She paid her dues to sit in pilots's seat

Pioneer: A former Baltimore flight attendant overcame male prejudice and derision to become a pioneering airline pilot.

January 06, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Owings Mills resident Beverly Burns remembers the day in 1974 that she decided to become an airline pilot.

Then an American Airlines flight attendant, she was chatting with crew members at New York's LaGuardia Airport when the first officer offered his explanation for why there were no female commercial pilots.

"He said, `Women are just not smart enough to do this job,' " Burns recalled. "I knew as soon as the words came out of his mouth - `women cannot be pilots' - that I wanted to be an airline captain immediately."

Now a pilot with Continental Airlines, Burns, 52, sits at the top of her profession, having served as captain on some of the largest and most sophisticated airplanes in the U.S. commercial fleet.

Her flying resume includes the Boeing 737, 727, 757, 767, 747 and 777, as well as the DC-9 and DC-10. In July 1984, she made history by becoming the first woman to sit in the captain's seat of a 747.

She made history again last year when she flew a Boeing 777 from Houston to London, making her the first woman at Continental Airlines to captain the wide-body aircraft. For the former Baltimore flight attendant, it was a milestone that shows how far women pilots have come, and how far they still have to go.

"She has shown a lot of class and let a lot of things roll off her shoulders," said Terry Bowker, a Continental captain who flew with Burns on the Boeing 747 in the mid-1980s. "Certainly she knows about the scrutiny that women and other minorities are under, but she doesn't focus on that."

Women remain a tiny minority in the profession despite years of effort by major airlines to increase diversity in the work force. Pilots associations and independent organizations that track pilot hiring estimate that 6 percent to 7 percent of all licensed commercial pilots are women.

Among major airlines, the number is typically lower - anywhere from 2 percent to 6 percent, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Even fewer have reached the rank of captain. And some say increasing their numbers will be more difficult after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which resulted in thousands of pilot furloughs and scared some away from the profession.

Burns was scheduled to fly from Newark, N.J., to Manchester, England, on the day of the attacks, but the flight, like all others, was canceled. Though the continuing threat of terrorism has added to the pressure pilots feel in the cockpit, Burns' enthusiasm remains.

"I am a pilot and I still love to fly. That hasn't changed," she said while preparing for an overseas flight over the New Year's holiday. " ... All good pilots have some fear in them. That's what makes them good pilots. It's that knowledge that you have a vehicle that you're operating and if you don't operate it right, you can kill yourself - just like in a car."

At Continental, Burns is one of 80 women out of 4,300 pilots. Like a lot of women pilots of her generation, Burns found that being among the first sometimes came with a price.

On her way to the captain's seat, she encountered flight instructors who were more interested in dating her than training her; charter airlines that were afraid to hire a woman; male co-pilots reluctant to work with her; and the occasional passenger who was skeptical of flying with a woman in the cockpit.

For her persistence, she has been congratulated and honored by presidents, senators and mayors. And she has become a role model for girls with dreams about becoming a pilot.

"I am not a women's libber," Burns said, sitting beneath a wall of plaques and commendations documenting her flying career. "People misunderstand me. If a woman is more qualified, yeah, she should get the job. But don't go and hire me because I'm filling your quota, because then you're not doing me a favor."

When evaluating pilot candidates, the airline always places qualifications above gender, said Debbie McCoy, senior vice president of flight operations for Continental.

The dearth of senior-level women pilots can be attributed in part to the seniority system that governs pilot promotions. Major airlines didn't start hiring women until government regulators forced the issue in the mid-1970s, McCoy said.

Fewer have seniority

Though their numbers have grown gradually, a relatively small number have graduated from commuter airlines to the major carriers, and even fewer have the seniority it takes to sit in the captain's chair on the biggest planes, such as the Boeing 777.

"The industry for so long did not hire women and it takes a good many years to get to the senior level where you can hold a senior captain's position," McCoy said.

Historically, a majority of commercial pilots came from a military flying background, but women were not allowed to train as fighter pilots until 1993. However, a growing number of pilots are earning their wings at private flight schools, where women are more common.

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