‘I’m the only female pilot serving in the Air Corps at the moment’

What I Do: Lauren Cusack, flight officer in the Irish Air Corps

I’ve been interested in flying my whole life. I grew up in Donabate, near the airport. I was bitten by the aviation bug at a young age, I was obsessed with watching planes.

In school, I wasn’t sure how to make that into a career. I went to college and studied aviation management at Dublin City University (DCU). At the same time, I was doing my private pilot’s license. I was flying Cessna aircraft, and I was also working in Aer Lingus as a check-in and boarding agent.

My first flying lesson was one of the best days of my life. I got the chance to turn and climb and descend, and I thought, I’m going to start saving my money and working hard because this is definitely for me.

My plan was to become a flying instructor – I wasn’t really interested in the commercial side of things, but when I was in college I found out about the Air Corps from my lecturers. It’s kind of crazy, but I had never heard of it before.


It was in my final year that I applied and I was lucky enough to get in. I finished college in 2016 and was in the Curragh the following September.

The entry process for the Air Corps is quite long – there is a fitness test, group assessments, psychological evaluation, psychomotor testing and an interview. They took on 12 of us and we did a week at Baldonnel Aerodrome.

We were given the opportunity to go out for about an hour with an instructor to fly in the PC-9M. That aircraft is absolutely amazing. It’s like learning to drive in a Ferrari.

Putting on the G-suit and the helmet, and walking out to the aircraft was a feeling that I can’t even explain. I was so excited to finally start on this journey to becoming an Air Corps pilot. It was so exhilarating to be strapping in and taking off, and then all of a sudden you are upside down in the Midlands somewhere.

No one in my family was in the defence forces so I was in the dark about what to expect with military life and training. It was a challenge and it did require a change of mindset. You are moving from civilian life to military life, and that can be quite a shock. You are being told what to do and you have to follow instruction. But after the first couple of weeks, you settle in and keep your mindset strong. You are down there with navy and army cadets, and there was huge camaraderie in the class. You make friends for life because nobody else knows what it’s like.

When I got my wings was probably my proudest day ever. I had worked so hard for so long, so there was a sense of relief as well. I don’t think I will ever feel anything like that again. I was so happy to finally be a pilot officer.

My family were very supportive from the beginning. They were always there. My parents are proud of me. I owe them a lot.

One of the reasons I joined was to serve my country. I loved flying and I wanted a flying job that would benefit other people. There is a huge variety in flying. I’m in 101 Squadron in No. 1 Operations Wing, so the maritime squadron. Surveillance and fisheries protection is our main thing. We are out patrolling over the sea, over Ireland’s EEZ [exclusive economic zone].

We are ensuring that the vessels out there aren’t doing anything illegal or that they aren’t over fishing. Or we could be sent out looking for a specific vessel that customs may have intel on.

On our patrol, there are two pilots and two radar operators, and a photographer, so we can get a full sweep of what’s out there. We fly quite low over the sea, down to 500ft usually over a vessel, and the photographer takes pictures.

We do a lot of logistics support, cargo transport and troop transport, and we do air ambulance and medical evacuations too.

Air ambulance work picked up during Covid times when commercial aviation was at a standstill. People still needed to go to the UK and Europe for medical treatment and that was on us. We have a lifeport stretcher with all the medical equipment and we can carry an incubator, so we would do a lot of neonatal transfers.

Honestly, bringing someone over for life-saving surgery or for an organ that has come up for them is one of the best feelings; it’s why I joined, to serve my country and the people of my country.

I’m the only female pilot serving in the Air Corps at the moment. It’s a great place for women to work, but I don’t think a lot of women would even think about it. I didn’t. I went to an all-girls school, this was traditionally a male-dominated career so it wasn’t an obvious choice, and it really wasn’t highlighted to me. Now I spend a lot of time going to schools to get the word out there. I make girls’ schools a priority.

What is the best kind of day for me? Any day that I’m flying is a great day.

— In conversation with Joanne Hunt

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Enda O'Dowd

Enda O'Dowd

Enda O'Dowd is a video journalist at The Irish Times