Piloting in Polar Regions

Towards the end of my cabin crew experience in the Middle East, I decided to investigate aviation in Canada. I had left Canada as a child when my family moved to South Africa, so as a newly licensed pilot in my mid 20's I considered returning to launch my career in North America.

During this investigation, my path crossed with Lauren- a philosophy graduate and Twin Otter Captain working in one of the most phenomenal jobs I have come across. Lauren gave me genuine advice and exposed me to a type of flying I had never considered: polar flying. I was in such awe of her job that I decided to share her story with my readers. After all, it is my intention to highlight various pilot positions as we explore the aviation world together. Perhaps someone reading this will find their ideal flying job through these stories.

Although I didn't return to Canada (well, not yet), I was touched by Lauren's kindness. Despite never having met, she was always ready to point me in the right direction. I am therefore very excited to publish her gripping story, and am certain that others will walk away enriched by her insights.

Before we hop on board with Lauren, perhaps it's advisable to quickly pour yourself a hot beverage and snuggle up because we are about to embark on an exciting journey into the extreme cold...

Lauren at Mount Vinson base camp in Antarctica. Follow her on Instagram: 1.lauren.brown

1) Why did you study philosophy at university before enrolling in pilot training?

I went to university after high school on the well intentioned but in hindsight, rather dubious advice of family and mentors. I was led to believe that without an undergraduate degree, few career opportunities would be available to me. Even though I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do for a future living or what I might be interested in studying, I was advised to go to university in hopes of “finding my passion”.  My first year at university I was a bachelor of arts student.  In second year, I was enrolled as a bachelor of science student.  Still without a “passion,” I left university after two years and spent a year living and working in the U.K.  Upon my return to Canada, I decided to take an introductory flight lesson. I fell in love with flying right away and soon I was working toward my private pilot licence at a local flight school.  I knew that I wanted to pursue flying as a career, but I decided to go back to university before doing my commercial pilot licence.  I reasoned that with two years worth of time and money invested in university, it would be wise to get a degree.  I also figured that it would be easier to go back to school now that I had the end goal of becoming a pilot in mind.  I don’t really remember what possessed me to declare philosophy as my major but I did, and I now have a three-year bachelor of arts degree with a concentration in philosophy.  I started training for my commercial licence right after graduating.

2) Has your career as a pilot benefited from having a degree and would you recommend university to aspiring pilots?

In 2015/2016 I worked for a small company called Bushland Airways in Moosonee, Ontario.  Moosonee is a small community in northern Ontario that does not have road access, but is serviced by train.  Communities north of Moosonee are fly-in only.  My job was to fly passengers and freight between these communities.  In the coldest winter months, winter roads (temporary roads built over compacted snow, ice and tundra) connected the normally inaccessible communities and flying work took a nosedive.  I was looking for some extra income.  Moosonee has a serious shortage of elementary and high school teachers.  Even though I didn’t have a teaching degree, my university degree got me a job as a substitute teacher.   I made WAY more money as a teacher than I did as a pilot at that time, and that job really helped to support me through the winter.

Besides that one example, my university degree has not directly benefited me so far.  I expect that the university experience improved my writing skills and my critical thinking skills and perhaps introduced me to some ideas that I may not have encountered otherwise.  I am not convinced that these benefits were worth three years of my life and a significant amount of money.

I do think that if for some reason I were to lose my medical and was no longer able to fly, my degree could come in useful in transitioning into a new career.  It certainly does provide a bit of a safety net.

Personally I think that if someone knows that flying is what they want to do, college is the best route.  (In Canada, college refers to a technical school that offers specialized vocational education in specific employment fields.)  Through a college program, students acquire their commercial pilot licence and additional ratings (depending on the type of commercial flying they want to do), as well as a college diploma in an aviation-related field. 

3) Why did you decide to get involved in polar flying at Kenn Borek Air?

My first love in flying was floatplanes.  I love the outdoors and wilderness and the North.  Flying floatplanes seemed like the best way to experience these things.  Unfortunately, flying floats is seasonal work.  After a couple of years of flight instructing and then a couple more years of flying for small northern operators, I decided that I needed to get a more permanent job that would provide stable year-round employment.  I did my multi-IFR rating and then applied to Kenn Borek Air.

Lauren approaching Upernavik, Greenland. She works at Kenn Borek Air- a company flying in polar regions.

Kenn Borek Air is a Canadian company that does regional passenger, cargo, and medical evacuation services in the Canadian far north, but also does contract operations around the world.  The company specializes in flying in polar regions, both the Arctic and the Antarctic.  A lot of the work is off-strip, meaning that we land on non-prepared surfaces in planes equipped with skis or tundra tires for landing gear.

Working for Kenn Borek Air really interested me because it appealed to my sense of adventure, my love of remote wilderness places, and my desire for a challenge.  For three years now, I have worked as a Twin Otter captain for Borek.

4)  Are people surprised by the type of work that you do since you’re a woman?

People do often seem surprised when I tell them that I am a pilot.  According to the Canadian Labour Market Information Report, women make up 7% of Canadian pilots.  Although that number is higher than the world’s average of 5%, female pilots are still relatively uncommon in Canada. 

I certainly get a lot of interest in the type of work that I do and people tend to ask a lot of questions.  But I would say that the same is true for my male co-workers. 

7% of pilots in Canada are female. Here is Lauren at the South Pole.

5) How do you think we can increase the amount of female pilots?

I recently read an article that argued that the best marketing to entice women into aviation is seeing women already in the industry. I believe it. I think that piloting is quite simply a career that women just don’t consider for themselves. I also think that it can be really intimating for a young woman to walk in the front door of a flight school and not see a single other female. I know that I was intimidated. 

To this end, I think that it is important to have female flight instructors. I myself worked as a full-time flight instructor for two and a half years and I loved it. I hope to one day get back into flight instructing part-time, both because I enjoy instructing and because I would like to do my part to encourage women in aviation.

As for women who aren’t sure if they can do what I do… I believe that if you have a passion for this type of work and you are willing to work hard, anyone can do what I do.

6) What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?

There are two major challenges that come immediately to mind:

A) At Kenn Borek Air we work on rotation.  The length of the rotation depends on the job we are doing at the time.  The most common rotation is 3 weeks on/3 weeks off.  Over the winter of 2017/18 I worked four months in Antarctica and then had one month off afterwards.  I currently do a 6 week on/6 week off rotation. 

Rotational work takes Lauren away from loved ones for long periods of time.

There are perks and challenges to rotational work.  Long periods of time off can be great for travelling, for pursuing interests, or for just enjoying some leisure time.  On the other hand, our often-changing schedules can be unpredictable and it can be difficult to make definite plans for time off.  Relationships with friends, with family, and with romantic partners are challenged by long periods of time away.  I do sometimes miss the routine of a more traditional work schedule.

B) When away on rotation I spend a lot of concentrated time with my co-workers.  We work together, we live together, we eat together, we socialize together.  Sometimes I get along really well with the people I am paired with and this is great!  At other times it can be a huge challenge.  Dealing with personality conflicts in the workplace can be really difficult when you just can’t get away. 

7) Do you follow additional procedures in the extreme cold?

In cold temperatures (especially below -20oC), we put insulated covers over the engines and plug in engine and battery heaters when parking overnight or for a prolonged period of time.  If landing in extremely cold temperatures (below say -35oC) and in a remote location, we might even leave an engine running while unloading/loading and fuelling to be sure that things don't get too cold during a quick stop.

Most of the Borek pilots carry what we refer to as "Oh Shit" bags when we are operating in cold temperatures.  This is a personal bag of warm stuff that we carry in addition to the aircraft's survival kit.  Everyone's bag is different and would be climate dependant, but most people carry some definitively warm clothing, a sleeping bag, extra socks and mitts, and maybe some luxuries like a toothbrush and clean underwear.  I learned the hard way about how important it is to always carry an "Oh Shit" bag when I spent an unexpected night out in -25oC temperatures.  Despite the fact that we were below the tree line and so we were able to get a roaring fire going and create a thick pile of pine boughs to lie on, it was an incredibly miserable night out in the cold.  Now I am always sure to double check that the plane's survival kit is adequately stocked and that I have extra warm personal gear with me.

8) What are the most exciting destinations that your work has taken you to?

I feel lucky every day to have had the opportunity to visit so many incredible places with my job.  There are many spectacular places in the world that most people will never get to see because they are so remote and difficult to get to.  My job takes me to these types of places.  The Canadian Arctic is incredibly beautiful. The mountains of Baffin Island are one of my favorite places to fly. I have been as far north as 97 degrees north latitude and landed on skis on the Arctic Ocean. A year and a half ago I did some flying in Greenland. The scenery was spectacular. I spent four months flying in Antarctica and got to see many of the “Antarctic highlights” including the South Pole, Mount Vinson (highest peak in Antarctica), and a penguin colony. Currently I am working in East Timor, a tiny developing country in South-East Asia. I look forward to many more exciting destinations to come!

One of Lauren's highlights during her pilot career was seeing a penguin colony in Antarctica while working.

9) Do you have any advice for newly qualified pilots who would like to work for your company?

There are many different paths to take after completing flight school, but in Canada there are two that are by far the most common. The first is to work as a flight instructor (this is what I did). The other is to get a job with a company like Kenn Borek Air working as a flight follower or a flight attendant. This gives you a chance to prove to the company that you are a hard worker and that you can be trusted to fly their aircraft. After about a year in one of these positions, most people are promoted to the flight line.

My best advice to new pilots would be to network all the time. Treat flight school as a job interview and do your best to make a good impression on the people around you. Chat to other pilots and stay in touch with people you meet at flight school or in the industry. This is the best way to find out about job opportunities. It is remarkable how often people get a job because some chief pilot is looking to fill a position quickly and an employee says: “I have a friend looking for work!”

Despite the cold environment, Lauren loves her job!

10) What are some of the challenges flying specifically in Canada?

I think that the biggest challenge of flying in Canada is the diversity of flying environments that one can encounter. You can have severe thunderstorms in summer and severe icing in winter. We have busy airspace around large airports in the south and vast areas of uncontrolled airspace with limited resources/information/forecasting in the north. Canadians pilots have to be prepared for everything!

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Follow Lauren on Instagram 1.lauren.brown.


The views presented in this article are solely the author's based on available information at the time of writing. The purpose of this blog is to inform readers, not to provide professional advice. Readers are advised to research further and consult relevant professionals, such as flight training schools. Readers are cautioned when acting on information provided and assume all risk from such actions.