Friday 24 May 2019

Up in the air: Meet Ireland's trail blazing female pilots

Only 3pc of the world's pilots are women - but airlines are hoping that will change. Deirdre Reynolds meets the women who've blazed a trail for female aviators

Sky high: Lisa Cusack, a cadet training to be a pilot with Aer Lingus. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Sky high: Lisa Cusack, a cadet training to be a pilot with Aer Lingus. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Deirdre Reynolds

As a little girl, Sonya Bisset always marvelled at the planes swooping over her family home in North Dublin - but never once dreamed of flying one. Today, the mum of three from Malahide has clocked up millions of air miles as one of the few female pilots on the planet.

"I grew up beside the airport," recalls Sonya, who's now a captain with Aer Lingus, "so I grew up listening to airplanes flying over my house when the old runway was in use.

"It was never something I knew I could do. At school, it was never brought up as an option for a career at all - they never spoke about it."

Bitten by the travel bug, instead the former marketing executive joined the United Nations in Africa, where she was once more surrounded by the sights and sounds of the skies.

"I was the assistant flight coordinator for the World Food Programme flying aid in and out of Southern Sudan and coming up with the flight schedules of all the different NGOs," she tells me.

"Working in the UN, quite a lot of my friends were pilots so I used to get to go up with them quite a bit and that got me hooked.

"I thought I'd love to try it just as a hobby, but then as the lessons progressed, I knew that's what I really, really wanted to do. I was never going to sit in an office."

Almost two decades on, Sonya (45) is one of just 4,000 female pilots worldwide, working alongside the remaining 97pc of men.

Taking place at Croke Park Conference Centre this Saturday, now training exhibition Pilot Careers Live aims to change all that by encouraging more young women here to take to the skies.

Aer Lingus, City Jet, Simtech Aviation and Dublin City University are just some of the exhibitors set to reveal how to take your career to new heights at the event.

Already Aer Lingus employs more female pilots than the global average at around 10pc.

"Pilot training is a unique learning experience which demands high levels of self-discipline and determination across a variety of physiological and practical skill-sets," says Pilot Careers Live organiser Darren Ward, "and can lead to one of the most fulfilling and rewarding career options available.

"Of course, this career is open to both men and women - but we hope that more female students will come forward to address the gender imbalance that exists in the industry."

After qualifying as a commercial pilot last August, Lucan native Lisa Cusack is still on cloud nine.

"I guess I've always wanted to do it," reveals the 31 year-old, who studied Biophysics at DCU before getting a job as a flight dispatcher at Dublin Airport. "I grew up outside Weston [Airport] so I was around light aircraft all the time and that kind of sparked the interest. It was definitely my dream."

With basic pilot training costing up to €100,000, following in the contrails of Amelia Earhart certainly isn't cheap. But free flights aren't the only perk of the job, as Aer Lingus cadets start off on around €40,000 per year and can eventually earn almost five times that amount.

Unlike her colleague Sonya, who had to scrape together the six figures necessary to get her commercial pilot license (CPL) back in the nineties, Lisa beat off competition from more than 3,000 people to land a place on the national airline's prestigious Cadet Pilot Training Programme, and so had her costs covered.

"In my year, there were 18 of us selected and only two of us were girls," continues the first officer, who lives in a house with seven male pilots. "So we're definitely outnumbered.

"Within the industry itself, it makes no difference at all - we're treated the exact same. It's more the general public who might be a little bit shocked to see a female pilot when they're getting on the plane.

"And walking through the airport, people always do a double take."

After putting the brakes on her high-flying television career, celebrity pilot Carol Vorderman is currently gearing up to fulfil her lifelong ambition of flying solo around the world.

"I'm going to allow two months," told the presenter, who originally studied aeronautical engineering before soaring to fame on Countdown. "If you said I had to go today then yes, I would be scared, because it is the unknown and I am not experienced enough.

"I am not ready for it, but I will make damn sure than I am ready in six months. It's going to be a great adventure."

More than three decades after being rejected by the RAF, the 55-year-old, who only gained her solo licence two years ago, plans to retrace the route taken by pioneering British aviator Mildred Bruce, after whom her Diamond DA-42 VI plane is named.

Urging more girls to study subjects like maths and science after school, the honorary ambassador for the RAF Air Cadets added: "Girls are taught that their value largely lies in how they look. They do as well as the boys until the end of primary school, but then it all changes and our culture has a lot to do with that.

"If I want to go on telly and talk about education, no chance. If I want to do something about dyeing my hair blonde it's, 'Oh yeah, off you go'."

Recalling her maiden voyage to Germany six months ago, Lisa says: "My first passenger flight was to Munich on August 31.

"It was very exciting, especially because I worked in the airport for a long time out on the ramps. You're actually up in the aircraft and flying it yourself.

"It was pretty amazing - and still is.

"As a pilot, you get a great staff discount," she jokes. "I recently went to Miami on holidays for €40 return - the only problem is that I had no one to go with because all my friends have nine to five jobs!"

Seventeen years after joining Aer Lingus, Sonya explained how she, too, still gets a thrill every time she takes off - and wants her daughters Lara (13), Emma (12) and Amy (8) to know no boundaries either.

"It is very stereotypical that you don't see as many female pilots as male," she argues. "I think the attitude out there for a lot of girls is, 'Oh, that's a man's job'.

"As little children, the girls didn't really see it as anything [unusual] - mum's a pilot, and that's it. As they get older, I know they're proud of it when they say it to their friends.

"I think it needs to start from school that women can take up any career they want," adds Sonya, "particularly getting into male dominated careers.

"Girls need to be made aware that it is an option for them."

Pilot Careers Live takes place at Croke Park Conference Centre on Saturday February 27 2016 from 10am - 4.30pm. See

Irish Independent

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