Judy Cameron: The Sky Really Is The Limit
When Judy Cameron’s mom told her she could grow up to do anything she wanted, she believed her. So, at just 23 years old, Cameron became the first female pilot hired by Air Canada. She’s had an amazing 37-year career, logging more than 23,000 hours in planes, such as the Lockheed 1011, DC-3 and the Airbus 320, and she is the first female captain in Canada of the Boeing 777 (her favourite). Her mom, the wind beneath her own wings, was Cameron’s first passenger in a small plane — and always her biggest fan.
A little encouragement goes a long way. “My mom brought me up to think I could be anything I wanted to be,” says Judy Cameron. That’s not a big deal now, because girls hear it all the time, but in the ’50s and ’60s when Cameron was a child, it wasn’t the norm, especially as the daughter of a single mom. So, when Cameron came home and said she wanted to be a pilot, her mom was all in.
It wasn’t a straight flight path for Cameron, though. “It was a total fluke,” she says. She had no science background and she wasn’t interested in aviation until after her first year of university, where she had enrolled in an arts program. That summer, she was hired to interview pilots for Transport Canada, and one of them offered to take her for a flight. He started showing off. “He did all sorts of things you don’t do on a first flight,” she says. “We did some aerobatics, shall we say, like watching a pencil float from the front of the airplane to the back,” she says. “I remember just hanging onto the seat and screaming in delight,” she laughs.
Cameron came off the plane and wanted to know how one becomes a pilot. When she found out how expensive it was and that the best way would be to have someone else pay you to do it, she wanted to make it happen. In a few weeks, she applied to the aviation program at Selkirk College in Castelgar, B.C., and was accepted. In fact, Cameron rode her motorcycle for eight hours to check out the school, which probably impressed the program director, she adds, who also had a motorcycle (she had to sell her bike to help pay for school, but her mom was proud to be Cameron’s first passenger in a small plane).
Cameron had to move fast. She didn’t have the prerequisites or any of the background normally required. She had to study Grade 12 math at summer school just to get into the college. And that’s one thing she tells young people now. “If you’re not 100 per cent sure you have a burning desire to do something, you should always leave your options open.”
Cameron was the only girl in the program, and she felt like a bit of an outsider. “I was an oddity, plus it was quite competitive,” she adds. The program started with about 30 students, and 20 of them graduated. “I didn’t have a Plan B — I didn’t think of any other option,” she says.
In 1978, Air Canada hired Judy Cameron as its first female pilot. She felt as if she had won the lottery. But remember, this was the late ’70s. Flight attendants would say there was a lot of reaction when passengers realized the pilot was a female. Still, most of the comments were positive, she adds, especially the ones from older women, comments like “Good for you, girl.”
During her 40-year career, Cameron has logged more than 23,000 hours in planes like the DC-3, Twin Otter, DC-9, Boeing 767 and Boeing 777, flying to most major Canadian and American cities and to exotic locations, like Beijing, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, London, Rome and Madrid. It sounds so glam, but it wasn’t always easy. When her marriage ended in divorce, her kids were three and eight years old. “It was hard because I was a single mom for quite a period of time,” she says. Her mom helped, and Cameron also points out that since she had a good income, she was able to afford decent child care. And like so many working moms, Cameron worked around schedules, so she could be around for holidays and important events in her children’s lives. “Instead of doing the fun overseas flying or the three-day layover somewhere exciting, I would just do [daily] turnarounds,” she says. “Once the children were older, it was fantastic to start travelling and going to places overseas.”
Cameron is happily retired now. Still, she misses parts of the job: the takeoffs, the landings and the people. “It was a lot of fun, because you’d be flying with different people every flight,” she says. “And I miss going to those destinations and having a prepaid hotel waiting for me.”
Her life is different now, but she walks in her mom’s footsteps, inspiring other women to do whatever they want. She volunteers with the Northern Lights Aero Foundation, which encourages women in aviation and aerospace with an annual award event that is the “Oscars” for Canadian women in aviation. In fact, it was the Ninety-Nines (an organization of women pilots founded in 1929, who elected Amelia Earhart as its first president) who started the foundation. About six years ago, Cameron received one of the organization’s greatest honours: she was awarded the Elsie MacGill Northern Lights Award in the Flight Operations category and was chosen by the Ninety-Nines to be on its Canadian postage stamp in 2016. “I had some fun mailing Christmas cards that year,” she says. As well, to honour Cameron and help the next generation of women, Air Canada offers a scholarship in her name, which will continue for another three years.
“It Was A Lot Of Fun, Because You’d Be Flying With Different People Every Flight”
Now, Cameron gets to spend time doing the things she enjoys. “Through COVID-19, I kept my sanity by cycling or hiking with a small group of women,” she says. Her mom, now 97, was living with Cameron and her husband, also a retired pilot, for the first 14 months of the pandemic (she is back at her residence now). She likes to listen to her one daughter (Kristy), a radio host, and she enjoys taking her other daughter’s (Carolyn), yoga classes once a week via Zoom. And, through her husband, she has eight grandchildren, so it’s a pretty full life.
Asked what la dolce vita means to her, Cameron doesn’t hesitate. “I guess it would be flying a Triple Seven [Boeing 777] to Rome, sitting on a patio, enjoying amazing pizza and gelato with good company — perhaps if I brought one of my daughters or my husband,” she laughs.
Interview by Estelle Zentil