OTTAWA — Andrea Marrocco has a poor memory, and so doesn’t recall her creation story — that particular moment when she looked at an airplane flying high overhead, perhaps, and decided she needed to be up there at the controls.
She enjoyed watching planes as she grew up, though, and repeatedly told her parents that she wanted one day to fly.
And as she takes a Cessna 150 through its pre-flight checklist on the tarmac at the Rockcliffe Flying Club, making sure there’s no water mixed in with the gas, that the windshield is cleaned of dead bugs and that there are enough screws and bolts holding everything together, she says her experience flying — she received her licence in 2009 — bore out her youthful excitement.
She loves the speed, especially at low altitudes where the landscape passing hurriedly below makes it seem all that much faster. She gets the biggest rush, she says, from steep turns and landings.
“It’s supposedly where the most accidents occur,” she remarks of the latter, “but I love being in the circuit, just going up, flying around and coming in to land. The sensation of coming down and touching down gently on the wheels and doing everything right is just fun.
“When you’re landing,” she adds, “you can see everything. Taking off, you only see sky. I much prefer to have my nose pointed down than up.”
For the past week, the 29-year-old Peterborough native and student at Algonquin College’s aviation management program has been undergoing a series of interviews and tests — written exams on flight theory and meteorology; flights in simulators; and actual turns, stalls, forced approaches and precision landings in the tiny cockpit of the two-seater that as often as she can she likes to call home.
At stake is the Webster Memorial trophy, awarded annually for most of the past 80 years to Canada’s top amateur pilot, and a prize package that includes a trip for two to anywhere Air Canada flies and a “media day” with the RCAF’s 431 Air Demonstration Squadron — the Snowbirds — which in the past has included a ride-along inside one of their CT-114 Tutors. Just the idea makes Marrocco’s eyes light up like a child’s on Christmas morning.
Already deemed the top amateur flyer in Eastern Ontario based on her flight test scores two months ago, all that stands now between Marrocco and the national title, to be awarded Saturday evening at a dinner at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, are the eight men who represent different regions in the rest of the country — Montreal’s Louis Rousseau, for example, a 24-year-old who was inspired to flight when, at the age of 11, read author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memoir Terre des Hommes. By coincidence, he notes, his first flight at the controls was out of the Aéroclub Bastia Saint-Exupéry in Corsica.
“I saw that was my path,” he says. “Saint-Exupéry’s books are about more than aviation. It’s an adventure, it’s the story of life, of living.”
Ottawa-born Matt Caouette, meanwhile, just 20 years old and living in Red Deer, AB, represents the third generation of pilots in his family. He remembers as a four-year-old flying with his grandfather, a crop-duster, aboard a 1946 Erco Ercoupe. His father, too, was a pilot, and Caouette hopes to become a fighter pilot. “The skies,” he says, “are where I find the most joy in life.”
The competition began in 1932, when Dr. John Clarence Webster of Shediac, N.B., established the trophy — a stunning bronze bust of a winged pilot created by former Almonte son and sculptor R. Tait McKenzie — to honour Webster’s son, John C. Webster Jr., who died in a plane crash in August 1931, at the age of 30, while practising for the Trans-Canada Air Pageant aerobatic competition in St. Hubert, Que.
According to assistant judge Wayne Foy, the competition helps young pilots move closer to careers in aviation — he estimates that 90 per cent of participants hope to fly professionally. Throughout the week, he says, they meet numerous senior aviation executives, including those from Air Canada, Jazz and Air Transat.
“A lot of companies tell us that they give Webster competitors — not even just finalists — more weight on their applications. Because here’s a person who’s willing to go out on a limb to challenge themselves. These are Class-A personalities, and that’s who they’re looking for to become leaders and skilled captains.”
It was a gruelling week, says Marrocco, and if there was any truth to Foy’s assertion that being the hometown favourite — she flies out of the Ottawa and Rockcliffe Flying clubs — and knowing the region’s topography better than the other finalists might have given her a slight edge, she feels that was cancelled out by the barrage of media interviews she faced as the host city’s representative. Additionally, she found that all the encouragement she received from club members and others in the area only added to her anxiety.
“I know they were just being supportive, but as the week progressed, I felt more and more pressure to not disappoint them.”
Her hour-long flight test — originally scheduled for Friday morning but bumped up to Wednesday as organizers took advantage of clear skies, didn’t go as well as she’d hoped.
“I did really well on some things, and really bad on others,” she admits. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I’m not great at putting my nerves aside.”
Like Marrocco, most of the nine finalists fell in love with aviation at a young age. Nova Scotian Rob Forrest, at 33 the oldest of the group, recalls sitting at his desk in primary school, his six-year-old arms stretched out as his sides as if in flight. In later years, he was drawn to TV shows and movies that featured planes.
That kind of fervour is often passed down through family members. Regina’s Shane Lanouette, 20, says the first photograph he ever saw of himself was as a five-year-old standing at an air show in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Years later, his father, who flew Sea King helicopters for the Canadian Forces, pulled Shane out of Grade 8 one day to see another B-17.
“I knew I wanted to do this from the day I first saw that B-17,” he says. “Just pick the worst day — rainy, windy, grey — but you take off and get through the clouds, and above is just blue skies and sun.”
Twenty-three-year-old Winnipegger Peter Heron, meanwhile, used to joke with his sister, a fashion designer, that they were breaking the family tradition by not becoming pilots.
“Most of my family is in the aviation industry,” he says. “My father flies Boeing 767s for Air Canada. I have lots of family in Central Mountain Air, Air Canada and Canadian North.”
He studied Business at Red River College and worked at a restaurant, and it was while out skydiving with friends two years ago that he was bitten by the flying bug.
“For some reason that I can’t explain,” he says, “after jumping out of that plane I really wanted to become a pilot.
“It makes no sense. But I love the freedom I have as a pilot to explore the world.”
Marrocco is the only woman competing this year, but that is not a card she plays, or even thinks about. She’s elated to have made it to the finals, but she’s not looking to win one for the girls’ team. “Of course I want to win,” she admits. “That’d be super cool. But just going through the whole thing and meeting and talking to people is big.”
And as she prepared for her final written exam Friday morning — followed by a field trip in the evening to Bombardier in Montreal and the closing dinner Saturday night — she reflects on the week that was and the one that might have been. She feels she didn’t show the judges her best — “Sometimes you have bad days,” she says — and doesn’t expect she’ll win.
If that’s the case, there’s always next year — only this year’s winner is disqualified from entering again — but she doesn’t see that as a likelihood.
“You can only enter again if you haven’t worked as a pilot,” she explains, “and that would mean I couldn’t work for a year.
“That wouldn’t be worth it.”