Champagne and Aishihik citizen Shadunjen van Kampen obtained her pilot’s licence last week, and is now believed to be the first Yukon First Nations woman to be commercially licensed.
“Nobody could think of another Yukon First Nations woman who had gotten a commercial licence,” van Kampen told the Star Thursday.
“If there was one, it would be great to know who, but if there’s not, I wouldn’t be surprised–– there’s not that many women in the field.”
Van Kampen completed the final paperwork to aquire her pilot’s licence on April 30, after three years of training.
It was a long road to licensure.
Van Kampen, 21, began her training with a flight school on Vancouver Island in 2017 and stayed there for a year, before financial limitations brought her back to Whitehorse to complete training in the Yukon.
She spent the next two years working while continuing to build flight hours.
Van Kampen’s father, Ukjese van Kampen, is a retired pilot who helped to train his daughter in the air, allowing her to save money on instructor fees after she returned to the Yukon.
“He hadn’t flown in a decade, but he renewed his instructor’s rating and was able to be one of my instructors,” van Kampen said.
“It was great and saved me a lot of money, and it’s gotten him back into flying a bit as well.”
Van Kampen said she grew up hearing stories about her father flying in the Yukon, and that was part of what piqued her interest in it after graduating high school.
“I sort of had a hard time in school,” van Kampen said.
“You know, they were really gearing us up to get our courses ready to apply for college or university, but by the time I was graduating I didn’t have good grades and I didn’t know what to do; I hadn’t applied for anything.”
She knew she could attend flight school without high academic standing, so she busied herself applying for scholarships and was able to secure grants from the Yukon government and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.
Over the next three years, she logged flight hours as she could afford them and slogged through the challenging coursework required in the ground portion of licensure. The process was rewarding, she said.
“There’s these milestones you reach: the first time you fly solo, the first time you land a plane on your own,” van Kampen said.
“Flight tests are terrifying, but once you finish them, it’s a really amazing feeling.”
The ground training was interesting, she said, but forced her to conquer her challenges with desk work.
“You have to do so many hours of theory in a classroom, and you have to do a written exam at the end, and for me that was pretty difficult,” she said.
“That’s also why, when I finally passed, it was such an amazing feeling.”
While in training, van Kampen began to notice how male-dominated the aviation industry is.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of interest from women, but maybe girls get the idea it’s not accessible, or not open and doable for them,” van Kampen said.
“Often, when I talk to girls, they’ll say stuff like, ‘I can’t believe you can fly an airplane, that’s so cool.’ When I talk to guys, they’ll say they’ve considered flight school too.”
She hypothesizes that society hasn’t presented aviation as an option for women, and she’s noticed discrepancies in the way she is treated compared to her male counterparts.
“I’ve been in some settings where I wasn’t really treated the same as the guys around me, if they were older, even if I was ahead in my flight training,” van Kampen said.
“You notice there’s still work to be done to make sure things are equal and fair.”
After returning to the Yukon, van Kampen was hired at Dawson City-based charter flight company Great River Air and is now completing her third season there.
She joined the small team of pilots as an assistant in all things, from administration to ramp duties. Now that she is licensed, she will begin piloting tour flights.
Though COVID-19 has halted tourism in the territory, van Kampen is optimistic that Yukoners will charter some of these tours so she can continue to build her hours.
Over the next two years, Great River Air will help her train in bush flying and mastering more difficult, and dangerous, flights.
Craig Unterschute, owner of Great River Air, said his company was happy to bring van Kampen on board and help her grow as a pilot.
“She’s definitely a hard worker, she’s committed to what she’s doing and is certainly a role model for young people – not just all young people but specifically First Nations women,” Unterschute said.
“She knows what she wants, and it isn’t to go fly at WestJet, it’s to fly in the Yukon and do bush flying and her connection to the land attitude, I think, is a strong motivator for her.”
As well as bush flying, Underschute said van Kampen will soon begin training on multi-engine and twin-engine airplanes. Her growth as a pilot is already substantial, he said.
“This is her third year with us and to have seen her grow in the last three years, it’s been really quite gratifying.”
Unterschute said it’s important to him to support Yukoners who want to become pilots and stay in the territory, to buoy the local aviation industry.
“We’re very pro-Yukon, we want to bring Yukoners along … they live here, and this is home and the place they love to be,” Unterschute said.
Unterschute said van Kampen’s father worked for him as a pilot 35 years ago.
“He was the first pilot I ever hired, so there’s a bit of a connection there too,” Unterschute said.
Unterschute said his company is focused on the environmental aspects of aviation – the company does environmental studies including tracking caribou, counting moose and surveying salmon habitats.
“You get to see and do things that very few people actually get to experience, so I think that was one of the upsides to bringing Shad along, you knew she understood what she was doing and seeing.”
Van Kampen said the Tombstone Range, a one-hour tour offered by Great River Air, is her favourite place to fly in the Yukon.
“It’s really beautiful from the air, and I’m not much of a hiker, so I’m glad I can go see it,” van Kampen said.
“I really like going to these different airstrips that are in the middle of nowhere, some of them have old broken-down equipment or they’re in nice areas.
“It’s always nice to be somewhere new not many people get to go to, and there’s lots of wildlife out there as well … when I’m flying with my co-workers, they always say, ‘Oh look, a moose; a bear,’ and it’s fun.”
Van Kampen encourages anyone who is interested in flying to explore the option, and offers herself as a resource.
“I’m always happy to answer questions,” van Kampen said.
“To the girls out there and to anyone, I want to say, it’s really quite doable, and it’s a lot of fun.”