Maureen Routledge is matter-of-fact about her groundbreaking career as the first Canadian woman to become a licensed aircraft engineer. She’s also a bit cryptic about her personal life.
Yet her work and life in the North sparkle with the adventure and romance fit for the big screen.
In the small Ontario town of Carp in the 1950s, while ponytailed teenage girls danced at sock-hops, Routledge wore a ball cap as she greased the bearings and wheels of aircraft.
“I had nothing else to do, so I started tinkering with airplanes at age 16,” recalls Routledge, now 73.
In particular she was interested in the elegant, late-1940s executive Stinson airplane her older friend Harold flew. Harold invited her into the passenger seat and into the skies. Up there she found what she wanted for the rest of her life – aircraft, and Harold.
“At Bradley Air Service they got planes ready to go back to the Arctic in spring. I helped out, I guess, taking the cowlings off and looking around for what was bent or deteriorating. I’d wash down the engine with Varsol and a spray can if it had a leak. That sort of thing,” Routledge says dismissively.
At age 17 she married Harold, who was 14 years her senior. While he flew she played housewife for a while, but it didn’t take.
“I’m not the domestic type” she says flatly. “I kept myself busy working on airplanes for Bradley Air. Harold was sent to the Arctic for two summers in the late 1960s. In the spring of 1969 my boss said, ‘I suppose you’d like to go North?’ My tongue was just about hanging out, I wanted it so badly.”
So in the summer of 1969, while hippies, riots and Woodstock made headlines, 27-year-old Routledge toiled with joy in a cold airplane hangar in Resolute Bay. She and Harold slept in the tool shed.
“That’s my best memory of my life. Very few women went up there at that time. Men figured it was too much trouble to make facilities for women. I pumped gas, worked on flame heaters for the aircraft, or wiped down the exhaust stains on the Otter. I liked the country. I didn’t have to do dishes or cook. Harold and I would walk wherever we wanted when not working on the airplanes.”
The next spring she returned to the Arctic on the notoriously loud, jarring and slow De Havilland Otter. Travelling at a miserable 115 miles per hour (185 km/hr) it took two days to reach Tuktoyuktuk,
N.W.T. The couple went with scientists to see the last known campsite of the Franklin Expedition on Beechey Island. Routledge recalls seeing a cross made out of food cans over a grave.
Then, after years of working with her husband as a mechanic, she decided to get her official aircraft maintenance engineer licence. The Department of Transport was not open to the idea.
“I decided I might as well knock off one of those exams. You had to apprentice three years under a licensed engineer before getting permission to write the exam. The Department of Transport tried to say my work didn’t add up to three years. I sent a snappy letter back saying I beg to differ! Then I wrote my first exam in the morning. It didn’t seem too bad. The same day I wrote my second exam and in the afternoon wrote the third one.”
On March 11, 1971 Routledge became the first Canadian woman to become an aircraft maintenance engineer.
In 1973 the couple modified a two-seater with a bigger engine and pontoons and spent two weeks flying to Dawson Creek. They went in business together because Maureen’s licence qualified her to re-certify previously-crashed planes to fly again, while Harold had the licence to do major repairs.
In 1977 they moved to Atlin, B.C. and for the next two decades the couple repaired and re-certified bush planes that had crashed in the North, like the one that floated through Miles Canyon after an engine failure and got banged up on the rocks, or the one that landed on thin ice on Atlin Lake and sank. They also worked on the bush plane from the movie Never Cry Wolf.
“It was very satisfying to haul in a wreck and turn it out looking like a new airplane. Not everyone can do it. As for the fabric, you could turn out a horrible looking mess and it would still be airworthy or you could turn out a good looking job. That was part of our reputation – a good looking job.”
Atlin life suited Routledge’s outdoorsy nature too. In summertime she fished and one of her largest trout (24 pounds, or 11 kilograms) is in the Atlin museum. In the dark winter nights Routledge whittled diamond willows into walking sticks as her husband wrote poetry and made violins.
The couple gave up their aircraft maintenance licences in 1995 when Maureen got Parkinson’s disease. They moved to Whitehorse in 2009 and Harold passed away in 2013.
Underneath her no-fuss attitude Routledge still wears a determination of steel. When this reporter investigated her record, Transport Canada insisted she was not the first woman in Canada to get her licence. Like she did 43 years ago when they told her she didn’t have enough hours to qualify to write the exam, Routledge held her ground. So another access-to-information request was made.
Then we waited. And waited.
In early December a priority post letter arrived at McCauley Lodge where Routledge lives. From her wheelchair, she opened the letter with shaking hands.
Victory at last: Transport Canada now confirms Routledge was the first Canadian woman to have received her aircraft maintenance engineer licence.
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance writer in Whitehorse.