Daviot Kelly, Staff Reporter
While other girls wanted to become nurses and teachers, Johanna Lewin's ambition was much different.
"I wanted to be a truck driver and mechanic," she laughed. "My aim was to drive one of the big trailers from Rockfort with the marl or cement. I have always been good with my hands and technically minded that way."
That kind of thinking eventually led her to be the first female helicopter pilot to be trained by the Canadian Armed Forces and the first to fly a helicopter in the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). Lewin, who rose to the rank of Major, was among the second batch of women allowed to enlist in the JDF in 1977.
Her desired profession had changed from truck driver to aircraft mechanic and the only opportunity was in the JDF. So, she initially tried to enlist in early 1976, but family friend and JDF top brass Colonel Ken Barnes encouraged her to finish school.
"As soon as I got out, I was at the head of the line," she smiled. But there were challenges.
"Women in the army was a novelty. It was something that a lot of the men resisted. (They felt) there was no place for women and if there was, what was that place? It was difficult crossing some of those barriers," she said. The training though, didn't bother her.
"It was no problem. We did training in Newcastle (like everybody else). You had to basically do the same thing as the men had to," she said. She credits travelling with her mother, cultural icon Olive Lewin, with helping to expose her to the world. She even copied her mother's philanthropic efforts, teaching theories of music to prisoners. Her grandfather Richard Lewin, a noted scholar, also influenced her. Ironically, he was also in the army (World War I) but not in a fighting capacity.
"I was fortunate. I came from a good educational background. Exposure and having a sense of who you are is really important because when I went to the JDF, it really didn't daunt me," she said. A death-defying flight with a senior officer, the late Captain Peter Rennie, convinced her she wanted to be in the cockpit.
"But that was the next trouble. Because, first, you want to be in the army, but on top of that, now you want to be a pilot?" she said. But JDF leaders such as Colonel Anthony De Vere Stern, who was responsible for the Air Wing, and then-Chief of Defence Staff Major General Robert Neish encouraged her. She did the pre-training which involves a period of ground school and then a 'check flight' to evaluate her aptitude. She passed with 'flying' colours. Then it was off to Canada. Training lasted for 10 months before she returned to Jamaica.
"They put me on the rotary wing line and I did everything. The CASEVACS (casualty evacuations), MEDEVACS (medical evacuations), VIP flights, operations and so on. For CASEVACS, if you were the duty pilot they could wake up at 2 a.m.," she remembered. "The hardest thing in the world is when you have to get up and literally put on the boots, your flying suit and get going. But I enjoyed it." She said she also loved the camaraderie between her fellow flyers.
Lewin, who was also Officer Commander of the Women's Unit, spent four years in the Air Wing eventually moving on to the JDF headquarters where she ended her service. She spent 13 years in the JDF and reluctantly admitted that the toil got too much.
"I don't think I could have done anything different at the time, but looking back, I wonder if maybe I could have made a greater impact," she said. Despite her trailblazing efforts though, only one other woman has been in the Air Wing since she moved on from it in 1981, something that puzzles her.
"I haven't really done recruiting since I've left, but I have stayed very close to the JDF and the younger officers. I've tried to get them hooked up with the older, more experienced pilots, trying to help them to grow and understand their role."
After leaving the army, Lewin worked with the Guardsman Group, then was a consultant with various projects including the Cricket World Cup. Four years ago, she was approached to take over the remodelled Revenue Protection Division (RPD).
"It is fulfilling at times because you know that you're doing work that needs to be done. It's hard though. We're not exactly everyone's favourite person, but then that's not a novel concept for me," she laughed. She lauded her staff for their commitment and intelligence. Very result-oriented, she's not bothered that their work sometimes goes under the radar.
"We don't get credit for a lot of the work that we do, but that doesn't bother me. I believe you must just carry on smartly and whittle away at what you have to do. But I know there is a benefit because there must be a perception that you're working," she said. Describing herself as a hard taskmaster, Lewin said from the army to the RPD, she has always pushed people to achieve their full potential. She called for a greater appreciation of our rich culture (she was even a member of the Jamaica Folk Singers) and a return to the core values.
"It needs to be less about 'me' and more of what is good for everybody. We are a bright people, but we need to channel it in the right way, which is why anybody's achievement, it's important to talk about it so that people can know that it can be different."