go to, say, Argentina, and I would have a close scientist contact there, which is pretty amazing. We don’t have many things on this scale for women in aviation, and it would be pretty wonderful to change that.”

As a result of her own experiences, she’s excitedly started work on both an aviation scholarship and a science communication scholarship that will help others from various backgrounds achieve their dreams. And by no means slowing down; any day now, you’ll catch Wing on the CTAF as she exercises her fresh fixed-wing PPL and begins her aerobatic endorsement right after. 

Does she ever even come up for air?

First published in HeliOps Magazine – Issue 129 (Kia Kaha Media) in ‘A Greater View’, a column profiling women in the heli industry

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