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In the summer of 1973, Judy Cameron was a University of British Columbia arts student who rode a motorcycle and “loved to go fast.”
With no fixed career goal in mind, the 19-year-old took a job administering a Transport Canada survey to pilots of small aircraft. While working, she ran into someone from high school who was finishing his flight instructor rating, and he invited her to go flying.
Despite being terrified, she was also exhilarated as she experienced a stall, a spin and even the old “see a pencil float from the back to the front” weightlessness trick.
By the time she landed from her first flight, Cameron’s future career path was lit up like a runway in front of her.
“I wanted to find out how to do this,” she told Skies. “I heard Selkirk College in Castlegar was the place to train. So, I got on my motorcycle and drove eight hours to the college.”
Luckily, the head of the aviation department was a motorcycle fan and he admitted Cameron to the program, advising her to get her Grade 12 math credit before school began that fall.
She struggled with the hard reality of how to finance her training. As the daughter of a single mother – who Cameron said was her role model – she had few financial resources but “all the support in the world” when it came to pursuing her dream of flying.
“I’m not even sure why I tackled this career,” reflected Cameron during a recent interview. “I had no money. I had to sell my motorcycle; I had student loans and bursaries. I didn’t have a Plan B.”
When she got to college that fall, she was shocked to find that Grade 12 math didn’t put her on par with the other students – all of them men and most with physics under their belts.
“It was two rather tough years. I was the only girl with a whole group of guys. They weren’t intentionally cruel, but no one really studied with me. But I hung in there and I graduated. I tell girls now, make sure you take the prerequisites!”
After school, Cameron worked for a few small aviation operations, including B.C. Forest Products and Air West.
Her big break came in the spring of 1976, when she heard about a job opening at Bayview Air Service, a scheduled operator in Slave Lake, Alta. She flew to Edmonton, where Bayview picked her up for an interview.
“I met the chief pilot and he took a big chance on me,” recalled Cameron, who was 21 at the time. “He was quite eccentric and he hired me.”
It was at Bayview that Cameron earned her first officer endorsement on the Douglas DC-3 – just four months before the company went bankrupt.
Her next stop was Gateway Aviation, which sent her to Inuvik, N.W.T., as a DC-3 first officer. The northern flying experience was gold for Cameron. She subsequently moved back to Edmonton to fly Gateway’s Hawker Siddeley HS 748 turboprop.
Her experience attracted Air Canada’s attention in 1978. With just under 2,000 hours in her logbook, Cameron brought a photo to her interview that showed her rolling fuel drums along the ground up north. “See how badly I want this job?” she told recruiters.
Cameron was hired as Air Canada’s first female pilot and began as a second officer on the Boeing 727 at the age of 23.
“There was an awful lot of pressure,” she said. “I knew there were a few female pilots being hired in the U.S., but the three months of training at Air Canada was incredibly stressful.”
So why does she think Air Canada hired her?
“Because I was 5’7″ – there was a height requirement back in the day,” laughed Cameron. “And also, because I had DC-3 time, which was considered heavy time back then!”
After 37 years at Air Canada, Cameron says she had “the best career in the world,” retiring as a Boeing 777 captain in 2015.
In the early years, she remembers a male captain commenting, “I’ve never flown with a female pilot before.”
“Neither have I,” she told him.
In 2015, Cameron was honoured as the recipient of the Flight Operations/Maintenance Award presented by the Northern Lights Aero Foundation (NLAF). When she learned more about the not-for-profit organization, which encourages young women to embark on aviation and aerospace careers, Cameron realized this was her chance to give back.
She began volunteering with NLAF in 2016, and today directs its fundraising efforts.
“The work is so important. Female pilots still represent only five or six per cent of airline pilots worldwide, and women still don’t consider it as a career . . . There is the misconception you can’t have a family,” continued Cameron, who has two daughters.
She especially loves spreading the word and educating young women about careers in aviation. Last year, she travelled to seven events to promote NLAF and its work.
In September 2019, Air Canada announced it was establishing the Captain Judy Cameron Scholarship, committing to award $20,000 per year for three years.
“The biggest honour of my life was having that scholarship at Air Canada named after me,” said Cameron, who recently renewed her private pilot licence. “We want to help women who may not be able to afford their flight training or their aircraft maintenance engineer training.
“I never thought of myself as a pioneer; I just discovered flying and absolutely loved it and wanted to pursue it wholeheartedly,” she concluded. “My single mother slept on the sofa in our one-bedroom apartment. We lacked material things, but she was incredibly strong and encouraged me to follow my dreams.
“This scholarship will help other women who might be held back for financial reasons.”