24Hr emergency line +44 (0)20 8476 4099
Join Balpa

Female pilots then and now: LYNN BARTON

by Captain Lynn Barton Former pilot

To mark International Women’s Day, we asked Lynn Barton, who was the first female pilot to fly for British Airways, what life was like being a female pilot.

How did you get in to Flying?

I fell in love with flying as a child after a flight in a light aircraft. Since this was the 1960s I had no expectation of being able to do this as a career. I was learning to fly whilst doing my A-levels in 1973 when I first applied to British Airways training programme. At that time, before the equal employment legislation, they didn’t accept applications from females.

I didn’t go to university because in those days there was no opportunity to fly at the air squadrons and the military did not accept females for flying.

However, I worked at a flying school and realised I could become a flying instructor, which I did in 1978. Later that year when BA started recruiting for their training school, I was accepted for sponsored training. When I went through, in 1979, I was the only female. In fact, of the 150 recruits trained at that time there was only one other flying instructor. I think I got my place because they didn’t want to take a chance on someone with very little flying experience.

After that I went back to instructing (BA had no jobs) then worked for Air UK and my first jet flying was with Dan Air. Jobs were very scarce at that time, but Dan Air had the first female jet captain and she had just retired when I got an interview. Although it was very unusual at that time with very few female pilots.

When BA started recruiting, in 1987, I was selected as their first female pilot and due to my flying experience, I went straight on to long haul.

How do people react when they realise you are a pilot?

Most of the time, trainers and managers were very pro the recruitment of females and seemed to credit me with being better and hard-working because I was the first.

The reaction from the public varied from interest to surprise. I remember when I had just started on the jumbo and I was flying the sector, I made the PA. Bearing mind that it was a minimum three crew with flight engineer as well, during the cruise the Captain went down to chat to first class passengers. One of the older lady passengers took one look at him and said, “my goodness you haven’t left her up there on her own have you?” in a very worried voice!

Later on, when I was a captain (1996), sometimes I came to the door to say goodbye to passengers. This was on both Boeing 757 & 767, so a mixture of long and short haul. One particular flight to Rome was just before a rugby match and we had a lot of extremely large Scottish rugby fans onboard. One very tall gentleman in a kilt made a remark about lady drivers as he approached the door, forgetting that his fearsome wife was behind him. She berated him comprehensively. He then spent the distance to the front door abjectly apologising for any offence!
Most of the time though the reaction from people was just of interest and respect.

Are there enough female pilots?

When I started flying in the 1970s there were 3-5% of commercial pilots who were female and one of my disappointments is that I understand nowadays it’s still only 5-7%. The enlightened management even in my day said if you want to employ ‘the best of the best’ you must stop 50% of the potential pilot population ruling themselves out. Also, they have long acknowledged that have a gender mixed workplace makes for a better workplace.

Do young women today see this as a career they can take on?

I would love to know why more women don’t pursue this career. I loved being a pilot. I don’t believe it can be the level of study since 50% of doctors are female and it’s ideally suited to part time working. I think as women do choose the career there will be more people for young girls to look up too. More role models can only be a good thing but perhaps even now there’s some hangover of the old Biggles or Top Gun idea?

My family and friends always accepted my being a pilot because I’d loved flying since a child. In those days I never imagined I would have the flying career I did, I just saw each step along the way as a way of working in aviation. Looking back, it has been a great career. I hope other women will see this and realise that it could be an option for them too.