Episode 33: Of Childhood Dreams and Road to Success — The Story of Catherine Burton

By Joanna Dela Peña

This is a story about dreams, and with dreams there are no exceptions — or might I say, no one is an exception. Dreams touch our souls and speak to our hearts. They take the drivers seat when in crossroads and steer us in the right direction. Dreams are our north star; they guide us in the darkest times of our lives and remind us of our why’s, how’s, and what’s. Why are we here? How are we doing this? What…is our purpose?

Our dreams are born from random circumstances that our lives give us. We could be sitting in a coffee shop on a random Saturday afternoon or unusually taking the long way home and it just hits us. For Catherine Burton, it was at an early age of 6 months. She was sitting in the cockpit of a Vampire jet fighter at her dad’s insistence and she just…knew.

Her heart soared and her mind did leaps. This was for her. Aviation is for her.

From then on, every decision in her life was influenced by this goal. She was focused and determined to become a pilot, much like her dad. Her school days were often comprised of model airplanes, learning navigation by the age of six, and joining the Air Cadets. Catherine is the embodiment of a sure and confident woman.

With one goal in mind, she didn’t even bother with university anymore and went straight to flying college. With a lot of hard work and perseverance, in 1972, at just the young age of 20 years old she had made a name for herself and graduated from flying school, and became a second officer at (then) Cambrian Airways.

Much like her academic success, Catherine does not fall short on the career front. Two years after graduating from flying college (1974) she became a first officer and Cambrian Airways became British Airways. Then a mere five years later (1979), she had achieved being a senior first officer.

Coming from a Vickers Viscount aircraft background, she converted to Boeing 737s by 1980. In 1985 she flew the Lockheed Tristar, but immediately went back to 737s a year after. She found her love in Boeing and she stayed and flew them from then on. Her resume is filled with experiences like flying the 747-classic (1987), being the first co-pilot on the 747-400 (1989) and eventually authored one for its manuals, to flying 757s as a Captain. Before retiring, she had her last change in aircraft in 2010 when she flew the Boeing 777. She got to enjoy that for another 7 years before transferring to the Piper.

When she turned 65, and legally could not fly public transportation, she became a flight instructor on PA28s and Diamond DA-40s and DA-42s. Now at 69, she teaches at South Wales and is still very much in love with flying and molding the next generation of pilots.

The next generation, now that’s a tricky topic. Catherine is only but one of the very few women pilots around the globe. Catherine’s story, like many of our role models, are very much inspiring. So why is there still a large gap in numbers?

When talking with Catherine, having the first-hand experience in a male-dominated field, she has expressed the need for more older generational role models. Using the term “old” loosely, she means women who have had experience in the field. She reminisced an encounter of hers in a career fair when she was met by a family of three generational women. The two older women approached her with the intent to ask about the youngest one’s chances on becoming a stewardess. Upfront, Catherine asked her simply why she was yearning to be a cabin crew when all her efforts and achievements (taking up double math and physics for A-Level) was primed into being a pilot.

She was met by “Oh. Can women be pilots now then?” by the mother.

It’s encounters like these that make us wonder, how deeply rooted in our society and careers is the gender role bias? Are certain parts of the world more accustomed to acceptance than others? Or is it merely a reality that in any part of the world women are stereotyped?

Just like our previous role models, Catherine has explicitly recognized the role that culture plays. Having a career counselor head tell her that “our girls wouldn’t be interested in THAT” (talking about having a pilot career) shows that maybe “diversity” in role models is still met with closed minds.

Catherine is left undeterred though, continuing to set her sights and goals to empowering women to enter aviation. When asked about the methods on encouraging girls to consider aviation, she simply answered that consideration is a different topic entirely. Girls should realize that a career in aviation should not be “ruled out too early.”

Very aware of the troubles ahead; having a high chance of meeting misogynistic instructors and toxic male colleagues in flight schools, Catherine still believes that female pilots must be seen in schools — the more the better.

But it helps that we sometimes find a rose in the amid thorns, much like Catherine’s chief pilot. He was the one that lifted her up and pushed her to join the Diversity and Inclusion team. Being a trans woman, Catherine was not only a fit, but she was a prime candidate as she was British Airways’ most senior woman pilot. Her chief officer encouraged her to visit many schools so that she could inspire more women, the next generation, to become pilots; or in the very least, to not rule it out.    

“We need you on the team,” that’s what the chief said.

And ever since, he has believed in Catherine. He remained one of her greatest supporters — nominating her as a private sector diversity champion of the year at the British LGBT+ awards and being with her on the night of the event. Spoiler alert, she won!

If there’s any lesson to take from this, it is that diversity is not a heavy burden we carry but rather a shiny plaque to wear proudly on our chests. Catherine has had a lot of ups and downs; a lot of falls but she has stood up every single time.

Her dreams kept her going. Despite everything, she has made her dream a reality, and it is all thanks to that one day in the cockpit of that Vampire jet fighter.