The sky's no limit for Qantas 767 fleet captain Georgina Sutton

Captain Georgina Sutton vividly remembers the day, nearly 25 years ago, when she received a life-changing phone call from Qantas Airways, where she had lodged an application to be a pilot. She was in Port Augusta, South Australia, where she was piloting a Cessna 421 for a small regional airline, and the flight was delayed.

"It was pre-mobile phones, and I got a message to ring Qantas," Ms Sutton said. "I remember I came out and said [to the passengers afterwards], 'We are still delayed, but I've got a job with Qantas on the 747-400', which hadn't been introduced at that stage. It was a very exciting time."

She was hired in May 1989 to become a Sydney-based second officer on the jumbo jet, just five years after Qantas hired its first-ever female pilot and a decade after Ansett hired Deborah Lawrie as the first female pilot for a major Australian airline in 1979.

Ms Sutton, a 52-year-old keen waterskier, has now been promoted to the role of a Qantas 767 fleet captain. She oversees about 180 pilots, only 13 of whom are female. It is the highest position a female pilot has achieved at a major Australian airline.

Her promotion comes at a time when the direct reports to the chief executives at Qantas and Virgin Australia Holdings are 37.5 per cent and 50 per cent female respectively. But 35 years after Ms Lawrie, now a Tigerair Australia line training captain, joined Ansett, piloting remains a stubbornly male-dominated field.

"I think the women pilots within Qantas are very thrilled that I've been appointed to this role," Ms Sutton said. "I think it is also a very positive position for me to be in to act as a role model for them. It is something they can aspire to."

Qantas has 3784 pilots, of whom only 4.5 per cent are female. At Virgin, 4.9 per cent of the 1599 pilots are women, and at Tigerair, women account for 7.7 per cent of the 155 pilots. The figures at some individual divisions are higher. At regional carrier QantasLink, where many younger pilots go to get their foot in the door with the airline, 9.3 per cent are female, and Virgin's recent group of cadet pilots was 50 per cent female.

Groups such as Aviation/Aerospace and the Australian Women Pilots Association encourage more young women to consider aviation as a career.

AWPA national president Jennifer Graham, who has held a private pilot's licence for more than 40 years, said the association has 540 members.


"Women are more than capable of standing on their own two feet, setting goals and achieving them, in this case achieving the various licences and endorsements and ratings as pilots," she said. "But as women, I believe they are more open to utilising any opportunities available, such as networking with their peers, but this is on an individual basis."

Ms Sutton, who has addressed school career nights and the Scout Flying Club to encourage aviation careers, said she had known she was interested in aviation at a young age, despite a lack of any family members in the profession. She started by building model aircraft and hanging them from her four-poster bed.

After a glider flight at age 16 in her home town of Adelaide, she was hooked: "I just completely fell in love with soaring above the River Murray with pelicans and eagles without the sound of a motor - it was fantastic."

She earned a glider licence and eventually a power licence as part of the Scout Flying Club, and joined the South Australia Police to fund her commercial pilot's licence.

Ms Sutton said the experience in the police force, in another non-traditional role for a woman at the time, assisted her once she joined Qantas after spending a few years working with smaller airlines in regional areas such as Port Augusta.

At Qantas, one of the early highlights in her career was flying the Queen from London to Singapore in 1992 when she was a first officer on a 747-400, alongside one of her mentors.

"He was terrific to fly with and I'll never forget him saying, 'We're flying the Queen of England but we don't fly the airplane any differently because we'll fly to our standard operating procedures,"' she said. "And he was absolutely right, because the standard operating procedures are the backbone of any flying operation that pilots adhere to."

As the Sydney-based 767 fleet captain, Ms Sutton is responsible for making sure those procedures are adhered to as she oversees 13 aircraft and associated personnel, serving as the conduit between the pilots and senior management.

She spends a third of her working hours in the air, and the rest on management duties.

Ms Sutton is helping manage the transition of pilots to new types of aircraft and has not decided what her next role within the group could be and whether it will involve more or less air time.