Air Canada’s first female pilot learned to fly right here in Castlegar.
Judy Cameron became the first woman to fly for Air Canada on April 10, 1978. Thirty-seven years later, she’s now retired and received an Elsie MacGill Northern Lights Award, which honours women’s contributions to aviation and aerospace, in October.
Looking back on her days at Selkirk College, Cameron says it wasn’t until later she understood what a challenging environment she learned to fly in.
“I didn’t realize it until much later, when I came back to do a speech … at the college, probably … 21 years later, and I was surprised to see how big the mountains were and how the airport was kind of nestled against the mountains,” she said. “When you learn to fly in an environment like that you don’t realize how challenging it is, I think, until you come back to it.”
While the terrain may have challenging, interacting with her instructors as the only female student was not.
“I found that they treated me just the same as the guys. Actually it was pretty forward thinking for back in 1973/1974,” she said. “None of the instructors singled me out or made me feel in any way shape or form that I was any less than the guys that were in the course.”
Cameron was in a class with 30 young men, which she said was a bit difficult, mostly because she didn’t have the background that they did.
“There were no other females in the course to commiserate with. I didn’t have an aviation background. I hadn’t always wanted to fly from the time I was little, so I felt like I was a little behind the eight ball, catching up,” she said. “I wasn’t mechanically minded…. I didn’t really have the background some of the fellas did, so that was difficult, and of course there were practical jokes.”
Cameron decided she wanted to fly after she was hired by Transport Canada to do a general aircraft movement survey after her first year of university. One of the pilots she was surveying invited her to go flying with him, and she was hooked.
“I was thrilled and excited, and did all kinds of things that I wasn’t supposed to see on my first flight,” she said. “He did things like a spin and a stall, and said lets see a pencil float from the front of the airplane to the back.”
Cameron wanted to be an airline pilot, but when she first finished school the airlines were’t hiring, so for three years she worked for smaller companies.
She was still one month away from turning 24 when she was hired by Air Canada and had to face a rush of media.
“I had my baptism by fire at Montreal at the Dorval Airport, when I was surrounded by probably, I don’t know, 15 or 20 reporters and people from various media, including television, trying to interview me and it was somewhat overwhelming,” she says.
Over three decades later, Cameron can now point to three highlights in her career.
“My first highlight would be my first solo right at the Castlegar Airport, the first time I flew in a small airplane by myself,” she said.
The second was when she received her captain’s wings.
“The fellow that was doing the check ride on me got the in-charge flight attendant to bring up a tray with a cup of tea and beside the cup of tea was a set of captain’s wings.”
Finally, her last flight as captain of the Boeing 777, from Munich to Toronto.
“I had my husband, my oldest daughter on board, and a few friends,” she says. “When we landed, first of all, all the way across Canada various air traffic controllers were saying ‘Congratulations on your last flight.’ When we landed in Toronto the airport firefighters came out and gave a water cannon salute, which means they sprayed both sides of the triple-7…. When I got to the bridge, to my surprise, once the door opened there were 20 female Air Canada pilots in uniform greeting me.”
Many women have followed in Cameron’s footsteps since that day in 1978, but women still only account for less than 5 per cent of commercial airline pilots worldwide.
Cameron encourages other women to pursue careers in aviation and recommends that anyone interested in entering the industry look up two groups online for more information: the Ninety-Nines and the Canadian Women in Aviation.
She used to recommend the same Selkirk College course she took, and was disappointed when the program was discontinued.
“I really enjoyed the course at Selkirk College. It was an excellent course,” she says. “One of the saddest moments in my life was to find out that the course was no longer being continued.”
Cameron credits the course and her instructor at Selkirk College with her success.
“I retired with about 23,000 hours, thirty-seven years with the airline, and I owe it all to Selkirk College. I’ll never forget my instructors and that aviation course.”