When Karla Slaney was eight years old, a pilot invited her to sit in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 during her family’s vacation to Florida. By the time she returned to her seat, clutching a set of plastic pilots’ wings, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I decided right then,” said Slaney, a captain pilot at STARS. “I still have the wings in a shoebox of collectibles. That was a lifechanging moment.”
That decision was hundreds of flights and several jobs ago. Today, Slaney is a pilot at STARS where she’s worked for the past nine years.
On Aug. 17, 2013 during a scene call from the Calgary base to Roger’s Pass, she logged her 500th mission, making her the first female pilot at STARS to have reached this milestone.
“It’s a big deal for me because it’s not an easy job and it remains a field that’s dominated by men,” said Slaney. “But beyond that I am proud because that’s 500 families I can say I helped or tried to help. It’s gratifying to know you are there to provide a second chance for someone.”
Mike Janke, former aviation base manager in Calgary, called Slaney a dedicated pilot.
“For a STARS pilot to achieve 500 missions in six years is quite an achievement,” he said. “Karla is passionate about STARS.”
Slaney began her aviation education right out of high school in 1999. Initially, she applied to the military but because her vision wasn’t 20/20 they wouldn’t train her to fly.
Instead, Slaney enrolled at Gander Flight Training in Newfoundland, her home province. She’d set her sights on flying fixed wing airplanes, until one day she hopped into a helicopter.
“With 20 hours left in my commercial fixed wing license I took my first helicopter ride and was hooked,” she said. After finishing her license she switched gears and began learning to fly helicopters.
Upon graduation just over a year later, Slaney became the first female helicopter pilot trained in Newfoundland and the 64th in Canada. Soon, she was working in Kingston, Ont. doing sight-seeing tours. This was followed by a few other jobs, including working as a bush pilot in Whitecourt, AB.
In 2007 she was hired at STARS, but initially feared she was in over her head because the responsibility is so great.
“All of those lives in the aircraft are in my hands,” said Slaney, noting one of her recent missions involved a man from her hometown who was in a vehicle rollover on his way to work in Alberta. Seeing the distraught family of someone she knew hit her hard.
“All I could do is remind the mother that he was in the best hands and we would get him help quickly and safely,” she said. “The families need us to be composed and professional.”
Now in 2016, more than 750 missions later, Slaney is looking toward 1000. Although she jokes that her family often suggests she should try flying another kind of aircraft.
“They can’t understand why I don’t want to work for Air Canada or WestJet and get them free flights.”