“I hope what I have been able to experience and achieve will serve as an example…to let young women, and females in general, know that there is nothing to fear in the “man’s” world. Once you prove yourself, you will be respected.” – Paula Mc Adam
By Leonard Gildarie
The evidence is clear. More and more women are taking the reins of influential positions traditionally held by men. As a matter of fact, business magazine, Forbes, said that 2012 was a standout year for women in business. For the first time in history, there were 20 female CEOs at the 500 biggest U.S. corporations, with several foreign businesswomen moving into global power positions and a growing number on major company boards.
In Guyana, there are numerous examples of women stepping up in male-dominated areas. This week’s ‘Special Person’ is a perfect example. Though working behind the scenes, Paula McAdam has worked her way up in the aviation industry, now holding one of the most powerful positions in the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) – the body that regulates the country’s airspace.
She has achieved many firsts in an industry which has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, most notably with the expansion and accreditation of Ogle Airport.
A mother of three and set to retire this year, Mc Adam is currently GCAA’s Director of Aviation Safety Regulation – and the longest serving staff member.
Her career spans more than three decades. She was appointed Air Traffic Control Officer in 1979 – Guyana’s first female to have been hired for that job.
She was also the first female to be appointed Senior Air Traffic Control Officer; Assistant Aviation Inspector – Personnel Licensing; Aviation Inspector – Aerodromes; Deputy Director Acting and currently Director of Aviation Safety Regulation.
She is the lead investigator in the Flight BW523 accident that occurred on July 30, 2011, which left a Caribbean Airlines aircraft broken in two and the spotlight on the aviation industry. She is tasked with preparing the crash report of that high-profile accident. It would be the first time that Guyana would undertake such a report, and it will have to withstand international scrutiny.
Paula Mc Adam has not had an easy time. Her home at Annandale was shot at and grenades thrown during the crime wave that rocked the country in the mid-2000s. Gunmen mistook her visitors for rival gang members. She almost gave up and left Guyana. That home has been sold.
In the 1990s, while flying to Aishalton, a small plane she was in encountered bad weather and had to make an emergency landing in a half-completed runway. She still receives calls every Holy Thursday, wishing her a “happy birthday”, for her miraculous escape.
She was heavily pregnant in late 1970s when the training began for new Air Traffic Control Officers. She gave birth and eight days into the training, a determined Paula who dreamt of becoming an officer, attended classes. Her perseverance paid off and she became the only female among the 10 or so persons hired.
Kaieteur News caught up with the former Bishops’ High School student at her office. She is about to proceed on pre-retirement leave and there are talks to have her stay on.
The fifth of 10 children, the little city girl always knew she wanted to do something different. When all the girls were eyeing careers in teaching, and as office clerks and secretaries, Paula took classes in cartography, landing her first job at 17 years old at the then Lands and Surveys Department..
“Being in the middle, I was forced to carve my own way. I was always independent.”
Paula’s father was a postal worker, retiring eventually as Chief Postmaster at Linden Post Office.
While her father held his job in Linden, the family stayed in the city, living in West Ruimveldt and then Lamaha Gardens.
“My dad would come down on the weekends. As we got older and became independent, my mother spent more time with him.”
While working at Lands and Surveys, Paula saw the advertisement for Air Traffic Control Assistant at what was then called the Civil Aviation Department. The interviewing process was a tough one, testing applicants’ simultaneous capacity to listen, write and answer questions, all at the same time.
“Yes, it was stringent, with the pass mark at 70%, but I did well.”
IMPORTANT TO BE ALERT
It was not easy work in the beginning. Paula had to travel from the city to Timehri working the shift system at the Control Tower, and it did take its toll on her personal life, but she persevered. She was promoted seven times.
Her first major incident involved a BWIA flight which encountered bad weather as it was about to take off.
“I gave the okay for the flight to take off. The area was clear around the tower. However, bad weather and poor visibility came on rather suddenly, causing the pilot to abort take-off.”
The plane ground to a halt, half of it off the runway. It was an eye-opening experience.
“That accident was a solely weather-related incident and strikes home the point of how important it is to be alert…”
HUNGRY TO LEARN
Paula believes that the work of air traffic controllers is not well known or fully appreciated.
“People still believe that air control involves Marshalls waving flags to guide aircraft. Our basic responsibilities involve the very critical tasks of preventing collisions between aircraft and other vehicles or objects and ensuring safe, orderly, efficient and expeditious flow of all aircraft operating in Guyana.”
Paula listens to and reads everything in sight, hungry to learn more.
“I was always excited by the idea of being able to travel and I thought that this job would allow me to do so.”
Paula’s life was challenging in 1984 after her divorce. She was up early, preparing her children for school. Fortunately, her dad and brother, who lived close by, helped out.
Appointed Senior Air Traffic Control Officer that same year, she was responsible for the oversight and smooth day-to-day operations of all air traffic service facilities in Guyana.
In 1986, she was promoted to Assistant Aviation Inspector – Licensing, assisting with matters related to licensing of aviation personnel, including invigilation and marking of examination papers, and carried out checks for issue and renewal of licences.
When Paula was appointed Aviation Inspector – Aerodromes in 1992, the Hinterland Airstrips Development Programme had already ended and not much importance was attached to the condition of hinterland airstrips. She was able to reverse this decline and impacted positively on the development of aerodromes throughout Guyana by convincing the then Minister of Public Works and the Ministry of Finance to increase the budgetary allocation for maintenance. She was responsible for development, maintenance and licencing of aerodromes throughout Guyana. This position allowed her to see all areas of Guyana.
As Deputy Director (ag.) she was charged with budgeting. In this position she was also integrally involved in planning for the changeover management in the move towards the organization becoming an authority.
Her appointment as Director Aviation Safety Regulation in the newly established authority, in 2002, saw her overseeing safety of the entire aviation industry. She has been described as one of the few persons with regulatory experience in every area of civil aviation in Guyana.
During her tenure, Paula was afforded professional training opportunities in all areas of civil aviation, not only in Guyana, but also in the United Kingdom, Canada, USA, Singapore, USSR, China, Curaçao, Mexico and the Caribbean.
She has also represented the organization and Guyana at a number of national and international fora on civil aviation matters including safety, security and bilateral and multilateral talks.
Apart from her professional training, qualifications and experience, Paula achieved a Degree in Social Science – Public Administration: from the University of Guyana in 1993.
Further, she was part of the Committee responsible for planning for the visit of Prince Charles to Guyana in 2000, for which she was specially commended. She was also a member of the Guyana-Brazil Boundary Marking Team which met in Guyana and Brazil from 1999 to 2002. She also represented the Ministry of Public Works on the Guyana Women’s and Gender Affairs Commission from 1995 to 1999.
According to Paula, the aviation industry has grown even more challenging. While back in 2002, there were 30 aircraft, this has more than doubled now with the Ogle Airport conducting more than 100 flights daily.
“Yes, persons will say CJIA has relatively few flights daily, but Ogle has become very busy with up to 120 flights daily, and of course, the Air Traffic Controller is responsible for all of these.”
A few months ago, during the celebration of 100 years of aviation in Guyana, Paula was among a number of persons acknowledged by Government for making significant contributions in the industry. She was again recognized, by Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, a few weeks ago for being a woman pioneer in aviation.
Of course, being only one of two females at the beginning of her career in an all-male environment made her a natural prey.
She said with a laugh: “Being the only girl among the boys was challenging. However I was told it is not the question, but the answer. If you give them the right answer, they would back off, but I had to work twice as hard to prove myself.”
She has a message for the females who want to follow their dreams, moving away from the traditional jobs.
“I hope what I have been able to experience and achieve will serve as an example…to let young women, and females in general, know that there is nothing to fear in the “man’s” world. Once you prove yourself, you will be respected.”
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