'I baked cupcakes to fund my pilot lessons'
As Leaving Cert students, and others, consider college and career choices, Lisa Cusack shares her inspiring story
Growing up in Lucan, Co Dublin, beside Weston Airport, was where my interest in aviation was first sparked. Every day, light aircraft would fly overhead.
I received my first flying lesson aged 13 and that sealed the deal! I began to research a possible career in aviation, only to find out that the cost of training to become an airline pilot was €100,000.
I didn't have access to this kind of money and so I began to put a plan into action.
What subjects could I pick for my Leaving Certificate that might help? Physics, maths and engineering kept popping up. There was just one problem: in my opinion, I was only average at all of these subjects - an excuse widely used by the younger generation today ("I'm rubbish at maths", etc), who often accept it instead of asking for help.
I asked for, and received, extra tuition in both physics and maths. The additional support made me realise that I actually wasn't as bad as I thought; I just needed to put in a little extra work.
I set a goal to be an airline pilot by the time I was 30. I chose to study applied physics in DCU in the hope that it would benefit me one day. In first year, I found myself immediately out of my depth but I didn't let this deter me and instead chose to focus on my goal and to get a little help.
After a fantastic six-month work placement in Air Traffic Control in third year, I was gifted 10 flying lessons, one of many acts of kindness I experienced throughout my journey.
I returned to DCU to complete my final year and was thrilled to graduate with an honours degree.
I headed straight back to Dublin Airport and got a job working as a flight dispatcher for Sky Handling Partner, where I remained for seven years. I gained invaluable experience, including learning how to marshal aircraft and drive the pushback tugs.
I managed to save €20,000 and thought this might just be enough to secure a €100,000 loan. It wasn't. I continued to save and returned to the bank manager a year later with €30,000: "I'd like to borrow €100,000 to be a pilot please!" The recession was in full swing and I was refused. Disappointed, but not disheartened, I kept going.
Fast-forward to 2011, Aer Lingus advertised its cadetship programme for the first time in 10 years. I could not believe it. I applied and was sent a series of 10 aptitude tests online.
Two weeks later, I received an email: "Dear Lisa, thank you for your application. Unfortunately, on this occasion, you have not been successful." Heartbroken, I drove straight to the nearest bookshop and bought five aptitude-test books, and I did one every day until it would be advertised again.
The hardest part was returning to work in an aviation environment and everybody asking me, "Oh, did you not apply for that Aer Lingus cadetship?"
"I did... I wasn't good enough." That's what I said, and that's how I felt.
Then, one day, a colleague put me on to the phone to his wife.
Unbeknownst to me, this was Captain Sonya Bissett - an Aer Lingus pilot. Sonya's kind words convinced me that I absolutely had what it took to be an Aer Lingus cadet and not to give up. Sonya was, and still is, a huge role model for me.
To increase my savings, I became a qualified personal trainer and earned a small amount of extra cash in my spare time.
Then, spotting a small gap in the market, I flew to London to do a one-day course in baking and decorating cupcakes. Back home that night, I set up my cupcake business.
I originally sold them to family and friends, then expanded to Dublin Airport.
The business exploded. I was working 20 hours a day between the airport and baking, and before I knew it, I had baked and sold more than 10,000 cupcakes in one year.
This is when I made a decision. I was going to take the first steps towards gaining my private pilot's licence and so I booked my ticket to America. One month later, Aer Lingus again advertised the cadetship. I applied, but this time with a different attitude. It was okay if I was unsuccessful as, either way, I was going to do it.
With a lot more preparation this time, I passed the aptitude tests and was invited to a group interview.
A few months later, I still hadn't heard back but was not dismayed as I set off to begin my training.
Again, I was faced with many challenges. After 10 hours' flying with an instructor, I was sent solo. Taking a light aircraft to the skies on your own for the first time is a feeling I will never forget. The next day, on my second ever solo flight, I took off and, at about 800ft, silence... My engine had failed.
I looked down and, with nothing but houses all around me, I decided that this was it. I was going to die (dramatic, I know). I made a mayday call (my dad still has the recording) and, from a split-second decision, I turned back and glided on to the nearest available runway.
I was met by three fire engines and the entire school. I got out of the plane, walked to my room and locked my door for two days.
This was all I had ever wanted to do and now I was questioning all of it.
When I finally resurfaced, I was greeted with a trail of shamrocks on the floor: all the way to the front door there was a sign that read: "One day you will be an 'Air Lingus' captain" ('Air', as my Alabama housemate had never heard of Aer Lingus). He was right, though. Just a minor setback and I certainly learned from it. I left Florida six weeks later with my private pilot's licence in my hand, fully funded by 10,000 cupcakes.
I landed in Dublin to be greeted with the news that I had been selected as the only female, and Irish person, to win a scholarship worth €4,000 to complete the next stage of my training, with Bristol Groundschool.
Suddenly, when I began to believe I could achieve it, everything started happening.
This is a lesson I still reflect on to this day with any challenges that I face.
Less than one month later, I got a phone call. It was Aer Lingus inviting me to the next round of interviewing. As I burst in the door to tell my parents, my mam had to sit down before she passed out.
With over 3,000 applicants and only 18 lucky spots, I tried not to get my hopes up. I spent the next week preparing, with super help from my dad and brothers, who built a mini jet-engine model to explain in depth its working principles.
I was greeted in the interview by two Aer Lingus captains and was super-excited to tell them about my private licence, while the horrendous engine failure certainly made for great conversation. As they looked through my CV, they mentioned that they were impressed with my degree in physics. At last, it had all been worth it.
Next, a meeting with a psychologist, followed by a medical. I was so close now. Finally, December 9, 2013 - it's 5.30pm on a Friday evening, it's lashing rain and I'm driving on the M50 in rush-hour traffic: "Hi, Lisa, Captain John Kelly speaking... You're not driving, are you?"
"Absolutely not, John," I said, as I swerved into the hard shoulder.
"Great. Well, I just wanted to be the first to congratulate you and say...WELCOME TO AER LINGUS."
It was, and still remains, the best day of my life. To date.
Having completed all the training, I'm now thrilled to be working in my dream job as an Aer Lingus pilot.
My family and friends lined the runway to cheer me on for my first landing into Dublin, just two days before my 31st birthday.
I'd made my goal by the skin of my teeth.
Little did I know that less than three years after joining, I would be sharing the flight deck with Captain Sonya Bissett - on our first flight together to Vienna.
Was it all worth it? Absolutely. Were there days when I wanted to give up? Definitely.
It doesn't matter where you come from, your upbringing, how much money you have or haven't got, how smart you think you are, or aren't.
If you are willing to work hard, believe in yourself and never give up...you can absolutely be anything you want to be.
Lisa told her story at the Student Life Summit, held recently in Croke Park