CANOE Network

The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Soaring career

By Joanne Collins
Special to the Toronto Sun

Julia Henderson loves birds. Even as she's surrounded by electronic birds -- an impressive assortment of aircraft -- she waxes poetically about migrating birds from the arctic with total awe and delight.
Helicopter businesses may be rare but then again so are female pilots -- something that doesn't faze Julia Henderson, a pilot, co-founder and president of The Helicopter Company.

Her bright office at the Toronto Island Airport gives Henderson a perfect vantage point from which to bird watch. Henderson's love for birds explains her lust for flying and why she's a pilot, co-founder and president of The Helicopter Company, Toronto's only helicopter company devoted to tourism.

"I was always fascinated with anything that could fly," she says. "I was the kid on the beach flying kites all day long."

Henderson was bitten by the flying bug thorough her experience as a Junior Ranger with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in Wawa when she was 17. "Everyday, helicopters flew us in for surveys. I was with the pilots and I loved every second of flying," she says.

Henderson put her passion for flying on hold while she pursued a degree in international geography. Exploring her career options after university, she found success as a financial adviser but found the work unsatisfying. "Even though there was money in financial advising, I had no passion," she says.

Disgruntled with her stint in the financial industry, Henderson followed-up on an airport open-house invitation she saw in a local newspaper. She was so intrigued that she put money down for flight school the same day.

She kept her flying a secret: "I didn't even tell my parents -- I did my first 10 hours of flying before I told anyone!"
Henderson says one of the best parts of her job is seeing tourists' reaction to the Toronto skyline.

After three years in flight school, Henderson worked at Toronto Island Airport as a pilot for a helicopter company where she met friend and pilot, Kevin Smith. When their employer announced he was closing the business, Henderson and Smith were relegated to pumping gas. Determined to take control of their destiny, they put together a proposal for something that didn't then exist in Toronto -- a helicopter company totally focused on offering joyride flights for tourists.

Armed with their own savings, a small line of credit and a quickly hatched business plan, they applied for a licence to become an air operator. After five agonizing months of waiting for approval, they received their

licence and The Helicopter Company was born. It's been clear skies ever since.

Helicopter businesses may be rare, but then again, so are female pilots, something that doesn't faze Henderson.

Memorable clients

"Being a female pilot is novel," she says. "There aren't a lot in Canada, but there are even fewer in other countries such as Japan." Her foreign clients are usually intrigued and often request pictures with her after the flights.

Henderson has had many memorable clients including a blind woman who wanted to experience the unique sensation of helicopter flight as well as paralyzed children who were thrilled by the freedom and exhilaration that flight offered. Her most unique client: "I had a women who had a couple of days to live and she came in an ambulance. It was a life dream for her to try helicopter flight," she says.
Julia Henderson's career advice:
  • Figure out what you want to accomplish and put your mind to it.
  • Realize that you cannot do everything, but you can do a few things really well.
  • No matter what, always do your best.
  • Have no fear.
  • Stay focused.
  • On the journey to your goal, remember that every little step that's done well will lead to bigger, better steps.

  • What's the best part of Henderson's job? "The flying, but also the challenge of running a successful business -- because this has never been done before," Henderson says determinedly. "We're helicopters and we're tourism -- this is my dream job."

    The only drawback she encounters in her business is being at the mercy of the weather. "The weather brings uncertainty and can completely destroy a good project," she says.

    Henderson definitely radiates enthusiasm for her work. "I love what I do -- there are spiritual connections on some days. I'm doing something superlative and unique and I'm inspired by the fact that I can do whatever I put my mind to." At this point, Henderson jumps up from her desk eager to meet tourists from England who are excited to see the Toronto skyline.

    "Let's go flying," she says with a surge of energy.

    Out on the runway, as I watch Henderson's chopper take off, it's clear that soaring is not only her job, but is an apt metaphor for her career as well.

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