Airline pilot, student, Royal Roads award winner

December 2, 2020
Noreen Newton flying an airplane
“It’s a constant push, a constant push to get women’s voices heard and I think they’re really important voices to be added to the conversation.”

“I’ve always been in school.”

Noreen Newton is describing her life and career, a career that has seen her fly millions of kilometres as a commercial airline pilot for almost four decades, and she is not exaggerating about her education and her love for learning.

She was just 19 in 1978 — the self-described “blackest sheep” in her family of seven children in Victoria, BC — when she took her first flying lesson. “And it was something that spoke to me, it really spoke to me,” she said.

In just over two years, the daughter of part-time flight instructor (Basil Newton, former Royal Air Force pilot) was a flight instructor herself and, three years after that, in 1983, she was running a flight school for a company that operated a large fleet of charter aircraft.

And all that time, Newton was learning, upgrading, networking.

In 1979, for instance, she spoke to the Royal Canadian Air Force, which had just begun training women as pilots, about flying. And while she never signed on — the RCAF was only taking applications from women who were already in the military — she did go back to school to upgrade her physics and math education.

Even as a commercial pilot with Jazz Aviation and its predecessors for the last 33 years, she was always studying, even if it was just taking a French course.

“Because the [aviation] industry is so cyclical, I always thought I had to have a backup plan,” said Newton, a Victoria resident and the mother of two adult sons — one of whom is a pilot.

But her education efforts really took off when, at the age of 50 and with well-polished captain’s wings, she enrolled at Royal Roads University with the aim of earning an undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication. And if that weren’t enough, at 60 — just two years ago — she again enrolled at Royal Roads, this time working toward what would become a Master of Arts in Professional Communication.

Her master's thesis, titled “Equal Space on the Flight Deck: Challenging the Myth of the Professional Pilot,” involved speaking to other female pilots about their experiences in aviation and their thoughts about how their unique qualities and leadership styles could be better used in their industry.

“What is problematic from an organizational perspective and a safety perspective is that women don’t speak out because they need the paycheque,” she said, admitting there were times in her career when she, too, held her tongue.

“It’s a constant push, a constant push to get women’s voices heard and I think they’re really important voices to be added to the conversation.”

For sharing those voices in her final project, Newton was honoured this year with Royal Roads’ Michael Real Award, which recognizes a thesis or research study that demonstrates excellence of scholarship in either written or non-traditional form.

But it’s another honour that brings her even greater pride. The university also bestowed upon Newton the Ted Wilson Memorial Award for Lifelong Learning.

Her thesis advisor, Virginia McKendry, an associate professor in Royal Roads’ School of Communication and Culture, said the award went to the right person.

“Super curious,” McKendry said when asked about her former student. “You can feel the curiosity. She’s wide open and hungry for knowledge and she loves learning.”

She also noted Newton’s “notable humility,” saying her willingness to ask questions and admit she didn’t know things set an example for other students.

“She brought a burning question about a real-world problem into our midst,” McKendry said. “She came to us to make change.”