Abbotsford’s ‘Paper Queen’ takes to the skies

“I wasn't necessarily part of the boys club. So, I decided to start my own club."

Photo by Grace Kennedy

It was 1997, and Fraser Valley pilot Cathy Press had just finished her test to become a helicopter instructor. She wasn’t sure how she had done. While she waited for the results of her test, she chatted with her inspector. She asked: how many women are helicopter instructors?

“He said, ‘Well there’s one,’” Press remembered. “I said, ‘Oh, who is she?’ And he says, ‘Well it’s you. Congratulations.’”

That was how Press learned she had become the first female helicopter instructor in Canada.

Flying wasn’t new to Press or her family: her father was a retired commercial pilot, and Press went on her first solo plane flight when she was 16. She flew her first helicopter not long after. In the late 90s she took over her father’s aviation company and turned it into one of the largest airplane and helicopter training companies in Canada. She ended up teaching pilots from around the world (including the first female helicopter pilot in Bhutan). Not only did Press become the first female helicopter instructor in Canada, but she is also the only examiner of any gender for both helicopter and airplane pilots. In early June, Press received an honourary doctorate from the University of the Fraser Valley for her leadership as CEO at Chinook Helicopters.

Sitting in her office—with model helicopters and framed photos filling her shelves—Press took down a yellowed newspaper clipping showcasing a 16-year-old Press piloting her first flight out of the Abbotsford airport. “I wasn’t necessarily part of the boys club. So, I decided to start my own club,” Press said. The Current sat down with Press to talk about her career, her accomplishments, how she earned the nickname “Paper Queen,” and what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated field.

FVC: There are not many industries left where you can be the first woman to do something—one of the first definitely, but few where you can be the very first. Did you know that you were the first female helicopter instructor when you started?

Cathy Press: “That wasn’t really the intent. And to be honest, nobody seemed to really care in the first 10 years. [Laughs] It really wasn’t actually a point that anyone was really too interested about. It actually has become much more interesting for people, especially on a political side, from about 2015. There’s definitely been more of a drive in our country to have women go into more STEM and trades. And what I’ve seen is, since we’ve been doing that, it has become more interesting to different government officials.”

FVC: What has been the biggest challenge?

CP: “When I look back—I guess I’m 50 this year—it’s the times that you’re most challenged that you actually grow the most, and you learn the most. And it makes you able to take those experiences, and then not have the fear to move forward, to make yourself more successful. Because I think that you’re not afraid of the outcome as much, because you know when things don’t go the way they should be, it can be worse. [Laughs] It can always be worse. And I think sometimes what holds us back from success is the fear of failure. And so if you’re not afraid to fail, it’s easier to move forward.

FVC: Interesting words from a pilot, where I imagine failure when you’re up in the sky can be a bit more concerning.

CP: “Yes, and actually I’ve found that there’s distinct times in my life that I’ve had to learn different skill sets. And so at a younger stage of my life, I had to build a skill of operating an aircraft and skill of learning regulations. One of [the] ways that I was able to make my way in a fairly male-dominated world was I liked to read regulations. And so, my nickname became Paper Queen… Information is essentially how I was able to succeed… The challenging part about being in aviation is you have to sort of keep reinventing your skillset as you go. And so your skillset changes. Instead of your own skills, it changes in your leadership skills… And, it’s really quite hard to leave your personal skills and see them deteriorate. It’s really hard to let go of things that you were once good at, and embrace new things and realize that it’s okay. It’s just part of it, if you want to change yourself.”

FVC: What are you most proud of?

CP: “I don’t know what I’d be most proud of. I sort of feel I’m just beginning. I feel like I’ve got a lot to do yet. I’ve actually felt like I was lucky to be born in Canada. I was lucky to be born in a situation where I had advantages given to me, and I feel that it’s almost a responsibility that I need to push myself to see where I can grow and what I can do. And see if I can create new things and employ people and do more for our country, because I feel like… I don’t have an excuse.” [Laughs]

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