In the Face of Rampant Sexism, Aviation Pioneer Beverly Burns Conquered the Odds in a Male-Dominated Industry

Beverly Burns (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Beverly Burns (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

It was early in her career that Beverly Burns heard the words that would cement her fate as pilot: “Women are just not smart enough to do this job.” The speaker was a first officer of American Airlines and his audience was a group of fellow crew members, gathered for a casual conversation in between flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Burns, a young flight attendant among the group that day, recalled, “I knew as soon as the words came out of his mouth…that I wanted to be an airline captain immediately.”  

That Burns would eventually achieve her goal in the face of the rampant sexism of the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. airline industry and become not only a captain, but also the first female pilot to helm a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, is a testament to a unique and extraordinary drive and perseverance.

Beverly Burns was born on August 15, 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland. From her early years, her family expected her to follow a typical route of marriage and subsequent reliance on a bread-winning husband; however, Burns' passion for airplanes led her toward other aspirations. During her high school years she had made up her mind to work in the travel industry, prompting her school counselor to recommend to her a career as a flight attendant. 

In 1971, Burns took her guidance counselor's advice and embarked on a career in flight -- working for seven years as a stewardess for American Airlines while enrolling in flight school at Hinson Airways, located at Baltimore Washington International Airport. From the very beginning of her flight school training she encountered problems and went through eight different instructors before she finally found one that she felt took her seriously--Robert Burns, Hinson’s lead instructor who would eventually become hers husband. Robert Burns was predisposed to be sympathetic to the plight of aspiring female aviators; he had been taught to fly by a former member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who had flown in service to their country during World War II but once disbanded, were thereafter excluded from airline service. The former WASP urged him that if he ever found a woman pilot he thought was ready for the opportunity, he should try to get her on board an airline. Without hesitation, Robert Burns agreed.

Although Beverly Burns earned her flying certificate, Hinson demurred at bringing her on as a pilot until Robert Burns intervened and secured her a place as his co-pilot on a string of flights, finally satisfying the airline as to her proficiency and earning her a spot on their professional roster.  

The world that Burns hoped to break into as a pilot at the end of the start of the 1980s was a boys' club that no doubt seemed exasperatingly exclusive to any would-be aviatrix. Female pilots were restricted from using the public address system to address passengers because of the fear that it might unsettle clients. Peggy Chabrian, then-president of Women in Aviation International and former dean of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University remembers the 1980s as a decade in which some passengers would indeed walk off of aaircraft if they learned their pilot was a woman.

Despite a spike in female pilot recruitment that remains unparalleled even today (in 1980, one in 4,224 pilots was a woman, today the number is closer to one in 5,623), the male pilot who Burns once heard refer to women as “too small, too weak, and not intelligent enough,” was representative of a persistent opinion within both the industry and the general public. Other problems also awaited women who commanded planes, as Burns found out when she was fired from one corporate flight job after a businessman’s wife was displeased at the idea of a pretty, young pilot joining her husband on trips.

Still, Burns pressed forward, accruing flight hours and experience as well as graduating to larger planes. By 1981, after a short stint as a captain at Allegheny Commuter she accepted a job at People Express, alternating an unusual schedule of duties as a flight attendant, gate agent, baggage handler, dispatcher, and avionics trainer as well as line captain.  Her record-breaking Boeing 747 flight from Newark to Los Angeles occurred in 1984 and earned her an Amelia Earhart Award.

For many years after, Beverly Burns continued to demonstrate the capability and ambition that allowed her to excel in her field. In 2001, she assumed the captain’s seat in a Boeing 777 with Continental Airlines, becoming the first female Continental captain to fly the large and sophisticated aircraft (by this time People Express had been absorbed into the larger Continental). A year later, on a flight that Burns piloted out of Hong Kong, the plane’s floor began to vibrate violently at the onset of the journey, causing her three alarmed co-pilots to request a swift return to the city that they had just left. Burns kept a cool head and succeeded in keeping the flight on track, helping the crew pinpoint the source of the problem, and designing an effective solution.

Toward the end of her career, Burns expressed her resolute love of flying while voicing her takeaway from a long experience in the sky: “All good pilots have some fear in them. That’s what makes them good pilots. It’s that knowledge that you have a vehicle that your operating and if you don’t operate it right, you can kill yourself- just like in a car.”

When she retired in 2008, Burns had clocked 25,000 hours in flight and operated a series of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas aircraft across the world. With her early aspirations fulfilled and considerable challenges surmounted, Beverly Burns finally settled into a permanent life on the ground, with another future goal in sight. In the absence of a significant amount of recorded female stories and achievements, the pilot and former stewardess has announced that she plans to publish a book about her life, adding that, “We need to write our own histories."