While it took Georgia Louise Henderson a while to land on aviation, she always knew that she wanted to work with her hands. As a young girl, the Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME) apprentice and private pilot student from Scone, a town in the Upper Hunter Shire in the Hunter region of New South Wales (NSW), Australia could often be found making weird things out of items that she found in her stepdad’s shed or pulling apart hair clips and putting them back together – she found that figuring out how something worked is what made her tick.
Before making her way into aviation, Henderson found herself working in various apprenticeships in NSW, Australia. Knowing that she loved to work with her hands, she left school early to do a Heavy Vehicle Apprenticeship working on trucks. She found that she loved doing this work – but wanted to do more diagnostic work, so she decided to move on to cars, working as a car mechanic with City Ford. She wasn’t sure that this was the best fit for her either, so she took a leap of faith and moved into the hospitality industry, working as a general manager in a local pub. It was there one night that she met Pays Air Service’s Chief Engineer, Ryan Legg, and, after an evening of talking, she found herself in an interview with Pays the following Monday.
While it may seem like Henderson took a long, winding path toward aviation, it seems as though she ended up where she was meant to be! Henderson said, “Aviation kind of runs in my blood, so it certainly wasn’t a random twist of fate that led me to where I am now. My father was a pilot and my grandpa only just stopped flying in the last year or so due to his age. I’ve always had a really lovely connection with both fixed wing and rotary machines because of these two men; it has always been very familiar to me.”
Not many people in the aviation industry can say that any two days are similar, and the same is true for Henderson, “There is no normal day. It’s always changing.” She is currently working on a project with an AME who is also a talented sheet metal worker, doing a “glow up” on a DHC-1 Chipmunk that includes mechanical and sheet metal work, depending on the day. But it’s not uncommon for her and the other apprentices to be pulled off a job, in order to jump in and learn something new. There are also days when the apprentices will get pulled out of the workshop, fly in the Pays Air Service Cessna 185 to help fix various issues that a plane may be having in a rural area. As Henderson says, “Expect anything to happen!”
For Henderson, it was important that she was able to learn while earning, which is what the AME apprenticeship allows her to do. She feels that, “Being a mature, aged apprentice, I don’t have the luxury of living off my parents anymore, so having a job while training is mandatory for me. In Australia you do have the option of self-funding the school side of things, which drastically increases your chance of getting work once schooling is completed, or even during, in some cases. But for myself and many others, we have gone into the job as fresh as you can get. I certainly favor being in the workshop for the majority of the year and then having some weeks of bookwork at school. It allows you to apply the knowledge you gain in the classroom in the real world very quickly.”
The hardest part of her apprenticeship has been having to get in the habit of studying again. As she looks back to her younger self, she wishes that she could have given her younger self a pep talk about how to develop some good habits that would help her later in life, after struggling through the math module, relearning the Pythagorean Theorem all over again during the classroom portion of trade school. The constant learning is her favorite part of working as an apprentice. She thrives on learning how to do something in a different way and looks forward to continuing to learn new things for the entirety of her AME career, “The lessons will never cease and I just think that’s the most exciting thing ever.”
Henderson feels that, “when people love something SO much, it can be quite contagious. When I started fixing planes…it was game over. The love I have for this industry literally makes me emotional sometimes. I don’t think anything will ever change that.” It doesn’t seem to hurt that Pays Air Service seems to have a healthy mix of aircraft that they work on, including fire bombing planes, agriculture aircraft, smaller general aviation planes and a collection of warbirds. In their museum hangar, they currently have the following aircraft: CA-18 Mk, 21 Mustang, Curtiss P40E KittyHawk, North American T6G Harvard, Hawker Hurricane Mk, DH Tigermoth and the Mk IX Spitfire – as Henderson says, “I have a great view at work every day!”
As of 2019, there were 10,400 AMEs in all of Australia, and Henderson knows of only three technology schools that offer training for AME apprentices in the entire state that she lives in, so programs are not common.
As it is in the United States, the aviation industry in Australia is also male-dominated. Henderson has found that, if she is willing to come into work each day and try her best, she has never felt like “the woman in the workshop,” saying, “I think any line of work that involves swinging spanners (a wrench) and getting a bit dirty, no matter what country it is, is going to have uneven numbers when it comes to gender. From the moment I started with Pays I was treated as equal and as someone learning new skills. If you show those gents that you want to work and you want to learn, they treat you accordingly. There’s no ‘Me vs. Them’ vibe. These guys are becoming brothers and mentors to me. We’re all in there to get a job done and get it done well. Regardless of if you’re female or male, if you don’t come to the party with a good work ethic, then that’s on you as an individual.”
Looking back at what she has achieved so far, she said, “I’m probably most proud of how much I’ve embraced this job and everything that has come with it so far. I’m showing up and trying as hard as I can each day and I think that’s a pretty good start.” In the future, she would like to fly one of the Fire Boss planes during fire and spraying season, as well as be able to fix them in the offseason. On the side, she sees herself building an RV 7 – keeping busy and having a lot of fun while doing it!
When asked what advice Henderson would give to her younger self about getting into aviation, she said, “Focus and give it absolutely everything that you have. Ask all of the questions, even the ones that you might think are “dumb” and for god’s sake stop trying to do everything by yourself and ask for help! Check in on yourself every now and then and make sure your actions are aligning with your goals. But most importantly, always have fun with what you’re doing. Always.”
Want to keep up with Georgia Louise Henderson as she makes her way through her AME Apprenticeship program and flight training? Follow her on Instagram – @georgia.louisehenderson!