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She's the boss: Snowbirds' first female pilot to lead aerobatic squad

The first female boss of the renowned Snowbirds aerobatic team walks toward her CT-114 Tutor jet and laughingly glances at the rudder to make sure it hasn't been painted pink.

There have been rumours it might happen, jokes Lieutenant-Colonel Maryse Carmichael.

But the rudder isn't pink. The only thing that distinguishes this jet from a dozen or so others lined up on the tarmac are the black letters on the tail: CO, for commanding officer.

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Lt.-Col. Carmichael will break a sky-high glass ceiling Thursday by officially taking command of the Snowbirds, becoming the first woman to lead the squadron in its 40-year history.

"It took a little bit of time for women to become pilots (because) it's one of the non-traditional roles, Lt.-Col. Carmichael said in an interview at the base in Moose Jaw, Sask.

"Then to gain the experience required to be in command of a squadron takes ... many years."

Lt.-Col. Carmichael is modest about taking on the ground-breaking role. She notes that while it's a first for the Snowbirds, women have already led other squadrons in the Canadian Forces.

"I don't want to downplay it; it is a fact," she said of being the first. "But really, for me this posting is about the squadron.

"I was on the team a few years ago and I was the first woman to fly with the Snowbirds and that was really different. But now this posting is really about commanding this squadron and commanding the men and women that really represent the Canadian Forces across Canada."

The native of Quebec City, who is in her late 30s, has spent a long time with the military.

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She started out as an air cadet at 13 and joined the military full-time six years later. She's been a flying instructor, has flown with 434 Combat Support Squadron in Greenwood, N.S., and transported VIPs in Ottawa.

She was posted to 3 Wing Bagotville in Quebec in 2003 as the deputy wing operations officer, and moved to 8 Wing Trenton in Eastern Ontario in 2007 to fly the CC-130 Hercules.

In 2000, between her time in Ottawa and Bagotville, Lt.-Col. Carmichael was selected to fly Snowbird 3. She later flew Snowbird 2 and was the team's executive officer.

Things are different now.

"All those years ago, it used to be my focus was about flying the airplane and meeting all the Canadians and Americans that we meet on the road," she explained.

"This time around, it is ... really about the entire squadron, about leading the men and women of 431 Squadron to accomplish our mission every day. So it has a broader focus this time."

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To date, Lt.-Col. Carmichael remains the only woman to pilot a Snowbird.

But Lt.-Col. Carmichael, who is married to a fighter pilot and has two young daughters, believes that will change one day. She said there's a lot of pride in being a member of the squadron and that gender is irrelevant.

"When you're flying and you have a helmet on your head, it doesn't matter whether you're a man or woman. As long as you can stay in formation, the public from the ground doesn't see it, so that's the way I see it, too.

"I just do what I love to do and I love flying and I'm fortunate enough that it has worked out. But if I can influence not only young girls but boys to follow their passion, then that's great."

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