independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

I'm Davina, come fly with me

Davina Pratt used to wear a long coat to hide her pilot's uniform as she waited at the bus stop in Drumcondra on her way to work.

She prayed no-one would catch a glimpse of her Aer Lingus colours and start asking awkward questions about why someone who would be flying a 737 across Europe a couple of hours later was waiting for a double decker in the cold.

"I was mortified," she recalls, "in case I had to explain to anyone that I didn't know how to drive."

That was more than a decade ago, and since then, the 38-year-old from Cavan has risen through the ranks of Aer Lingus to become the airline's first female chief pilot. She has also learned to drive, but says, "I still find flying easier".

Breezing through the corridors of the airline's headquarters at Dublin Airport, she has the air of a spirited tomboy, smiling magnetically and cracking jokes as she flicks her blonde hair casually off her cheek.

Her easy manner would steady the nerves of the edgiest flier, but she acknowledges that, even today, anxious passengers often take a tighter grip on their armrests when they hear the words: "Hello, this is your Captain Davina speaking.".

"You get it all the time," she says.

"Even in 2008, there are still people who react when they hear a woman's voice coming out of the cockpit. On my first flight in command of a Boeing 146, I was with my colleague Denise Murphy. The dispatchers walked in and said, 'Wow, two women at the controls'.

"We just laughed it off and said, 'aren't you lucky?'"

Today, the accomplished pilot -- who hadn't seen the inside of a plane until her first flying lesson -- is in charge of all 530 pilots who fly for Aer Lingus, just 40 of them women. She is also the first female commander-in-chief of a commercial airline in the world.

Early interest Her meteoric rise to the top flying job in Irish aviation is remarkable, given that there is no history of flying in her family. But as a little girl, she watched her father, a mechanic, tinkering in the garage of their rural home, and developed an insatiable interest in how things work.

"I was always going around fixing bikes and cars," she says.

"I was very technically-minded. At school when I had to write an English essay of so many words, I would sit down and count every single one of them until I reached the required amount."

The eldest of five, Davina was sent to a tiny boarding school, Wilson's Hospital in Multyfarnham, in the neighbouring county of Westmeath.

"I was shipped off at the age of 11. People talk about boarding school in a bad light but I absolutely loved it. I wasn't forced to go. It was a small school run by the Church of Ireland. There were only about 250 people in it, so it was a very homely place.

"It opened so many avenues for me, but the biggest one was sport. I played sport every five-minute break I had -- hockey, tennis, cricket; I always had a bat and a ball in my hand. We had a pool so I swam a lot too. There wasn't much else to do."

But one day, during career guidance, the seeds of interest in aviation were sown.

"The subject of flying came up. Even though I'd never been in a plane before and knew nothing about it, I remember thinking, 'maybe that's something I could do'.

"But when I asked about it, I was told it was more of a boys' thing so I never really thought about it again, until I went to college."

Davina went on to study computer science in Dublin's Institute of Technology. There, during her third year, she spotted an ad on a corridor wall that would change the course of her life. Aer Lingus were recruiting cadets for pilot training. She decided to try her luck.

"I remember filling the form in at my weekend job in Killeshandra Co-op. There were pages and pages of it. Thousands of people applied so I didn't really fancy my chances, but I thought I'd give it a go."

She was called for an interview, got through that, and a second -- and then came the cruncher.

"The third interview was a group session. There were seven guys sitting around the table, the interviewer -- and me.

"A topic was thrown into the pot that we had to discuss as a team. It was just one question: should Aer Lingus buy Airbus aircraft?

"Nowadays, we only fly Airbus planes but at the time they were brand new. I knew very little about them but the guys at the table had all the facts and figures from the seat dimensions to the size of the hold.

"I knew I couldn't match that so I took a step back from it. But they started losing the plot so I stepped back in and started to steer the process. I think women have an ability to do that. A few days later, I got a call saying the job was mine."

In the winter of 1991, she was sent to the Scottish town of Perth to an aviation college where Aer Lingus trained its pilots at the time.

After just eight hours in the air, she was ready to take control of a plane on her own -- though the moment came a little earlier than expected.

"It was a lovely day and I was with my instructor in a Cessna 152. We had just landed and he turned to me and said, 'Right I'm off. You're going solo'.

"He said: 'Go up, do a quick circle, come back down and I'll buy you a pint of Guinness'. And with that he got out and wandered across the airfield.

"I looked behind me and there was a queue forming, so I knew I had to move. I got up into the air and thought, 'how am I going to get down?' But I did. And that was it. I can't describe the excitement and the adrenalin of that day. It was certainly the best pint of Guinness I ever had."

At the age of 30, Davina earned her fourth stripe and became a captain. She became involved in pilot training and moved up the ranks of her profession, eventually earning the title of fleet captain.

A year ago, the position of chief pilot came up and, amid intense competition against all male colleagues, she got the job.

Equal treatment

"I joined aviation knowing it was a career dominated my men. It's a bit like a man going into nursing; you know that's the way it is. From day one, I recognised that fact.

"I've just mucked in and got on with it. I'm not a feminist by any means -- I don't see people in terms of men or women. And, in Aer Lingus, I've never been treated as anything other than a pilot."

During her 16 years as a pilot, flying has changed dramatically, not least as a result of the events of September 11, 2001.

"It was a horrendous day for everyone," she recalls.

"Even though we will never forget it, we certainly don't like to remember it. I was in Shannon. I had just walked into the hotel and everyone was staring at the TV in disbelief.

"As pilots, it has changed our lives. We went from a situation where we had such an open cockpit to having a heavy locked door with cameras on either side. In the beginning, people were watching other passengers and comments were coming down to us about people acting suspiciously.

"Today, our contact with the general public is reduced. I used to love bringing kids into the cockpit. That whole aspect of the job is gone."

She accepts that in the aftermath of 9/11, flying has become more stressful not only for passengers but also flight crew.

"The most frustrating part for pilots is the delays, sitting on the ground waiting for slots, dealing with airports with inadequate facilities. You try to keep passengers informed and be honest with them.

"Often, they are already anxious after dealing with the hassle of security. People can act out of character when they get on a plane and I've met lots of nervous fliers. But if they knew exactly what we did, how modern aircraft are built and how rigidly we are controlled from the ground, they wouldn't be worried at all.

"I can't say I've ever had one scary moment in the air at all," says Davina. "I think most pilots would say that. We are trained to incredibly high standards and cover so many scenarios in the simulator that you just feel very confident."

An avid sports fan, Davina's skills on the cricket field earned her a place on the Irish team, and in 1997, she played at the World Cup in India in a team that made it to the quarter finals.

"Playing for Ireland was an experience I will never forget. But I don't really have much time for playing cricket these days."

Because of the non-stop nature of the Aer Lingus operation, she is on call 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, leaving little room for much else in her life at the moment.

"I think my father has been trying to marry me off for years," she laughs.

"I will settle down at some point, but from a lifestyle point of view it's a demanding job.

"I rarely take holidays. Going on a plane is too much like work. In the summer, I go coarse fishing with my dad and help him with his vegetables. My idea of heaven is going home to Cavan and getting stuck into country life."

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