Barbara Harmer (1953-2011)
PHOTO BY ADAM BUTLER/PA: Barbara Harmer, at age 39, the first woman civil supersonic pilot flew into the record books operating a British Airways Concorde.
It was March of 1993. Ready to take on a new challenge, a young, dignified woman stood before a thriving airline ready to make history. True, she did leave school early, however, one must never judge a book by its cover. She was ready to rise to the challenge and head on: to be the world’s first female pilot for the SST Concorde.
One must take a look into the history of Barbara Harmer to learn what a remarkable individual she was. It was to my unpleasant surprise to learn two weeks ago just that she had succumbed to cancer at fifty-seven. Even though it is a very young age, one must take a look at all of her accomplishments. By doing so, it will not take much to assess how much of an impact she has made in the commercial aviation industry.
Born on 14 September 1953 in Loughton, Essex, she grew up in Bognor Regis, a seaside resort on the south coast of the United Kingdom. She attended a convent school until the age of 15 until she took it upon herself to explore the possibility of becoming a hairdresser. Other things came to mind for her as she applied for an air traffic controller position at London’s Gatwick Airport.
During her time as a controller for London-Gatwick, she decided to pursue other schooling with the intentions of obtaining a law degree. Amongst her studies were Geography, Law, and Politics. With all of this on her plate, she also decided to start taking flight lessons at Goodwood Flight School in Westhampnett, West Sussex. It was May of 1982 when Harmer obtained her commercial pilot’s license. Having submitted over one hundred applications, she found her first home with Genair, a small transport airline out of Humberside Airport in Kirmington.
Her breakthrough in the industry came in March of 1984 when British Caledonian asked her to join their team flying BAC 1-11s and then transferring over to the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 long-haul. Everything changed when British Caledonian merged with British Airways to which she became one of the 60 female pilots out of the 3,000 male/female total post merger. It was 1987 when she was asked to join the Concorde program by undergoing an intense six month conversion course. She would be the first female pilot operating Concorde under commercial service as a First Officer. (The first female Concorde test pilot was French aviatrix Jacqueline Auriol.)
On 25 March 1993, Harmer made her debut across the Atlantic from London’s Heathrow to New York’s John F. Kennedy. Harmer was the first of the two commercial female Concorde pilots as French aviatrix Béatrice Vialle, came aboard with Air France as a First Officer in 2001. Harmer had served as a Concorde pilot for ten years before it’s final flight; Vialle made thrity-five trips before Air France withdrawaled their fleet from service in May of 2003.
After the Concorde chapter closed, Harmer took on a new role: a Boeing Triple Seven Captain. She flew long-haul operations until taking a voluntary redundancy from the airline in 2009.
What is most amazing about her: She had so much more to offer our world besides taking to the skies. She was a yacht-master who had taken to the waters and competed in many competitions winning several of them. She also was heavily involved in gardening creating a beautiful Mediterranean garden outside her home in Felpham, West Sussex.
Lastly and sadly, she was scheduled to compete in a trans-Atlantic yacht event in 2013, however, she passed away from cancer at St. Wilfrid’s Hospice Facility on 20 February 2011.
For those who knew her, I envy you because you had this special person in your life: as a family member, co-worker, friend, etc. The more I research this amazing aviatrix the more I am amazed. She has climbed so many levels in such a short period of time and at record speeds. She took her love of air and sea and molded it into such a creation that is a reflection of the committed service she provided to her airline and the aircraft that she flew – so uncanny, so surreal, in so many outstanding ways.
I normally wouldn’t include someone who is deceased into the “Pilots On Deck” section, however, Barbara is an exception. Why? Because no matter which aircraft, flight deck, or cabin we enter, Barbara’s legacy will be there joining us to climb higher and higher with us setting record speeds no matter what our dreams and aspirations are.
Cheers to you, Captain Barbara!
(Please visit The Memorial Ride to find out more how Barbara was an inspiration to her loved ones and to donate to St. Wilfrid’s Hospice Facility.)