Buffalo Airways' Jamie MacDonald inside Cabin Radio's Studio 2. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
With just three years of flying to her name, Jamie MacDonald applied to Buffalo Airways on a whim. Now, the 21-year-old is piloting one of the NWT airline’s biggest World War Two bruisers.
MacDonald, who grew up in Toronto, joined Buffalo three months ago and serves as a first officer aboard the Curtiss C-46 – a transport aircraft built in the early 1940s.
Buffalo’s Mikey McBryan, writing on Facebook, called MacDonald “Canada’s first female C-46 pilot in almost 40 years.” He added: “Jamie may very well be the only female commercial Curtiss C-46 pilot in the world right now.”
Speaking to Cabin Radio this week, MacDonald said: “They told me I would be training on the aircraft and I got really excited about it; I thought it would be amazing, especially nowadays with females in the aviation workforce.
“This is one of the largest tail-wheeled aircraft in the world, very difficult to fly, very heavy, and very big. If you’re in Yellowknife, it’ll probably wake you up on a Saturday morning if it’s flying.”
MacDonald was 18 when she used a learn-to-fly gift certificate for a 40-minute flight in a Cessna. When she landed – despite vomiting through air-sickness mid-flight – she told her family she wanted to become a pilot.
Since joining Buffalo, MacDonald’s family has been avidly watching the Ice Pilots NWT reality show which documented the airline’s fortunes for six seasons from 2009 to 2014.
MacDonald, by contrast, has barely seen it. She’s getting to know its characters, like the famously grumpy Buffalo president Joe McBryan, in person.
“When he first met me he had a big smile,” she recalled.
“He walked by the room, took a couple of steps back, looked at me, and he goes: ‘Huh. Female.’
“Then he smiled at me and walked away.”
MacDonald says she is enjoying working with a full crew for the first time, as opposed to her previous job flying single-engine, single-pilot aircraft in Toronto, and learning from different pilots, mechanics, and maintenance workers.
She hopes that knowledge will help her achieve her ultimate goal of flying an Avro Lancaster bomber – another World War Two aircraft, of which only two airworthy models still exist. One is based at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, the other in the UK.
“My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a rear gunner in a Lancaster during the Second World War, so that has always fed it,” said MacDonald.
“The C-46 is a very good feeder aircraft for me to try to get onto a Lancaster. It’s big and relatable.
“Other than the Second World War, I don’t think a female pilot has ever flown the two remaining Lancasters in the world. It would be pretty neat for anyone. I’m hoping that in a couple of years I can say I’m on it.”
For MacDonald, part of the attraction of World War Two beasts like the C-46 and Lancaster is the absence of modern-day convenience.
“I’m here to get the experience and to be one of the best pilots I can be,” she said.
“One of the differences between Buffalo and other companies is older aircraft don’t have an autopilot, so you have to hand-fly and know your plane well for it to go smoothly.
“Autopilot takes away the enjoyment of being an aviator and a pilot.”
Alongside the C-46, MacDonald is also flying Buffalo’s famed, vintage DC-3 aircraft alongside Joe McBryan.
For Mikey McBryan, having her join the crew is exciting.
“I hope Jamie can be an inspiration to young female pilots around the world,” he wrote this week. “These aircraft are some of the hardest to fly, and you can do it too.”