First woman to earn pilot’s license in B.C. unable to launch career in her own right
Although Jeanne Genier-Gilbert and her husband Walter Gilbert both held pilot’s licenses, their shared passion for aviation is a story of “what might have been.”
For instance, they could have made a powerful husband/wife team in the cockpit, a scenario that was impossible in the 1930s when the idea of employing women in such roles was unheard of.
There is evidence that Walter and Jeanne could have been a pilot team. In the March 1, 1932, Maclean’s magazine profile on his aviation career that included a reference to Jeanne, the writer of the article says that “Walter claims that she’s a better hand at the stick than he is, and, what’s more, he means it. ‘I’ve encouraged her to keep up with the game because she’s a natural pilot.’”
Jeanne’s quest to become a pilot was the subject of two newspaper articles in the Vancouver Star in 1929. The first article, published in April, announced her enrolment in flight training and the second article, published in December, said that she had qualified.
The first newspaper article made the following effusive statement: “Thrills of flying first enslaved Mrs. Gilbert when, as Miss Jeanne Genier of this city, she was an enthusiastic member of the Air Force Club here.”
Jeanne is a notable aviatrix for at least three reasons: First, she had a passion for flying that started when she was a teenager in her hometown of Kamloops, where she was a well-known presence at the local airport. Second, she was the first woman in British Columbia to earn a flying license and the 13th in Canada. Third, she married Walter Gilbert, one of Canada’s outstanding bush pilots and shared a common enthusiasm for flying with him during 12 years of their marriage.
According to Shirley Render in her 1991 book, No Place for a Lady: The Story of Canadian Women Pilots 1928-1992, Jeanne moved from Kamloops to Vancouver in 1928 and signed up for lessons with the B.C. Aero Club. Her marriage to Walter took place in March of that year. Just before Jeanne’s first lesson at the Aero Club, Walter was transferred to Winnipeg. The pattern of interrupted lessons continued as the couple was transferred from Winnipeg to Dryden, Ontario, The Pas, Manitoba, and then to Pelican Rapids, Saskatchewan.
Render writes in her book: “Temporarily abandoning all thoughts of formal lessons, Jeanne bent all her energies to keeping up with her husband. They lived in tents and back rooms of Hudson’s Bay Company Trading posts and hitched rides in canoes and planes. In this way she acquired many unofficial flying hours in Fairchilds and Fokker Universals.” By the end of 1928 they were back in British Columbia, this time at Stuart, adjacent to the Alaska panhandle.
Then in early 1929 Jeanne and Walter were transferred to Vancouver, where they stayed long enough to earn her licence.
The Gilberts were then sent to Fort McMurray, about 250 miles northeast of Edmonton. For the next seven years this remote community was their home. Render writes “relief from boredom came only when she could snatch bits of right-seat flying in Western Canada Airways’ aircraft. Enjoying the feel of heavy aircraft, she decided to take her commercial training in the hope that she might be allowed to fly with her husband.”
In 1939, the Gilberts were back in Vancouver. Jeanne took a refresher course and acquired her radio operator’s licence, but was unable to finish her commercial training when the federal government curtailed all unnecessary civilian flying with the outbreak of the Second World War. Render writes: “she then tried to enlist in the RCAF to no avail. As her flying ground to a halt, so did her marriage. Unable to fly and soon to be divorced, she bitterly turned her back on anything to do with aviation.”
Jeanne Gilbert, Render writes, “took flying seriously, remarking that ‘flying was no trivial sport but a tremendous field for women if the stubborn prejudice of the average man could be overcome.’”
In the museum library there is a three-ring binder that contains newspaper clippings describing Jeanne’s aviation career along with photographs of the couple’s life at Pelican Rapids. The binder shows that the Gilberts divorced in 1941. Jeanne remarried in 1950 and her second husband was Russell C. Fothergill.
The binder includes a page with two obituary notices indicating that she died in Hamilton, Ontario, in December, 1985, in her 84th year. Also of interest is a business card showing that “Mrs. R.C. Fothergill” was a member of the real estate sales department, National Trust Co. Limited, in Mount Royal, Quebec.
The names of Jeanne Gilbert and Walter Gilbert are included in a list of 58 women and men “whose vision and dedication over two decades contributed significantly to the creation of the Vancouver International Airport.” This acknowledgment of the Gilberts’ role in Vancouver Airport development, 1910 to 1930, comes from a commemorative wall that was installed sometime in the 1980s in the airport terminal. The names of Jeanne, one of two women on the list, and Walter are each on their own line indicating that their contribution was uniquely individual.
This article originally appeared in the Spring, 2015 edition of Altitude.