8 Wing/CFB Trenton’s Major Michelle “Micky” Colton is being counted as one of this country’s aviation greats.
For awhile, she didn’t know it.
Maj Colton’s name is among 100 gracing a CF18 demonstration Hornet specially painted to commemorate the Centennial of Powered Flight in Canada. The honourees for this Air Force project were chosen for their contributions to the country’s aviation history. Maj Colton holds the distinction of being the first female Canadian pilot to log 5,000 hours on the CC130 Hercules.
“I’m totally blown away. It’s awesome,” she said in the office at 8 Wing where she works with the Transport and Rescue Standardization and Evaluation Team.
“I’m in some pretty amazing company.”
Among the names on the Century Hornet are Victoria Cross winners and astronauts. Seven of the 100 honourees are women, quite a few with whom Maj Colton is familiar. For example, she said, she has met astronaut Julie Payette, who recently returned from a space shuttle mission to the International Space Station, and Maj Colton just read a book about aviation engineer Elizabeth “Elsie” MacGill.
Maj Colton had no idea she’d been chosen for the list, even when she saw the fully decorated Century Hornet at 8 Wing’s Canadian Forces & Air Display Weekend July 4 and 5.
“I never got up close to it,” she said of the jet, adding she didn’t know then that the 100 names for 100 years were on it.
She finally learned of the recognition when her husband’s friend requested her biography for a powerpoint presentation he was doing on the honourees.
Now, knowing what she knows, Maj Colton said it would be “neat” to see the Hornet.
“I’m glad it’s a big fighter because 100 names take up a lot of space,” she said with a laugh.
She herself has done some work to mark the Centennial of Flight, speaking to community groups and high school students through the Air Force Speakers Bureau. Noting that she’s been flying military aircraft for at least a quarter of a century, Maj Colton said “there comes a time when you have to start giving back” and she hopes to raise public awareness on what the Air Force does.
She thinks she may also be shedding some light on career possibilities in the military, particularly as pilots and aircrew, among young women. Speaking to four or five high school groups in the past year, Maj Colton said the girls routinely asked her if she is married, has children and “if I have a normal life.”
“I think there’s a perception that if you’re in the military you’re never home and . . . you can’t have a life, but most of the women I know who are pilots are married and have children so certainly that’s well within the realm of possibility,” she said.
Maj Colton herself is mother to an 18-year-old daughter and married to Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Chris Colton, who is executive director of the National Air Force Museum of Canada at 8 Wing. They, in fact, met through the Air Force as he was her first flight instructor back in 1982.
Earning her wings that year, Maj Colton said she had walked into the recruiting office two years earlier, in 1980, just as the Air Force was opening up its pilot/aircrew program to civilians.
There were no women in the pilot program and it had been opened up to civilians when too few volunteers came forward from within the military.
A native of Kitchener, Maj Colton had been bitten by the flying bug when she cashed in a free flying lesson from a book of coupons.
“My boyfriend at the time said, ‘You can’t fly, you’re a girl,’ and I thought, ‘Oh yeah?’” she recalled.
After the lesson, she said she was “hooked (on flying) almost immediately”; she got the idea to leave her courier job for the Canadian Forces from a roommate and friend who worked for the government.
Walking into the recruiting office, she said the officer remarked that she was his very first female pilot recruit.
Years later, in 2000, Maj Colton scored that other big first – reaching the 5,000-hour milestone with the Herc. Celebrated upon the plane’s arrival at 8 Wing, the record was set as Maj Colton and her crew returned from Thule, Greenland and a resupply flight to Alert.
The logging of her 6,000th hour was equally memorable, coming as Prime Minister Stephen Harper was flown to Iqualuit from Alert on Aug. 13, 2006. He marked the moment by signing Maj Colton’s log book.
“That was pretty cool,” she said.
Her hours with the Herc now number more than 6,540; she primarily carries out search and rescue, getting the SAR-technicians to a point where they can safely and effectively do their work. It’s a role she said “is always really gratifying” and requires a real co-ordinated effort between the SAR-techs and aircraft commander.
“Every time we’ve saved a life is significant . . . they’re certainly enough to make me feel like I’ve done my job,” Maj Colton said.
She also enjoys one particular facet of her work at TRSET – doing upgrade rides for pilots ready to become SAR commanders. She’s done it for so long that Maj Colton said she knew some of the CO’s and training officers when they were “baby pilots.”
“It’s like a herd of puppies,” she said with a smile, “you see them mature and develop.”
Maj Colton’s respect and admiration for the Herc is just as obvious.
“It’s an awesome airplane to fly,” she said, citing its capability with four engines and an “amazing range” of 150 to 29,000 feet.
“It’s a forgiving airplane,” she added, “it allows you to make a mistake.”
“It’s got a great personality.”
She’s amazed at setting a record as a female pilot but Maj Colton hopes it’s her work, not her gender, that’s remembered.
“I didn’t join the Air Force with the goal to be a female pilot, I wanted to be a pilot. And if the day came when I became known as a pilot, not a female pilot, it meant acceptance had come into play.”
Maj Colton said a “wonderful evolution” has taken place since she joined the CF, with women encountering greater professionalism and more widespread acceptance.
“I think perhaps that we’ve helped to foster that, that the number of women in the military has helped to bring that about,” she said.
Maj Colton thinks the more women who join, the greater their chance for success given the changes that have occurred.
“The more there are, the less distinctive you are. If there’s only one of you, you’re always unusual, but when there are 10, 20 or 30 of you then some of that unfamiliarity goes away.
“It takes away some of that distinctiveness and allows you to integrate,” she said.
“Plus, it’s a great job.”
Maj Colton still marvels at what she does, with more hours piloting the Herc in her future.
“It’s the thrill of getting airborne, of taking 130,000 pounds of airplane into the air. That’s amazing when you think about it. You can’t lift that but you can fly that,” she said.
“I figure when it stops being a thrill it’s time to do something else.”