(CNN) – Cat Burton grew up fascinated with airplanes, an interest first nurtured by her pilot father, who flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force and later with the Welsh airline Cambrian Airways.
Cambrian, part of British Airways, later sponsored Wales-born Burton to learn to fly in 1971.
Shortly thereafter, Burton was a qualified aviator operating Vickers Viscount aircraft across the UK.
When British Airways acquired Cambrian in 1974, Burton embarked on a lofty career with the British airline that would span four decades.
“I’ve flown all sorts of Boeings with British Airways: 737, 747, 757, 777 and retired as a captain in 2017,” Burton told CNN Travel.
Your favorite plane? The 747. There is a reason, she says, why she is called “the queen of the skies”.
“I had the privilege of being the first copilot to fly the 747-400 on British Airways. I fell in love with the plane, everything about it.”
When Burton retired at age 65, she was British Airways’ oldest female pilot.
The last few years of her BA career have been some of her proudest. She had started going to school to encourage young women to consider aviation careers and to take science, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. She worked with the British Airways diversity team. She was the STEM coordinator for the British Women Pilots’ Association.
And Burton finally flew as herself. At 58, she’d come out as a transsexual.
“My transition came very late in life,” says Burton. “Flying in the ’70s was probably seen as a macho job. It was one of those jobs where someone who was transgender could camouflage it, not just from the rest of the world, but often from themselves.”
Burton says she “bottled” her gender identity as a teenager. It wasn’t until her late 50s, when she was grounded by the Civil Aviation Administration for a few months because of some heart problem, that Burton hugged the real self.
She made the decision that Cat would return when she went back to work.
“Coming out is one of those irrevocable things, you can’t go back in,” says Burton. “I always compare it to stepping off a cliff in pitch dark.”
British Airways was “absolutely exemplary” in Burton’s words. The airline, says Burton, not only supported them, they were proud of them.
But she still wasn’t sure how her colleagues would react. You never know how even your oldest friends might react when you get out.
But that cliff she stepped off turned out to be “only two inches high”.
“People use the word brave, but it’s not brave. Coming out in these circumstances is life-saving. It is that or there is no life,” says Burton. “So there was no bravery. Still, it was a step into the dark.”
Cat Burton teaches young people how to pilot airplanes at Eros Flight Training in Cardiff, Wales.
Courtesy Cat Burton
When Burton returned to working as a Cat, British Airways sent an official notice to the pilots on its list. Burton decided to post, openly write, and post her own post on her transition on a British Airways message board.
“Within a week, this post had 2,000 replies and 10,000 views,” says Burton. “Most of it was supportive. Some of it was so supportive that I cried.”
There were, she says, “a lot of good-natured jokes” from colleagues, but the joke was nice.
“They can tell the difference between someone laughing at you and laughing with you,” she says.
When Burton published UK newspaper The Independent on the 2014 Rainbow List, a list of influential LGBTQ + Britons, on Sunday, the British Airways press team congratulated them on Twitter and Burton’s story was published.
“It’s not brave. Coming out under these circumstances is life saving. It is that or there is no life. “
Cat Burton, pilot
Years later and after retirement, Burton continued to inspire young people through her work as a flight instructor at Eros Flight Training in Cardiff. They spend their days doing everything from trial lessons to pilot qualifications.
And she continued her STEM work while attending school, along with other contacts related to diversity and aviation.
“Not only was flying a job for the boys, it was always a job for straight white male cisgender boys,” says Burton. Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity matches the sex assigned to them at birth.
“It wasn’t that long ago that a trans woman had a complete career breaker.”
Burton remembers a friend who joined a small UK airline as a pilot in the late 1980s.
“Within three months, she had been bullied out of work by colleagues who just didn’t want to fly with her,” says Burton.
Times have changed, however, and the UK’s 2010 Equality Act now protects against discrimination in the workplace.
“Pretty much all the airlines I know now either have a transgender pilot who has changed jobs or they have even hired a transgender pilot from scratch,” says Burton.
But there is still progress, says Burton.
“It was armed by people who, ideally, would like to see transgender people disappear,” says Burton. “They see transgender people as a problem. While who we are is only part of society. We are just ourselves.”
On Burton’s last flight with British Airways before she retired, her plane received a water salute in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
Courtesy Cat Burton
Burton, head of the Cardiff-based charity Race Equality First, also addresses the issue of race inequality in aviation.
“There are as many reasons for advocating racial diversity on the flight deck as there are gender on the flight deck,” she says.
Burton points to issues related to the high cost of pilot training as a barrier to entry – and advocates positive action and scholarships as possible solutions, as well as greater representation.
She also admits that working in a white, male-dominated industry is not always easy for minority pilots.
“I think I have a unique perspective on the male-female interface on a flight deck,” says Burton.
“I always saw myself as very on the side of my younger co-pilots when I flew in my old gender role. And when I look back, with my new eyes, if you will, my new perspective, what I was actually not supportive of, it was paternalistic. And I didn’t even notice it. I didn’t realize it. But now I do. “
While working with British Airways’ diversity team, Burton said the airline “had a large number of young women complaining about the behavior of older – especially older – male pilots on the flight deck”.
The goal, she said, was always to get the male pilots to remember that their behavior, while well-intentioned, is perceived as patronizing.
But Burton says younger pilots are more open-minded, and she hopes these issues will be a thing of the past when the pilot demographics get younger.
Labels and components
Burton prides itself on being a trans woman. But she also prides itself on being an experienced and accomplished pilot.
As she talks about her life, she points out that all human beings are made up of many different components – and no component dwarfs the others.
“My labels are Cat, I like to accept that as a label and the other label is human.
Everything else is an ingredient: woman, transgender story, pilot, veteran British Airways captain, flight instructor. All of these things are what make Cat. “