Darby Kennedy: A founding father of civil aviation in Ireland

Obituary: He left Aer Lingus in 1947 to set up his own company at Weston, where he had aircraft and a flying school

The president, Dr Patrick Hillery, in a Tiger Moth biplane with Capt  PW “Darby” Kennedy, founder of Weston Aerodrome, Co Dublin, during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the aerodrome. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

The president, Dr Patrick Hillery, in a Tiger Moth biplane with Capt PW “Darby” Kennedy, founder of Weston Aerodrome, Co Dublin, during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the aerodrome. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Darby Kennedy, who has died aged 101, was a founding father of civil aviation.

He caught the “flying bug” in the 1930s while still at school, flew with Imperial Airways (precursor of British Airways’ long-haul services) and became chief pilot of Aer Lingus, leaving it to run Weston aerodrome and teach people to fly. He rejoined Aer Lingus, leaving again in 1969.

In his lifetime civil aviation changed from a hazardous hobby for a wealthy few to an everyday means of moving around the world.

In the chaos as the second World War ended, civil aviation had to reinvent itself, and Kennedy and his fellow pioneers laid solid foundations of innovation and safety.

He was a founder member of the British Airline Pilots Association. He was also a founder member of the Irish Airline Pilots Association in 1946, and its first president.

Percy William Kennedy, known as Darby, was born at Bishopscourt, Straffan, Co Kildare, just before the first World war began. His father, Edward, bred horses, most famously The Tetrarch, said to be the best two-year-old thoroughbred of the 20th century.

Kennedy was proud of his lineage; an ancestor, John Kennedy, known as the father of the Kildare Hunt, had been created a baronet in 1836.

Kennedy’s mother, Beryl Doris Lumsdaine, was the daughter of a Sydney clergyman, and the niece of “Banjo” Patterson, best known for writing the unofficial Australian anthem Waltzing Matilda.

Kennedy attended Uppingham public school in the English midlands. He first learned to fly at Baldonnel aerodrome near Dublin during school holidays. In 1934, he joined the Air Services Training College at Hamble, Southampton, where he gained his pilot’s, navigation and aeronautical licences. There he met Joan Cooper, whom he married in 1936.

Kennedy then joined Imperial Airways, where he flew the Hanley Page Hannibal biplane. He also crewed the Sunderland flying boat on the Lake Victoria and Nile routes.

Kennedy returned to Ireland in 1938 to join Aer Lingus. He served as chief pilot during this period. In wartime flying passengers had given way to the hazards of bringing in much-needed supplies from Britain.

He left Aer Lingus in 1947 to set up his own company at Weston, Celbridge, Co Kildare, where he had aircraft and a flying school. A factor in his leaving was the impending cancellation of Aer Lingus’s transatlantic services.

He organised pleasure flights using a De Havilland Rapide and De Havilland Dragon at Tramore, Waterville, Rosses Point and other beaches long enough for a plane to take off and land. He also gave aerobatic flights in Tiger Moths from these beaches.

He had rejoined Aer Lingus in 1959, and it was in 1969 that Darby and Roger Kennedy – also a pilot with Aer Lingus – became the airline’s first father-and-son captain and co-pilot on the same flight deck.

He remained until 1969 when he retired from Aer Lingus to concentrate on his flying school at Weston. He sold Weston in the early 2000s, and retired to Spain.

Darby Kennedy’s wife, Joan, died in 2006. He is survived by their children Rosemary (Leonard), Roger, Margaret (Harty), Richard and Judith (Barry), as well as his partner Renate.