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CWO Marlene Shillingford: A rewarding career in the CAF 

Updated: Apr 11

By Martin Zeilig 

After a distinguished and varied nearly 38-year career in the Canadian Armed Forces 2 Canadian Air Division Chief Warrant Officer Marlene Shillingford is releasing from the Regular Forces on April 15 this year.  

She will be transferring over to the Air Reserves commissioning to the rank of Major because, as she says, “I’m a senior appointed CWO.”  


“I’ll be going over to Kingston, Ontario to 1 Wing Headquarters Air Reserve Flight and be their Flight Commander,” CWO Shillingford said, during an interview in her office on February 6.   


“I’ll be a Class A Reservist. Because we have a shortage of personnel, I made that decision because this is the line for me as CWO. I can’t go any higher. This program has been around for a longtime for the Chiefs. I’ve been around for a longtime, and I made the decision that I wanted to continue to serve to end my career.”  

 What a career it has been.  


A native of Toronto, whose family moved to New Market, Ontario when she was in grade six, CWO Shillingford was still in high school when she joined as an Airframe Technician, she said.  


“I used to race BMX bikes,” she added.   


 “Another racer told me about Air Cadets. I knew nothing about them. So, I went out and joined Air Cadets 94th Squadron. That was it. I knew what I wanted to do.”  


She stayed in the Cadets for just over four years.  


“Then, in my last year of high school, a buddy of mine said ‘I’m going to Toronto to the recruiting centre.’ So, I replied, ‘I’m going with you.’  


“We jumped on a Go Bus and went to the recruiting centre in Toronto and enrolled after that. The funny thing is, I wasn’t even looking at an aircraft trades. I thought I’d be in administration or even a hairdresser because my mom was a hairdresser. That is what as a child I wanted to do.”  


But, she went to the recruiting centre and decided to try, as she explained, something she didn’t think she could do, and that was airframe, engine and aerospace operator.  


“That was in May, and I enrolled and finished high school in June,” CWO Shillingford said.  


“Within months, I was already on my way to CFB Cornwallis (for basic training. But, the Air Cadets gave me a good sense of what it was like to be in the military and the camaraderie. We did lots of cool stuff in Air Cadets. I was on the shooting team, exercises, drill team, (attended) Cadet Camp, and air studies course.”  


So, she was well prepared for life in the CAF.  


“I went to Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering at 16 Wing Borden,” CWO Shillingford said.   


“My course was six months long for airframe technician. After I finished my course, I was posted to CFB Moose Jaw where we have the CT114 Tutor. We had ninety aircraft on the line, and it was flying two or three launches a day.   


“It’s also the home of the Snowbirds. It was air show season. I had seen movies of them in Cadets, but I had never seen them in function. So, I said ‘That’s what I want to do be a Snowbird technician.’”  


As a tech, she had to inspect the planes every morning before they launched, including turning them around during the day, because they’d fly two or three missions a day, she explained.   


“We had to fuel them, give them oxygen and oil,” CWO Shillingford continued.   


“Then at the end of the day, we had to do a post flight inspection and do a major inspection. We had to document it in the aircraft maintenance records. Then, we had to fix them.”  


She was stationed in Moose Jaw from 1987-1995, and then posted to an Operational Centre 8 Wing Trenton, a Maintenance Squadron with the C-130 Hercules in “a squadron of 500 plus people” maintaining the E and H model Hercules.   


“I found it really different going from a training Wing to an Operational Wing with a C-130 Hercules,” CWO Shillingford admitted.   


“I was there for 10 years. I deployed after 9/11, I was the second rotation to go into Operation Apollo to the United Arab Emirates. That was my first deployment as a junior officer on the Hercules for six months.   


“It was exciting. It was different. We got there in July. The heat was a challenge for us. We couldn’t work on the aircraft during the day. We had to leave that for the evening when it cooled off a bit. We had the CP-140 Aurora with us too. We were at Camp Mirage. It was only Canadians there at the time.   


“It felt like time stood for us while the rest of the world moved on. It took a little bit of acclimatizing after getting back.”  


Afterwards, she was posted to 16 Wing Borden to the Air Command Academy to be a directing staff for the Primary Leadership Qualification Course.   


“I only did a year there,” CWO Shillingford said.   


“My dream was always to be a Crew Chief for the Snowbirds. But, you could only do it as a Sergeant. I talked to my Chief about it. He said ‘I’ve never seen anyone so passionate about it.’ So, I’ll talk to the CO about it. He came back and said that I’m not going to stop you from doing what you really want to do. So, I returned to Moose Jaw and competed and became the first female crew chief and only one to this date. I was only there from 2006-2008.”  


From there, she “was lucky enough” to be posted Ato Geilenkurchen, Germany with the NATO E 3A, the NATO AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft as a quality assurance inspector for the engines.  


“Then, later I went to the HQ A7 which is Exercises and Training and worked with a German Colonel. We were responsible for the Forward Operating Bases and locations around Europe for our NATO AWACS.”  


She’s had numerous other positions and received awards, both military and civilian, over the years.  


CWO Shillingford was promoted to CWO in June 2017 and posted to 12 Wing Shearwater as the 12 Air Maintenance Squadron CWO. In March 2019, Marlene was appointed as WCWO at 15 Wing Moose Jaw and in 2021, she was appointed as the 2 CAD CWO at 17 Wing.  

After speaking with advisors at the Transition Centre and people who have retired, she was told that it’s not a good idea for somebody who’s been in as long she has been to transition right into civilian life, CWO Shillingford stressed.  


“We’ve been a part of this family forever,” she added.   


“I don’t think mentally I’d probably have challenges with that to cut it off completely because it’s everything. I put my heart and soul into this. To just retire completely and become a civilian requires time to completely adjust to become a civilian again.   


“I’m only fifty-five now. I’m still young and have lots to contribute. I love mentoring, and I love talking to our members and giving them advice.”   


She also praised her parents as her greatest supporters. 


“Both my parents are immigrants,” CWO Shillingford said.   


“My dad from Dominique and mom from Glasgow, Scotland. I have an older sister, Michele, and young brother, Jason. My grandfather from Scotland served in the Highland Light Infantry during the First World War.”  


Over her career CWO Shillingford, who is retiring after nearly 38 years in the RCAF, has had many achievements and received numerous honours and awards. Here are some of those accomplishments:  


  • 2001: She received a promotion to Master Corporal 

  • 2002: She was a key junior supervisor on a six-month deployment to Southwest Asia on Op APOLLO 

  • 2003: She received the Top Leader award after her Primary Leadership Qualification training 

  • 2006: she was selected to 431 Squadron to become the first female Snowbird Crew Chief.  

  • 2014: she was invested into the Order of Military Merit.  

  • 2015: she received a Certificate of Completion of the Officer Professional Military Education (OPME) through the Canadian Defence Academy and a Certificate of Appreciation as the Deputy Operations Officer for Real Life Support to NATO Joint Exercise 2015 

  • 2017: She was promoted to CWO in June  and posted to 12 Wing Shearwater as the 12 Air Maintenance Squadron CWO  

  • 2019: She was appointed as WCWO at 15 Wing Moose Jaw 

  • 2021: she was appointed as the 2 CAD CWO at 17 Wing, Winnipeg 

  • 2023: CWO Shillingford received the Elsie McGill Northern Lights Aero Foundation Trailblazer Award. She was also named an Honourary Member of the Urban Pilot Network (who inspire youth to aspire higher within the Aerospace community), the Godmother of Aerostart Canada (promoting accessibility to aerospace employment for all), and a Mentor to Elevate Aviation.  


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