In the 1950s, My Mom Became the First Woman to Fly Solo for Canadair

A heartwarming tribute to a mother who loved "dancing in the clouds."

Tribute To Mom - First Pilot For CanadairCourtesy Deb Stanton-Sandau

My mother, Joan Hayman-McMechan-Stanton-Vladicka was one of the strongest people I have ever known. She was resilient, funny, stubborn and dedicated to everyone she loved. These qualities helped her get through the many hardships she experienced.

Born and raised in Montreal, she was 12 when polio invaded her home, claiming the life of her older sister Viola and leaving a permanent mark on both Mom and her younger brother. My mother worked hard to fight against the doctor’s prognosis that she’d never be able to walk again. After six long months in the hospital, she was stubborn and strong enough to walk down the stairs and go home. She was lucky and she knew it.

Mom started working as a secretary for Canadair in Montreal when she was only 19. She often told us stories about the adventures she had with the “boys” she worked for. She loved that they treated her as an equal and included her in their conversations about planes and flying. Instead of accepting payment for overtime hours, she traded those hours for flying lessons.

Mom joined the Canadian Flying Club (CERA) in September 1954 and received her student pilot permit from the Canadian Department of Transport in October that year. Upon completing her course with this club, she became the first woman to fly solo for Canadair. A year later, on September 9, 1955, Mom had logged enough hours to receive her private pilot’s licence for single-engine planes. She wanted to go on and get her commercial pilot’s licence but that was not to be. Mom loved her time in the air. She’d often describe it as dancing in the clouds. Being a rebel, she loved how it was so bewildering to some that she chose to do this. But she didn’t care what others thought; to her it was amazing and something she was very proud of.

Mom passed away on October 3, 2017. Just a week before, we had been talking about the last time she had piloted a plane—a Cessna—on her own back in 1980, and how she never did go up again. She laughed about it but I could hear the regret in her voice. After Mom was gone, I wanted to do something special for her. I went back and forth trying to decide what it was I could do. Nothing seemed right but I kept remembering our conversations about her wanting to go back up in the sky. I finally realized that would be my goal. I’d take some of Mom’s ashes up and let her have one last dance.

Tribute To MomCourtesy Deb Stanton-Sandau
Deb sitting in the plane and holding lovely images of her mom, Joan.

With the help of my cousin-in-law Bernie, who is a pilot himself, my husband David and I set a date to go up—my dream was going to come true.

Leading up to the flight, my emotions were all over the place—doubt, fear, sadness and joy, all the emotions you could imagine. The morning of April 20, 2019 dawned clear and cool. The rain had been relentless and I was worried we would have to cancel. Driving out to the airport, I was quiet, still nervous about whether this was the right thing to do or not. It was like letting her go all over again and I kept asking myself if I could. I knew Mom would be thrilled, but was I strong enough to do this for her?

Taking off is not my favourite part of flying, much to my mother’s surprise. This day, though, I was grinning, filled with an excitement I’d never felt before. We circled around, looking for some cloud heads and when we found a formation close to the greenhouse she loved, I snuck the window open a crack. Within a piece of a colourful Easter napkin she’d given me was now a pinch of her ashes. I took a deep breath and with her laughter in my ears and a massive grin on my face, I let Mom have her last dance among the clouds. I knew in that moment that I’d done the right thing.

Although I miss Mom very much, I see her smile in the mirror, hear her laughter in my ears and feel her love giving me strength every day. I’m so thankful I was able to give her one last dance. Every morning I look up at the clouds and tell her that I love her and miss her—and to keep dancing.

Next, read the heartwarming story of a mother’s love remembered.

Originally Published in Our Canada