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Trailblazers in Technology: ‘I feel a responsibility to mentor new female pilots’ – Captain Louise Gilroy

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by Eva Hall
24th Dec 2019
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Welcome to our Trailblazers in Technology series, in partnership with Samsung. Here we’ll profile six powerhouse women dominating not just the technology world, but their chosen area of profession. Together with Samsung, IMAGE is serious about championing female entrepreneurs, businesswomen and those who take risks everyday to reap the benefits of success. Buckle up as we introduce you to six leading professional women who are doing it not just for themselves, but for women everywhere. This week we profile Louise Gilroy, Aer Lingus captain. 

For someone who thought a career as a pilot was so out of reach “like an astronaut”, to be flying high as a captain of Ireland’s largest airline 30 years on is some feat.

Louise Gilroy started in the Aer Lingus cadet academy when she was just a teenager and was studying to be an aeronautical engineer. A chance advert her father saw in a newspaper recruiting for pilots was what led Louise to her dream job, where she met and made lifelong friends, a husband, and became a trainer and mentor to fellow female pilots.

“The most significant thing I had done before joining the early training pilot programme aged 17 was a year in aeronautical engineering,” says Louise.

“I chose to study that because I was really interested in aircraft, but it never occurred to me that there were such jobs as a pilot. I had never seen any pilots, I’d been on an airplane a handful of times on school trips, but I thought a pilot was like an astronaut, something way out of reach.”

Louise went on to excel in her aptitude test and interview, where she was interviewed by Maria Hetherington, the second ever female pilot at Aer Lingus, after Grainne Cronin, who was the first.

“It’s almost like a golden ticket, the route that I had to joining Aer Lingus,” she says. “I was so lucky to have that opportunity where I was given a place on a sponsored course.

“Some of these women have had to come through the training programme the hard way by funding it themselves, finding their way through it, and possibly taking several years to get to where they want to be in terms of getting a job with an airline.

“When you’re sponsored you don’t have that financial risk, and you’ve got a job at the end of it. I know that I was exceptionally lucky to have had that.”

It’s not just the recruitment process that has changed in Louise’s 30 years at Aer Lingus.

“During my early years as a co-pilot, the experience that women were having at work wasn’t the same experience that men were having at work. There was still an old-school mentality – and that probably eased out a little bit by the women who were gone ahead of us.

“Aer Lingus was always exceptionally supportive of us, and the vast majority of our colleagues were as well, but there were a few people that still were drifting to having women in the cockpit.”

Much of this support came from the aforementioned Grainne Cronin and Maria Hetherington, who Louise looked up to immensely. They’ve both since retired as captains at Aer Lingus.

“Grainne Cronin – who was the first female pilot – was the first to do everything. She was just fantastic to fly with, she was so professional, so confident and so encouraging and supportive of all the women.

“She had to break through all the barriers herself.

“Maria Hetherington, who was the second female pilot, was very active in the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association (IALPA) at the time. She was very politically astute, extremely encouraging, supportive and professional, and just a brilliant role model.

“Susan Kavanagh was the third female pilot. She was our first management pilot, she ran the training department while I was an instructor so she was very influential for me as an instructor, not just as a female pilot.”

Captain Louise Gilroy has been a pilot with Aer Lingus for 30 years. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

As well as advances in technologies and the rise of low-cost airlines making flying more accessible for Joe Public, Louise says the flying landscape has changed immensely for one other reason: there are more women.

“It’s almost beyond recognition – a different world,” she says. “About 10% of our pilots are now female. We now have a female chief pilot, female training captains, female base managers liaise directly with the pilots and base camp. Throughout the organisation women are more visible. Our chief financial officer is a woman, there are many more high-profile women in Aer Lingus now than there were back in the late 1990s, early 2000s.”

This is partly due to society changing, and partly due to Aer Lingus’s diversity programme. Louise says, “The cultural change in Aer Lingus has changed as well over time. There’s still a lot of work to do – like there is in the rest of society – but I think we’re keeping pace and the inclusion is the different characteristics that different people bring to the workplace.”

After 30 years on the job, Louise says she still feels inspired every day going to work, mainly because of the younger pilots joining the team.

“I feel a responsibility in terms of mentoring new women coming in,” she says. “They inspire me, because so many women have joined in recent years with a huge diversity of background, they haven’t all come from the sponsorship programme. They’re bringing fresh thinking, a new way of looking at our job. They give me energy in terms of how I do my job, and I would like to be as encouraging and supportive of them.”

So what does it take to succeed as a pilot in 2020, and to make it to captain?

“There’s probably more focus now on the non-technical skills that are required. It’s very much a team-working job, good communication skills are required. I wouldn’t say you necessarily have to have an engineering background, you need a technical aptitude to some degree, but I think sometimes that puts women off because they think it’s an engineering mind that you need but that isn’t the case,” says Louise.

“You need to be fairly resilient and adaptable. It can be a demanding job at times in terms of the hours that you work. You need mental agility, but more than anything you need to be a good team player.

“The consequences in our job are very high, you’re trying to avoid risks where possible and follow procedures. Sometimes you’re dealing with people who are working hard in challenging circumstances and you are one part of a small team, an aircraft crew is a small team. From those on the ground to those in the cockpit, everybody is very dependent on each other, it means everybody has to be doing their job properly at the right time for the airplane to get off the ground, and to land as safely and efficiently as it can.”

Louise sees herself continuing in her captain and mentoring roles with Aer Lingus.

“I feel less pressure now because I have experience, but there are days it can be pressurised. That’s what’s good about the job – it doesn’t become mundane, the challenges are still there in terms of weather, or situations might arise on the airplane. We’re continually being trained on a regular basis, but training changes as new technologies are introduced. Experience does count for a lot, but you can never rely on just experience, you have to keep up-skilling.

“I’m so lucky that I feel so passionate about it still. It’s a great gift to have a job that you really enjoy, because certainly it doesn’t make it feel like work at times. I might have to get out of bed very early in the morning and be away from home, but I still enjoy it, it’s still challenging, it’s still interesting. And for me, I feel I am very lucky to have found this job even though as a teenager, I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

For more information on Aer Lingus’s recruitment process, click here.

Main photo: Kyran O’Brien

Follow the Trailblazers in Technology series, in partnership with Samsung, on social with #IMAGETrailblazers. IMAGE has long been a champion of women in business, as seen in our Businesswoman of the Year, Business Summit and Beauty of Business pillars. In Samsung, we found the perfect partner to champion women in tech. For the last two years, we’ve ran the hugely successful The Pitch competition, where a small enterprise has the opportunity to win €100,000 worth of high-tech Samsung products to propel their business to the next level. For more on The Pitch read here