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Dee Brasseur

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"I remember my first solo [in the CF-18 Hornet]. There I was taxiing out to the end of the runway thinking to myself, 'Can you imagine this, look at me driving this $35 million jet!'"

- Dee Brasseur, one of the first two women in the world to fly a jet fighter aircraft - the CF-18 Hornet, Canada's most powerful plane in its air force arsenal.

The ultimate challenge, the ultimate leader. She calls it a "mind-transcending" experience.

"I came down, I taxied in, shut down and was halfway back to the hangar when I stopped and thought 'I just flew that thing.' I looked up and I saw someone in the circular overhead and I said, 'I was just doing what he's doing right there!'"

The sense of awe from that first solo flight on the CF-18 Hornet on the 17th of February nine years ago - the highlight and ultimate goal of retired Major Deanna Brasseur's distinguished 21-year career in the Canadian Air Force - is still fresh in her mind as she recounts her flying days.

"It's almost like an unreal experience because it was so long in the making."

It would be ten trying, yet gratifying years from 1979 when Brasseur was allowed to train as a pilot in the Canadian military - earning her wings just three years later - to 1989 when she again made her mark, internationally this time, by becoming one of only two women in the world to fly the sophisticated yet powerful CF-18 Hornet, a world-class jet fighter plane. Today in 1998, there are still only three women who have earned that distinction in the Canadian Air Force.

"It was a very significant milestone," says retired Major Gord Welsby, who was Brasseur's Commanding Officer when she supervised seven junior pilots on T-33 aircraft as Flight Commander in Cold Lake, Alberta in the mid-eighties - another female first.

As a retired fighter pilot himself, Welsby can attest to the extremely "competitive" and "aggressive" nature of the fighter pilot world.

Only the top ten per cent of all pilots make it as CF-18 pilots. They are also in the top ten per cent in terms of physical fitness.

Brasseur likens the intense focus required to fly a Hornet to playing a video game - only you're traveling at supersonic speeds and making a mistake doesn't just result in a screen flashing the words "game over", but well… death itself.

"You have all the buttons to control your airplane on your throttle and control stick. All your fingers, including your thumb, have a purpose on a button for some piece of equipment: radar, weapons system, radio… [At the same time], you have 10 to 12 inputs [like heading, air speed, altitude] that are changing every second, that you have to monitor and process and respond to," says Brasseur.

And that's on top of the effects of gravity on a pilot's body.

The aircraft is capable of a speed of Mach 1.8 - that's almost twice the speed of sound - and can go from take-off position straight up seven kilometres in one minute. At such high speeds, the force of gravity multiplies and pushes down on the pilot. The pressure forces the blood down from the eyes and brain, causing vision loss or blackout.

To counter the effects, pilots must do what's called a M1A1 maneuver - tensing all their muscles - to prevent the blood from rushing down to the lower parts of their body. The strength required is much like the energy exerted in an extended chin-up.

"The best way to describe it is if you ate a whole block of cheese," laughs Brasseur. "The next day, you're going to be pretty constipated [so] it's like sitting on the toilet and you're constipated - that's the maneuver you're doing in the cockpit."

Only it's not an idle newspaper read if you care to relax, but a quick spiral to a fatal crash.

But for Brasseur, described by one friend as someone "who's accomplished just about everything she's set out to do", she thrived on this "epitome of challenge, physical, mental and otherwise" - the furthest thing from her mind when she joined the military as a 19-year-old typist in 1972 to rebel against her parents and run away from home.

"I just didn't know it was an option to me as a female."

But when it did become an option in 1979, when the Canadian military started a trial program that allowed women to train as pilots, the route to Brasseur's ultimate goal was not without heavy social challenges.

"You had a peer group of one: yourself," jokes Brasseur. "A lot of the guys were not overly enthusiastic about having women in the program so they either wouldn't talk to you or they wouldn't acknowledge your presence… that was challenging to feel like you belonged to a place where everything was telling you that you didn't belong."

And then there were the men who told her outright that women shouldn't be pilots and "not always in very polite terms."

But Brasseur forged ahead, breaking barrier after barrier: becoming one of the first three women to get their "wings", the first female Flight Instructor, the first female Flight Commander, the first female Aircraft Accident Investigator. And each time, she had to overcome the constant prejudice of the men around her.

"It was like that from the very beginning… every airplane you went on, you were the first female, so you had to go through that whole thing all over again. 'Gee we've never had women on T-birds, F-18s… and people stare at you! When you walk into the room, you think 'Gee, did I forget to put my clothes on or what?!'"

Even as a Flight Commander, men would go around Brasseur to double-check on the decisions she made, says her supervisor at the time, Commanding Officer Gord Welsby.

"It was really hard on their male - for want of a better word - egos," remembers Welsby. "Yeah, they had an attitude problem... it was sort of like 'how would a woman know the right way to do it?'"

Still, Brasseur did manage to find a few supportive men along the way. And "as difficult as it was, it was absolutely rewarding - the flying was terrific - it was the extremes of good and bad."

What kept her going during the bad times?

"Want," she says simply. "I wasn't there to convince the guys that women should be pilots. I was there because I wanted to be a pilot… and as difficult as the extraneous circumstances were, you have to tell yourself I don't care, you have to believe in yourself."

Still, she was a role model for other women on the military base, says Gord's wife Betty.

"She was really supportive of [the women] and really adamant about there being no line between the officers and the other ranks, because not many of the other females on the base were officers."

Gord recalls a camping trip he and his wife took with Brasseur.

It's Thanksgiving and it's so cold that their water freezes overnight. But, because they have already set up camp, Brasseur decides they'll do what people do when camping - play cards on the picnic table.

"So we played cards with our gloves on… have you ever shuffled with your mitts on?" laughs Welsby. "No matter how hard it is, if she decided to do something, she just pressed on."

After 21 years of distinguished service and an incredible 2,500 hours of flying time, Brasseur put away her pilot's helmet for the last time in 1994, when she retired at the age of 41.

A year later, she comes full circle when she is asked to serve on the Minister of Defense's advisory board looking into the progress of gender integration in the Canadian military. Brasseur has gone from fledgling pilot to knowledgeable veteran.

"It was nice to see that at the end of 21 years, things changed a lot [for the better]... I mean people have seen women's faces in cockpits for almost 20 years now."

And Brasseur was a leading force in that change.

"She was really a trendsetter for the forces," sums up Welsby. "For women breaking into the pilot world, she led the pack."

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