Karen Atherton: British Airways captain

Karen is only one of 27 British Airways captains qualified to carry out the challenging approach into London City Airport in an Airbus A318

I Get Paid For This…

One of only 27 British Airways captains who are qualified to carry out the challenging approach into London City Airport in an Airbus A318. Interview by Yayeri van Baarsen

How did you get into flying?
My first flight was a trial lesson, aged 18, on Southport Beach in a Cessna 150. I absolutely loved it and was hooked from then. I didn’t know if or how I could get into flying, but it sure started my passion for aviation.

Tell us about your job…
On a normal day, I’m either flying out of London City on our specially modified A318, which does a solely Club World (business class) service to New York JFK, or from Heathrow to a European or Middle East destination on one of the other Airbus aeroplanes. It’s fantastically rewarding because every day is different.

I’m able to fly both short- and long-haul and get to interact with different people. Dealing with varied weather conditions, making operational decisions, meeting important customers and seeing interesting places are all part of my job.

The best bits, apart from this variety, are the views and of course the flying. I enjoy the challenge of a strong crosswind landing, particularly when I achieve a smooth touchdown. The customers seem to appreciate it too!

At BA, we do a yearly technical exam, a route check every two years and simulator checks every six months, when we practise all emergency drills and are taught anything new. We’re constantly preparing for any possible scenario and everything is reported, even the tiniest things, so everyone can learn and improve. On demanding days with bad weather, I’m very glad to have had such fantastic training, both from the RAF and BA.

What training did you have?
During my maths degree I applied to the University Air Squadrons, the RAF Volunteer Reserve. It was the most amazing experience – I got to try low-level flying, formation and aerobatics, all with the best instructors. I was the first cadet in my Squadron year group to gain my wings.

Afterwards, I spent six months in a ‘normal’ job, as a trainee chartered accountant. I was so miserable at not being able to fly that, in the end, I left – much to the horror of my parents – and went to work at Doncaster Sheffield Airport. That enabled me to build up my flying hours so I could get my Basic CPL, start instructing, further increase my hours and finally obtain my CPL. The pay was terrible, but I was doing what I loved.

While accumulating flight hours, I wrote to nearly 30 airlines, looking for flying sponsorship or jobs. With roughly 10,000 applicants for 200 places, I felt very privileged when I was selected by BA for their sponsored Future Pilot Programme.

What’s been your favourite flight?
One of the most interesting is the steep approach into London City. We have an ILS with a 5.5° slope, which means it’s about twice the rate of descent compared to any other in our route network. The views over London are simply stunning.

On that flight, we have nice touches like the old Concorde call signs (Speedbird 1 and 2) and a gate at London City which is also a lounge, with a full-length glass wall looking out on to the aeroplane.

And your favourite airfield?
Glasgow, as I trained nearby at Prestwick. If the weather’s good, it’s an amazingly beautiful place.

Do you get to fly much outside work?
Yes, I have a share in a Robin DR.253 with my husband, who also flies for BA, on the Boeing 777. The Robin is hangared near our home, so on nice, sunny days I fly it from Pitsford, a short grass strip on a farm next to Pitsford Water reservoir, while refuelling, etc is done at Sywell Aerodrome. We’ve also flown it on holiday with our two boys, over some stunning scenery in Wales and Devon.

What do you do for fun?
Horse riding, which is my main hobby. On my days off I get my adrenaline rush from galloping or jumping on my horse, Scotty.

What’s the most valuable career advice you’ve received?
‘Be bold in what you stand for’, which I saw on a poster as a teenager. That advice gave me the fortitude to carry on trying to get into aviation, even when I didn’t know how I’d do it. It took a lot of time and striving to get my dream job, but it was well worth it.

Flying CV

Karen Atherton flies a modified Airbus A318 for BA, which has an EASA-certified steep approach system for landings at London City

Started work June 1990
Now flying Airbus A319/320/321 from Heathrow Airport, and the A318 from London City Airport
Favourite Airbus A318
Hours at job start 400
Hours now 10,000