By Lena Basha
Volume 141, Number 6, November/December 2007, Page 4
As a high-school senior in the small copper-mining town of Superior, Ariz., Jacque Smith Burdette saw a picture of a woman air-traffic controller on the front of a Navy brochure and immediately knew what she wanted to do with her life. But her journey to the top-as one of the most celebrated women in aviation today-wasn't a smooth ride. Though she started her career when there weren't many women in air-traffic control, especially ones in positions of power, that never stopped her.
After a three-year enlistment in the Navy at California's Alameda Naval Air Station, Mrs. Burdette, then a newlywed, took a break from air-traffic control to start a family. While she loved raising her three sons and two stepchildren, she missed her job. "I used to stand out in the backyard and watch Navy jets coming in for landing and dream about being back in a control tower talking to airplanes," she recalls.
She returned to air-traffic control in 1968, working for the Federal Aviation Administration (then an agency) as a radar controller at the Los Angeles Air Traffic Control Center. Being a woman in a male-dominated field was already tough, but after she and her husband divorced in 1967, she also had to handle the stress of working full-time as a single mother.
"Life was challenging enough, but constantly having to prove myself at work made it that much harder," she says. "I'd hear, 'She got that job because she was a woman.' It would hurt, but it made me stronger."
As more women joined the aviation field, Mrs. Burdette realized that she and her fellow female controllers needed support. In 1979, she cofounded the Professional Women Controllers, which today boasts more than 500 members.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Burdette continued to break down the gender barriers at the FAA, becoming the first woman facility manager in 1982, which took her to New Hampshire. Another cross-country move happened in 1984 when Mrs. Burdette was named division manager of the western/Pacific region, making her responsible for air-traffic services in Arizona, Nevada, California, Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa. "I had about 3,400 employees under me," she recalls. "I loved this job and traveled millions of miles doing it."
Mrs. Burdette rounded out the last years of her career in aviation-and became another female first-as the Regional Administrator in Alaska. It was a slower-paced job, she says, but it was an experience of a lifetime. "I learned to eat moose, caribou, bear, halibut and salmon many different ways," she says.
Photo by Karie Hamilton