British Columbia

Air Canada's first female pilot recalls sector's sexist hurdles on route to success

Judy Cameron has 23,000 hours of flying, a scholarship and an Order of Canada membership to her name.

Judy Cameron, raised in Vancouver, has been awarded the Order of Canada for her trailblazing efforts

A white woman wearing a pink top sits at the helm of an aircraft.
After a long, fulfilling career at Air Canada, the airline’s first woman pilot recalls the struggles and sexism she faced coming up and the efforts still needed to encourage more young women into aviation. Captain Judy Cameron sits in an aircraft simulator in Toronto on Monday, Jan. 29. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Judy Cameron still remembers getting the telegram that marked her first offer to fly planes for a major commercial carrier.

Pacific Western Airlines had come calling, writing her a "congratulations" and inviting her to sit down with the interview board.

"When I walked into the room, everyone's face was very distraught," Cameron recalled.

"It turned out that they had wanted to hire me, but it had been vetoed by someone higher up when they realized I was female."

A woman sits at the controls to a flight in a black-and-white photo.
Judy Cameron became the first female pilot hired to fly for a major Canadian carrier in 1978. (Submitted by Judy Cameron)

Forty-five years later, Cameron — who was Air Canada's first female pilot — has 23,000 hours of flying, a scholarship and an Order of Canada membership to her name.

"She's a legend," said Air Canada captain Steve Rundle. Asked whether he knew of Cameron, he said, "That's like asking a hockey player if they know Wayne Gretzky."

After a fulfilling 40-year career, Cameron recalls the struggles she faced in the early years and the efforts still needed to encourage more young women to enter aviation — especially the cockpit, which remains extremely male-dominated.

As of January, nearly eight per cent of Air Canada's pilots were women — better than the U.S. average of 4.9 per cent, according to a 2022 report from the Centre for Aviation, an Australia-based market research firm.

The figure is also much higher than the tally just a few decades back, when female flight crew stood out glaringly.

"I walked into the lunchroom one day and there were 2,000 people," Cameron said of her first month at the airline in 1978. "Everybody just stopped talking and stared at me."

Kick-starting her career

Cameron developed a taste for adrenalin early on, buying a motorcycle in Grade 12 and later riding her Honda hog to the University of British Columbia most days, "even in the rain."

After her first year studying arts, she found a summer job interviewing pilots at small airports for a Transport Canada survey. On her first day in 1973, one of them invited her to hop on board.

"He did a lot of aerobatic manoeuvres that shouldn't have been demonstrated," she said. "But after I finished screaming, I decided I really loved this."

A woman wearing a pilot's outfit smiles in front of a plane.
Captain Judy Cameron said her first job offer at an airline company was vetoed when decision makers learned she was a woman. (Submitted by Judy Cameron)

Cameron dropped out of UBC and applied to a two-year aviation program at Selkirk College. "I got on my motorcycle and drove eight hours to Castlegar … and when I got there the head of the aviation program had a motorbike. That's probably how I got into the course."

Raised by a single mother in Vancouver, Cameron had grown up in a one-room apartment. Television and cars were luxuries they couldn't afford.

"The best part was my mom always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. She never held me back."

When Cameron flew her first passenger, in a two-seat, single-engine Cessna 150 training aircraft, it was her mom in the seat beside her.

College wasn't an easy time. "It was hard, doing my training and being in a classroom full of guys. I was always the odd one out," she said. "It was so isolating."

Professional pilot

Following graduation, Cameron found pilot work at a pulp and paper company in 1975, but the board of directors wouldn't let her fly. She wound up helping with dispatch and office management, occasionally managing to get a flight in when a subsidiary operated the plane.

After switching to a job as a passenger agent at B.C.'s Airwest Airlines — with infrequent turns in the cockpit — Cameron was eventually hired by a small regional service in Slave Lake, Alta., where she flew a Douglas DC-3 airliner — a big break, due to the larger size of the plane.

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Four months later, the company went bankrupt — the paycheques bounced — and executives at the carrier that took over its routes weren't thrilled about her presence. "The chief pilot there basically didn't want to hire me. But he said, 'At least the big airlines won't hire you.'"

The airline stationed her in Inuvik, N.W.T., and proceeded to lay her off. She was later rehired as a dispatcher and allowed to fly periodically.

By 1978, Air Canada considered her application, eventually offering her a job.

"I got a call from the vice-president of operations the week before I started, and he wanted to point out rather seriously that if I got pregnant, I wouldn't be allowed to fly," she recalled. "I wasn't married at the time and I had no family plans ... I didn't know what to say."

Overall, though, she said the experience was positive and the pilots respectful, some of them serving as mentors.

Trials of a (con)trailblazer

However, the company was no exception to the years-long failure of most airlines to provide uniforms for pregnant crew members, including Cameron in 1984. The shortcoming was a milder example of some of the gender inequalities that persisted at various carriers into the 1970s, including strict weight limits, age ceilings and marriage bans for flight attendants.

"My last child was born in 1990, and I never had a maternity uniform," she said with a wry chuckle. Instead, her mother-in-law sewed epaulettes onto her husband's dress shirt and a panel into a pair of Cameron's pants.

"Officially, I was unaware of the fact I was pregnant until the second trimester," Cameron said. Transport Department rules banned pregnant pilots from flying except for three months in the middle of their term.

A woman leans on the thrusters of a flight while wearing a pilot's uniform.
Judy Cameron's aviation career saw many ups and downs. (Air Canada/YouTube)

Today, Air Canada aviators may be asked to submit a note from their doctor every two weeks confirming they are fit to fly, starting in the 20th week of pregnancy. Pilots are considered fit to fly until week 30, "in the case of a normal pregnancy," according to Transport Canada regulations.

Many of Air Canada's 410 female pilots — out of 5,230 in total — see Cameron as an inspiration.

"Judy's always been a mentor to female pilots," said Elaine Bradbury, who first met her at Seneca College in 1981, when Cameron instructed visiting students on a flight simulator.

Later, Bradbury flew alongside her on an Airbus A320 jet and a Boeing 777 airliner.

"It was just nice to talk to another woman who had succeeded," Bradbury said. "It gave us hope and encouragement to see someone like that. She always said just keep on going, it's there for the taking if you want it."

Passing the torch

Since retiring in 2015, Cameron has barely slowed down. The Oakville, Ont., resident has taken a course on aerobatics — "loops and rolls and Cuban eights" — in Florida. And she's actively involved in the Air Canada scholarship program in her name. Launched in 2019 and backed partly by flight training company CAE, the fund helped support 13 young women training to become pilots or aircraft maintenance engineers last year, granting them $5,000 apiece.

Education in the sector is notoriously expensive.

"It costs $100,000 today to get all your licences in Canada," said Murray Strom, Air Canada's vice-president of flight operations.

"It's not typically a profession that attracts the wide range of Canadians that we have, it doesn't represent our community," he said. The scholarships work to offset that imbalance.

A white woman wearing a pink top smiles while leaning on a wall.
Captain Judy Cameron now lives in Oakville, Ont., and continues to be involved in encouraging women to take up aviation. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Last year, 12 per cent of new pilot licences issued in Canada went to women, according to the Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide.

Cameron also serves as a director on the Northern Lights Aero Foundation, which offers mentorship and highlights women's achievements in aviation.

"Until we started doing it, there was no recognition in the aviation community," said Anna Pangrazzi, who founded the organization in 2009 and runs Apex Airplane Sales out of Ontario's Buttonville airport north of Toronto.

"Judy, she's kind of a trailblazer."