Edmonton air traffic controller wants more women to get their wings

Edmonton air traffic controller wants more women to get their wings

Kendra Kincade loves a good puzzle.

She sits at the controls of the Edmonton airport terminal every day, choreographing the movements of hundreds of airliners, helicopters and small planes.

The job of air traffic controller is a notoriously stressful position which requires intense concentration and attention to detail. Even a change in the wind can alter the trajectory of her day.

“You’re talking to the pilots of all the airplanes out there, and you’re vectoring them, turning them around in the sky, keeping them safe and keeping them away from each other, ” said Kincade, who works at Edmonton Terminal at the Edmonton International Airport.

“It takes a lot of practice and a lot of training to be able to do that.”

Kincade is the founder and board chair of Elevate Aviation, an organization which helps women find careers and breaks down gender barriers in the aviation industry. 

‘Everyone thought I was a little crazy’

Kincade’s career in aviation started unexpectedly. She met someone in New Brunswick who was an air traffic controller. He took her on a tour of the airport.

The first time she saw a control room with its bleeping radar screen and crackling radios, she was hooked.

“I just liked the look of it. Everyone was sitting in front of radar screens talking to airplanes and as I got to know more about it, I really enjoyed the fact that it’s kind of a puzzle,” Kincade said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“It was just a feeling that I had, that this was right. This was something I was supposed to do.”

Enthralled by the prospect of a new career, she loaded her children into the car and began the long drive to Cornwall, Ontario, where she would begin her training.

‘It’s the best decision of my life’

Kincade, who left home at 13 and had the first of her four children by 20, knew this was a career that would give her independence as a mother.

When family and friends balked at her plans, she ignored them. Seventeen years later, she has no regrets.

“Everyone thought I was a little crazy,” she said. “A lot of people said I couldn’t do it, but I just did it anyway and it’s the best decision of my life, for sure.”

After a grueling five months in Ontario, living in a rental home and relying a roster of babysitters to care for her children during the long hours in the classroom, Kincade returned to Edmonton to finish her training.

Then just as she was about to take the floor and work independently, Kincade was in a car accident which kept her out of the workforce for two years. When she finally recovered, she had to start all over again in a different department, Edmonton Terminal.

‘Every single day, you’re striving’

It’s a notoriously stressful, high-paced operation and Kincade describe her first few months as one of the most challenging times of her life.

“I would say that’s the most stressful part of the job is actually the training because it’s a constant push for about a year and half … every single day, you’re striving to get to a higher level.”

Now Kincade works eight-hour days among 200 other flight controllers at the Edmonton Terminal building.

She communicates with pilots, deciding when they should change their altitude, speed or flight path, helping them to avoid collisions or bad weather at a moment’s notice.

“We work 8.5-million-square miles of airspace out of our building. We work from the U.S border to the North Pole and Alaska to Greenland and they’re all divided up into different sectors,” Kincade said. 

“It takes a lot of training to be able to that, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Kincade, who was among the first women to work in the field in Alberta, wants knows more women could succeed in the field. 

“I don’t want to get myself in trouble by saying women are better multitaskers, but I do think women are an excellent fit for this job,” Kincade said. “People just don’t know about it. Most people think air traffic controllers are out on the runway with a pylon.

“This is one of the best jobs in the world.”

By Wallis Snowdon
With files from Tanara Mclean
CBC News