Flying the Pope to Ireland my proudest moment, says pilot
Published 01/11/2010 | 05:00
He whisked Taoisigh and Hollywood sirens around the world but Captain Thomas McKeown's proudest moment as a pilot was bringing Pope John Paul II to Ireland.
Yesterday, Capt McKeown celebrated his 90th birthday, the latest highlight in a glittering life and career.
Many of the old photographs from his time in the cockpit were dusted down.
They show Capt McKeown, the former Aer Lingus chief training captain, flying key figures such as former Taoisigh Jack Lynch and Eamon de Valera, Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid and actresses Maureen O'Hara and Grace Kelly.
But it is the memory of commanding the papal flight from Rome to Dublin on September 29, 1979, that stands out -- just a month before he retired.
"As I approached the Phoenix Park, you could see the crowds," Capt McKeown said yesterday.
"It was a beautiful morning and the Pope could look out and see the huge number of people who had gathered to see him, and I think he was really pleased about this."
During the flight from Italy, in the comfort of his private cabin, Pope John Paul II dined at a table adorned with freshly-cut red roses where he enjoyed a plate of pudding and grilled tomato served up on Galway bone china.
After breakfast, the Pontiff then entered the cockpit and briefly chatted with Capt McKeown and the rest of the crew.
A report from that historic day in 1979 recalls "thousands of faithful waving white handkerchiefs" as the shamrock green and blue jumbo jet dropped to 2,500ft and flew over the packed Phoenix Park where a million people waited for the Pontiff to arrive to say Mass.
During his career as a 747 captain, Capt McKeown crossed the Atlantic more than 1,000 times.
The Dublin-born pilot learnt his trade after being accepted as a cadet into the Air Corps in the late 1930s.
"Seven years as a military pilot, a period of tremendous excitement covering the war years," he said.
"The flying standards were very exacting and thorough in an atmosphere of great espirit de corps. We flew a great variety of aircraft types ranging from Army Air Corps Hawker Hector up to the Hawker Hurricane Fighters, frontline aircraft in the early years of World War Two.
"We had many different military duties, including cutting turf in Doonbeg, Co Clare, in the early 1940s. We were prepared and trained to defend our neutrality. It is deplorable that the military aircraft were not preserved for further generations to see, because they were certainly milestones in the history of our State."
He went on to join fledgling airline Aer Lingus in May 1945.
"My first flight as a captain had such esteemed passengers as Eamon de Valera and Henry Ford," he recalled.
Capt McKeown worked with St Vincent de Paul after he reluctantly retired in 1979 from the airline as was mandatory before he turned 60.
Yesterday, family and friends helped celebrate his birthday at Roganstown Hotel, near Swords in north Dublin.