Kathy Fox arrived in spectacular fashion at a 1971 event celebrating McGill’s 150th anniversary.
She parachuted down to Lower Campus.
Fox, BSc’72, MBA’86, at one time the head of McGill’s skydiving club, was one of three members to jump from a plane while a crowd of 5,000 watched from below.
In his account of the spectacle, McGill’s former official historian Stanley Brice Frost, LLD’90, wrote, “one parachutist appeared to be in danger of drifting towards the perilous cliffs of the surrounding skyscrapers, but McGill Skyclub expertise proved equal to the occasion and all three came floating gently down to the target area…”
“It was the first time it had ever been done … you wouldn’t be able to do it today,” says Fox, CEO and chair of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).
“That was quite the experience.”
Fox would parachute 648 times by 1980 when she made her final jumps, but sport parachuting is only one chapter in her lifelong affinity with the sky.
Fox has been honoured several times for her career in aviation, now in its 46th year. She’s a licensed flight instructor who represented Canada at world championships in precision flying. She became an air traffic controller at a time when few women worked in the field. And she has held senior roles in aviation in Canada, including her current one at the TSB, which aims to boost safety on federally regulated modes of transportation.
Fox wanted to fly ever since she was a child.
“Astronaut was really what I wanted to be, but … I thought I needed to start by learning to fly. So that was my dream,” says Fox.
It was a dream that she ended up putting on hold – her father informed her that there was enough money for her to go to university or to pursue flying lessons, but not both. She had to choose. “So I went to McGill.” The flying lessons would come later.
After graduating from the University, Fox taught math and sciences at a private school before landing a position with Transport Canada to become an air traffic controller.
“I loved working in the environment of the control tower because you’re looking outside, you’re seeing the aircraft, there’s always something going on at the airport,” Fox says. “I just loved the challenge of getting aircraft up and down safely and never knowing quite what to expect on any given day.”
She never found it unduly stressful, but says you had to be “on your game” and able to think in three dimensions. Which is where her background in math and physics proved handy.
For example, they couldn’t necessarily see many of the aircraft they were controlling, even in the tower, Fox explains. “And I worked in places where there was no radar. So you had to imagine in your head where they were, how fast they’re going, when they might come into conflict with other traffic. So it was the ability to visualize in three dimensions, in real time, [that] was helpful.”
Women made up only a tiny percentage of air traffic controllers in Canada at the time, but Fox didn’t feel her gender was an issue in the tower. “I found that my fellow controllers were very receptive.”
In the early 1980s, she applied to become one of Canada’s first group of astronauts. Unfortunately, so did more than 4,000 others. She also returned to McGill to work on her MBA part-time.
“I always knew that I wanted to go into management,” says Fox, who later held senior positions at Nav Canada, which operates the country’s air navigation service. “I felt I could make more of a difference by moving up.”
Last year, Fox was reappointed for a five-year term as chair of the TSB. The independent agency investigates accidents and incidents in air, rail, marine and pipeline transportation to identify causes and contributing factors, and makes recommendations to address safety deficiencies.
“We get about 3,500 to 3,700 occurrence reports a year—that’s accidents and incidents. And all of those are assessed and we collect data,” Fox says. “But we typically conduct about 60 to 70 full investigations per year in which we issue a final public report.”
The TSB issues a ‘watchlist’ every two years, highlighting key safety issues that need to be dealt with. Its 2018 list includes two issues in air transportation – risk of collisions from runway incursions, and runway overruns.
Fox still teaches flying part-time at Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Airport to maintain her proficiency as a pilot and instructor and tries to fly once a week. She was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2016, and last year into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.
“It was a tremendous honour. It was also very humbling to be amongst some of the icons of Canadian aviation, and male and female, and also certainly of the women in aviation hall of fame,” Fox says. “When you look at some of the names in both those halls, it’s an incredible honour to be in there with them.
“I also had the same feeling that ‘I’m still too young to be in a museum’. But it actually inspired me to do more.”