LETTERKENNY sisters Louise and Carol Gilroy are literally flying high in their respective careers in the aviation industry.
Both women work out of Dublin Airport, Louise as an Aer Lingus pilot and Carol as an air-traffic controller.
Twenty five years have passed since the then twenty-year-old Louise became the county’s first commercial pilot when she was presented with her ‘wings’ by Mr Seamus Brennan, the Minister for Tourism, Transport and Communications at a special ceremony.
Today, Louise and her husband Enda work as captains on Aer Lingus’s vast European network.
Just last week she flew members of the Irish Olympic squad from Dublin to Amsterdam where they got connecting flights on to Rio De Janerio.
“There have been huge changes in aircraft technology over the past twenty-five years,” she told the Donegal News this week.
“The A320s we operate today are easier to fly in some ways, yet they’re much more complex because of the increased levels of air traffic and aircraft systems. When I started out we relied more on our basic flying skills. There’s a lot more monitoring involved now but we don’t get as much practice in actual flying,” she said.
Louise developed an interest in flying from foreign school trips and family holidays. So, when the opportunity presented itself to join Aer Lingus while she was studying Aeronautical Engineering at Salford University in 1989, she jumped at the chance.
Louise joined the national airline in August 1989 and completed her 200 hours flying time on a single engine Cessna-150 and Piper Warrior, and the twin-engined Cessna-310. This was in addition to over 700 hours of ground school and behavioural training at the Air Service Training College in Perth. She returned to Dublin a year later and began training on the 737 200 series planes.
Today she flies the A320/21 fleets on the various Dublin-Europe routes.
Louise is joined by quite a few other Donegal pilots working for Aer Lingus, including Helena Mulroe (Mountcharles) and Don McNulty (Creeslough), both captains on A320s, Castlefin’s Fergal Crawford who flies the Atlantic route as well as Buncrana’s Aidan O’Donnell and Jason McLaughlin.
“I flew Dublin-London and other English destinations for a few years before spending a summer working in Turkey (Pegasus) when things were very slow in Aer Lingus and they gave me the opportunity to work overseas around 1995. When I came back, I took on a number of training roles, including that as a Simulator Instructor, before I became a captain in 2002 on the BAE 146, before moving on to the A320 family in 2006,” she said.
Today, Louise flies business jets as far east as Turkey and Bulgaria, south to the Canary Islands and north to Poland, Germany and France as well as many, many points in between.
Last year, she had the Italian rugby team on board while she’s also ferried a number of other very important customers, most notably her parents Cathal and Winnie who live in New Mills, between points A and B.
“I carry a mix of business and leisure passengers and sometimes you get a note sent up to you saying that such and such is on board. Unfortunately, since 9/11 access to the cockpit is prohibited although we still welcome visitors while we’re on the ground. “A lot of parents and children like to see what’s going on, especially at this time of year.”
Another occupational hazard can see Louise having to divert her plane to an alternative airport due to weather or, sometimes, a sick passenger.
“This summer has been very challenging with a lot of re-routing going on over French airspace. Generally, though, we spend no more than forty minutes on the ground before we’re back up in the air,” she said.
What? No more overnight stays in places like Zurich, Milan, Rome or Barcelona?
“Twenty five years ago you may have got the odd overnight here or there but nowadays we don’t tend to see the inside of an airport at all. We disembark and re-fuel for the journey home while we’re boarding. We try to have the doors sealed ten minutes before we’re due to go and spend a maximum of forty minutes on the ground,” she said.
The perks of an overnight remain in place on the Transatlantic route, but with two young daughters, Louise is more than happy to be flying closer to home.
“It’s exciting and always interesting and even though it’s still a job I would encourage anyone to pursue a career in aviation. There’s so many choices out there as Ireland is a big aviation hub,” she said.
Carol (McCafferty) followed her big sister’s lead and now works as Air Traffic Controller in the approach tower at Dublin Airport. Does that mean that Louise has to take instructions from her little sister?
“Quite often, but it’s good to have somebody you know guiding you safely home. I recognise her voice but there’s no time for small talk,” she laughed.
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