Sunday 23 November 2014

Insider life: Captain Elaine Egan, Aer Lingus pilot

Published 04/07/2014 | 02:30

Pictured is Elaine Egan, pilot with Aer Lingus, on board at Dublin airport. Photo: El Keegan
Pictured is Elaine Egan, pilot with Aer Lingus, on board at Dublin airport. Photo: El Keegan

“Because I have two young children — aged seven and nine — there’s no such thing as easing myself into the day. I don’t have a typical week. This week for instance - I’ve just come from a work medical, I’ve been over in Brussels training in a simulator for two days, and later in the week I’m flying to Chicago.

I’m on transatlantic flights for the most part, and it works for me. My husband Fergal is great, and we have a fantastic childminder who works around my roster. My children are at the age where they understand what I do, and it’s the only thing they’ve ever known. I’m around a lot for them as my work is condensed, though I might be tired and not the best company — my husband calls it ‘jet nag’!

In a month, I do six roundtrips to the US — New York, Chicago, Boston, Orlando or San Francisco. There is jetlag involved, and the longer the route, the more it affects you. But I get to see the sun above the clouds every time I go to work, no matter what the weather’s like in Dublin, and that’s a real privilege. When I arrive into a city I have about 24 hours rest there. I’ve been a captain for 16 years, having been a co- pilot for the previous 10 years — so I am conscious of looking after my health. You become really familiar with the cities, and go to your usual haunts for breakfast.

Pilots are passionate about flying and for most of us, it’s what we’ve wanted to do for a long time. I think in general, the industry wants more of a turnover but there’s a real sense of loyalty amongst staff in Aer Lingus.

If anything goes wrong on a flight, there is a chain of command but ultimately the buck stops with me. I don’t think too much about things going wrong: the only thing I’m aware of is flying the airplane to the best of my ability. I do think of the passengers’ comfort and welfare, of course, but if you thought about it too much you’d be a nervous wreck. You can’t possibly be thinking, ‘what if…?’ Statistically, aviation is the safest form of transport. There are instances where people become ill (mid-air) and you may need to divert, but it doesn’t happen very often.

The cockpit is quite compact, so after a number of hours of flying, you do get to know the person you’re flying with. You find out all about their families and lives… more so than your neighbours at home. You get to stretch your legs for about five minutes, but other than that there’s not much space.

From a very young age, I thought I wanted to be an air hostess. I met two pilots from Aer Lingus and told them that, and they asked why I didn’t want to be a pilot. I replied, ‘because I’m a girl!’, and they were like, ‘so…?’ So that got me thinking. I begged for a flying lesson as a birthday present from my Mam and Dad when I was 13. I’m sure they thought the lesson would be the end of it, but it wasn’t. I was fortunate that some amazing people have helped me in my career. I honestly can’t say I’ve met too much misogyny: for some generations I guess it’s a little alien to have a female in the cockpit.

It can be difficult to keep up with friends who don’t do shift work. My weekend could be a Monday and Tuesday. Often, it’s easier to catch up with friends in the mornings, when the children are in school. In general you kind of go around on your time off a bit tired; because of my flying schedule I miss out on one night’s sleep a week. But I’ve worked out a system whereby if it’s daylight hours where I am, I need to stay awake. It’s as simple as that. Every pilot has their own way of coping with it.

I don’t tend to watch TV, mainly because you can never follow anything when you’re away so much. My husband has his own business so we need to make more of an effort than couples who arrive home at the same time. Family time is high up on our list, and I like to fit in a run or the gym. When you’re fit, jetlag doesn’t hit you as much, and you just feel better in general. When you spend long periods of time sitting in the cockpit, exercise in the from a brisk walk at home or a run at a hotel gym — makes things a lot easier.”

As told to Tanya Sweeney

For flight information see www.aerlingus.com

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