10/31/1987: British Airways Recruits First Female Pilot

British Airways recruited Lynn Barton as the airline's first female Pilot today in 1987. This is her story.



October 31, 2023

DALLAS — Today in Aviation, British Airways (BA) recruited Lynn Barton as the first female Pilot due to her flying experience, placing her straight into long-haul operations. The year was 1987.

Barton's love for flying began after a flight on a light aircraft when she was just a child. Years later, she would take her first flying lesson at age 16.

According to a March 2020 BALPA report, since this was in the 1960s, Barton had no idea she could do this as a career. When she first qualified for the BA training scheme, Barton was still learning to fly while doing her A-levels in 1973.

At the time, BA did not allow applications from women before the UK's equal work legislation; regardless, Barton wanted to become an airline Pilot.

In the UK, equality between the sexes has been a principle of employment law since the 1970s, when the Equal Pay Act of 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 were introduced.

Photo courtesy: Amazon.com

Learning the Wires

Lynn Barton did not go to college because "there was no hope of flying in air squadrons in those days, and the military did not allow females to fly." Barton worked at a flying school, however, and realized that she should become a flying instructor, which she did in 1978. When BA began recruiting for its training school, she would be approved later that year.

Barton recalls, "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, Barton went back to instructing (BA had no jobs) and then worked for Air UK, with Dan-Air being her first jet flight. At the time, jobs were very scarce, but Dan-Air had the first female jet captain, and when I had an interview, she had just retired. When BA started recruiting in 1987, Barton was selected as the first female pilot for the airline.

According to Barton, at the time, "most trainers and managers were very pro-the recruitment of females and seemed to credit me with being better and harder-working because I was the first."

Photo: BALPA

A 20-Year Career at British Airways

Lynn Barton was 30 when she started flying on a BA Boeing 747. She worked alongside two other female Pilots, who flew smaller airplanes. According to the Daily Telegraph, within a year, 60 of the airline's three thousand Pilots were female. Barton became Captain in 1996. She retired in 2016.

In 2008, BA had around 170 female Pilots. A decade later, to mark International Women's Day, the airline organized the largest-ever all-female UK flight to showcase the female staff employed all over the airline. 61 women, covering security and baggage handling teams, Pilots, and Cabin Crew, took to the skies. A total of 204 women were on board the flight.

British Airways First Officers (FO) Rebecca Panther and Amie Kirkham talked to more than 100 students about seeking a career on the flight deck at a recent BA's Flying Futures event. The FOs invited the young attendees to BA's Waterside Head Office to learn about flight training and what it means to be a Pilot.

Out of the children attending, over 30% were female.


Hopeful for Gender Balance in Aviation

When Barton started flying in the 1970s, there were 3–5% of commercial Pilots were female. Commenting on 2020's female Pilot numbers, Barton said, "One of my disappointments is that I understand nowadays it’s still only 5-7%." Furthermore, according to the non-profit Sisters of the Skies (SOS), less than 1% of US Pilots are black women.

Lynn Barton remained hopeful that the airline industry would have more female Pilots in its ranks, stating, "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 from ruling themselves out."

"They have long acknowledged that having a gender-mixed workplace makes for a better workplace," Barton added.

According to IATA, sources show that only 5.1% of the world’s airline pilots are women (ISWAP), and women represent only about 26% of air traffic controllers, 18% of flight dispatchers, and less than 9% of aerospace engineers (Korn Ferry). To dig deeper, you can see the report from IATA Economics: Women's representation in aviation (March 2022).

IATA launched 25by2025, a commitment program that came to life to raise awareness of the need to improve female representation in the aviation industry. This voluntary initiative is an initial step toward making the aviation industry more gender-balanced.

Featured image: BALPA. Article sources: BALPA, the Daily Telegraph, the BBC, and British Airways