Touchdown after years of landmarks in the air

 

Grainne Cronin’s career as an Aer Lingus pilot was a series of firsts, but she’s happy now to call a halt to a job that’s not getting any easier, writes GERRY BYRNE

GRAINNE CRONIN officially retired from Aer Lingus last week after more than 30 years’ flying, most of it married to a fellow pilot and the first part as the airline’s only woman pilot. In the early days “the school run caused quite a bit of difficulty, with both of us on rosters,” she says. “We only got a weekly roster, and my roster would come out on Friday – and that could be a bit fraught . . . Aviation is quite difficult for family life, there’s no doubt about it. My two daughters now say they didn’t notice anything, but we really had to make a huge effort to be there for the important things.”

Cronin was hired in 1977 as Aer Lingus’s (and Ireland’s) first female pilot. Her father had flown for the airline, and her husband and daughter are also pilots. “I was the only girl in school with a father who was a pilot,” she says. “But I never thought I would get the opportunity to do it. He would never be unhappy going to work. We often went out to meet him coming back from a flight. It was all very exciting in those days because it was so unusual.”

At university she did some flying in her father’s little Piper Cub plane and took the necessary theory exams. “I knew that I liked it and that I was reasonable at it.”

She met her future husband before joining Aer Lingus. “When my father got the Piper Cub he decided not to teach me to fly, as we had had testy driving lessons,” she says. “So he asked this first officer he flew with, Neil Johnston, who had been doing some light-aircraft flying, if he would teach me.

“I went off and got trained, and we got married a while after I came back from Oxford. We’ve been married 30 years. I don’t know which of us is the saint, him or me. Probably me.”

Cronin initially attempted to discourage her daughter Louisa from following the family tradition. “I failed dismally, and since then I’ve given her every support,” she says. “I would have preferred she chose something else, because the commercial pressure on pilots and airlines is now huge. There are pressures to fly more and longer for less money, and that’s the reality of it. Many airlines don’t pay for training any more, and young pilots often start their careers with debts of six figures and on very low pay.”

She herself was trained by her employer. When she joined Aer Lingus, at the age of 22, it was as a flight attendant, but within the year she found herself going to Oxford for training with 24 men.

“It was a culture shock for all of us,” she says. “You might think I would have found it glamorous, but I found it quite lonely. They hadn’t had a female pupil before, and the instructors were mostly ex-RAF types, and you got the odd one with a bit of prejudice. But you’d get it the other way as well – some of them went out of their way to help me.”

Although the Aer Lingus publicity machine made a fuss out of her being the first woman pilot, she felt far from a feminist icon. But in 1988 she became the airline’s first woman captain.

“When I was a co-pilot there was always a man in charge to save the day should it become necessary,” she says. “I felt that women had actually arrived and become equal when I made captain, but prior to that I was just following my own personal passion.”

After getting her wings she became a Boeing 737 co-pilot, but promotion in one sense was a step back, because her captaincy was of 36-seat Shorts turboprops, used mostly for regional flying. “Things were so slow then in Ireland that when promotion came . . . you took it,” she says. “Yet we had great fun for two years. Flying across Ireland was very beautiful.”

She returned to the jet fleet and became a captain there in 1991. A decade later she moved over, again as a captain, to the Airbus 330 on transatlantic flights. “The girls were 16 and 18 when I went on the Atlantic, so they were easier to manage,” she says. “Transatlantic flying took a bit of getting used to, because flying in Europe is now so manic: you are always changing altitudes, and there’s constant radio traffic. It’s a completely different pace of life on the Atlantic: 20 minutes of panic at each end and six hours of boredom in between.”

But she found it hard to cope with the fatigue caused by jet lag, and when an early-retirement offer came up this year she was glad to finish.

She says too much lip service is paid to safety now. “Fatigue is a huge issue in aviation now. We were trained in the Aer Lingus culture of safe operating procedures, but many airlines don’t have that culture any more. When you extend your hours the odd time to facilitate the company and the passengers that’s fine, but when the odd time is becoming the norm, that’s not good for your health or your performance.”

Aged just 54, she says she has made no decisions about a possible future career. Some of her retiring colleagues have taken jobs in China and the Middle East, but Cronin doesn’t want to fly abroad. Instead she plans to take things easy for a while, and perhaps take a course in horticulture. Apart from cutting the grass, the pressures of flying meant she achieved very little in the garden.

“But not having a roster, that’s going to be really nice,” she says. “Flying is all-consuming. All I’ve done is fly and bring up a family.”