She paid her dues to sit in pilots's seat

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.

Both airlines and aviation schools say they actively pursue women candidates, conducting outreach programs at high schools to attract students proficient in math and science. At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., female students make up about 14 percent of the total.

"It's still a traditionally male-dominated industry," said Lisa Ledewitz, vice president of communications and marketing for the school. "You have to get ahold of females at an early age."

There were few role models or outreach programs to smooth the way for Burns. When she told her Western High School counselor she wanted to work in the travel industry, she was advised to consider becoming a flight attendant.


After the incident at LaGuardia inspired her to make a career change, Burns signed up for flying lessons at Hinson Airways, a flight school and charter service that formerly operated out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Though other women had learned to fly at Hinson, Burns stood out.

"I remember she drove up in a Mercedes something or other and said she wanted to learn how to fly," said Warren W. Baker, a former pilot and flight instructor for Hinson.

Baker was among those who introduced Burns to other pilots who could help her obtain valuable flying time in an era when many wouldn't give women the opportunity. Among those she met at Hinson was her future husband, Robert.

Robert Burns knew how difficult it was for women pilots to gain a toehold. The instructor who taught him to fly was a former member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots.

During World War II, WASPs transported troops and helped ferry new bombers from U.S. factories to their point of embarkation. The program elevated the profile of women aviators, but its members were shunned by the airlines after the war.

Before his mentor died, Robert Burns promised her he would try to help a woman break through the gender barrier.


"She said, 'If you ever run into a woman pilot that's good enough, would you try to get her on with an airline?' " he said. "I promised her I'd do it."

The first time the former Baltimore flight instructor met Beverly Burns for a flying lesson, he asked what her goal was.

When she said she wanted to become an airline pilot, he pledged to dedicate the next three years to getting her a job with a major airline. For Beverly Burns, it was an emotional moment.

"He was the first person that really acknowledged that a woman could fly and not kill herself," she said.

Burns progressed rapidly, but soon discovered that women pilots had made limited progress since World War II. After she obtained key flying certificates, Hinson Airways initially balked at hiring her.

She ran into similar difficulties elsewhere until Robert Burns intervened by taking corporate flying assignments and manipulating his flight schedule so that Beverly Burns could serve as his co-pilot. Eventually, she earned a spot on the schedule at Hinson.


Baker also lent a hand by introducing Beverly Burns to Marvin Merryman Jr., a local charter pilot and instructor. Merryman, now 80, flew a series of corporate flights with Burns, allowing her to log additional time on twin-engine passenger planes.

Burns proved her skills in difficult flying situations, but the job ended abruptly when a male executive brought his wife along on one of their many business trips. The woman didn't approve of a young and attractive female pilot accompanying her husband on trips.

The incident was symbolic of the difficulties women pilots faced.

"Other pilots who were in high positions would make remarks sometimes over the years, like, 'Oh God, another empty kitchen,' " Merryman said. "You don't hear that much anymore, but they just sort of shunned them in the beginning."

Robert Burns helped his former student stay focused on her goal, counseling her to leave the Baltimore area for a series of jobs at small commuter airlines in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

The payoff came about two years later when the newly launched People Express Airlines went in search of pilots. By this time, Beverly Burns had accumulated enough experience to sit in the cockpit of a Boeing 737. She became a first officer with People Express in the summer of 1981.


Robert and Beverly Burns married the next year. To make it easier for his wife to pursue a flying career, Robert Burns managed the household and took care of their two sons, now grown.

People Express' rapid growth propelled her into the captain's chair in less than two years. As her seniority grew, she pushed herself to fly larger planes, ultimately earning a captain's seat on the Boeing 747 in 1984.

"It was probably over the span of five years," said Baker, the former charter pilot. "That was unheard of in the industry that I grew up in.

Nearly bankrupt by 1986, People Express was rescued by Texas Air and later folded into Continental. But Burns retained her seniority and continued to rise through the ranks at Continental.

Feisty and determined

Present and past colleagues describe her as feisty and determined, always willing to sacrifice a comfortable flying schedule in order to pursue a spot on a new plane. Her career has become a model for how women pilots can reach the top.


"She stayed focused and that's what you've got to do," said Capt. Roy Snead, a Continental Airlines flight instructor who trained Burns on the Boeing 777. " ... The 777 is the top of the heap. You're 'there' when you're flying captain on the triple seven."

Flying large, long-haul airplanes, Burns' schedule takes her all over the world, including London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv, Israel. A typical month requires about 80 hours of flying and countless nights spent in hotel rooms on foreign soil. Despite the sacrifices, Burns said she still feels the exhilaration of completing a perfect flight.

"Each airplane has its own personality and each one has something very unique about them that makes them fun to fly," she says.

Colleagues have grown to accept women pilots over the years, Burns said, although there have been occasional reminders that they still face skepticism in some quarters.

Her composure under pressure has earned her respect over time. More than once she has faced engine failures or other mechanical anomalies that test a captain's skill and authority in the cockpit.

Early into a recent flight from Hong Kong, the floor of the 777 Burns was flying began to vibrate vigorously, causing alarm among the flight crew and passengers.


Unable to immediately pinpoint the problem, Burns' three co-pilots wanted to return to Hong Kong - a move that would have required the crew to dump fuel and make an unscheduled landing.

But sensing the plane was not in danger, Burns opted instead to contact Continental's maintenance base in Houston to seek advice from the company's top mechanics.

"I had three less-experienced pilots who wanted to go back to Hong Kong, and I had to convince them we should keep on going," she said.

By troubleshooting with the crew, the company's mechanics were able to attribute the noise to a faulty valve on one of the plane's two air-conditioning units. By altering speed and altitude, Burns was able to minimize the vibration and keep the flight on schedule.

"Every day I go to work my job is different. No two flights are ever the same, and I guess that's part of what I love about it," she said.