Landing the plane is the difficult part

I didn’t know this the first time I took over the flight controls, acknowledging my flight instructor’s command.

“You have control”

“I have control”

(Except I didn’t)

I didn’t know this the first time I donned a navy flight suit and walked out onto the apron (that’s where the aircraft- aircraft, not planes, we were often reminded), flight helmet in hand, proud of myself and excited.

I didn’t know this when I stood in my careers teachers office, holding a pamphlet on careers in the air corps and resolving to prove her wrong as she dismissed me with an ‘it’s very difficult to get in to” and tried to persuade me to consider the much easier (??) path of medicine instead.

I didn’t know this when I sat the interview waiting room, revealing my terrible secret to another prospective candidate.

I had never been on a plane before.

Neither had he, both of us young, earnest, clueless, relieved.

We both were selected.

The interview process was gruelling. Psychometric tests, coordination test, eyesight and physical fitness.

Air corp cadets. 10 of us that year. 8 guys, 2 girls. She and I only the second and third females (female cadets, not girls or women) to train as air corps cadets in Ireland. The first had been unsuccessful in getting her wings. We were determined that where she had failed we would achieve.

First, a six month stint of basic military training in the Curragh camp with the army cadet class, and the naval cadet class (they got away with a paltry three months in the Curragh- and we envied them for it- but only that- their uniforms were silly and planes  were much cooler than naval vessels.

Yes, we were cool. I was cool….


Immediately upon arrival at the Curragh camp we were greeted by a tall stern female captain. Her tall sternness must have activated a nervous clumsy energy because my first action was to trip over my bags and skin my knee-one of those knee skinnings that are not deep but drip blood within seconds. Sympathy was not forthcoming; a bandage yes, and an instruction:

“Air corps cadets- haircuts -Monday. “

I didn’t cry when they cut my hair. I didn’t  cry when my 10-year-old brother saw me for the first time after it and looked me sideways once or twice, asked me if it would grow back, that sat back in his chair with relief.

One of my air corps comrades looked at me..

“I heard all the girls were upset about their haircuts and I was going to come over and tell you it wasn’t as bad as all that… but…. ”

He paused and couldn’t stifle a smile, and I couldn’t hold back the tears.

So seriously we took the job of soldiering, we sacrificed our locks.  But the curragh was simply a penance, a purgatory on the way to the heaven of flying planes (aircraft) high above the clouds. The six months turned into 8, but eventually, we began our flight training and allowed our hair to grow again.

Flight training. The easy part after all that marching and trench digging and assembling and disassembling rifles. Surely, the easy part?

Groundschool was easy. Theory of flight, meteorology, technical subjects.

Parachute training was…surprisingly brief.

“ In case you need your parachute pull this cord”.

The first couple of flights were fun, but it quickly became like a driving lesson with a grumpy impatient instructor. After 15 hours my instructor was still having to intervene every time on the approach to prevent us plummeting at an angle into the ground.

After you’ve experienced a number of landings, you realise that the plane descent is not at a very steep angle and that get closer to the ground the plane levels out until its just parallel to the ground.

It’s something you learn after a few landings, but after 15, then 16, then 18 hours flying, I still had not learned it. I suppose that might make any instructor impatient and grumpy.

On a Friday morning, I’m informed that I am ‘on review’. Meaning a review flight on Monday morning, which, if it did not go well, the commander of the flight school would take me up for a final review flight and make a decision from there.

I go home for the weekend. It doesn’t feel like there are a lot of practical measures to be taken to address the situation, and I am highly stressed at this point, so I do what any sensible Irish person would do under the circumstances. I met friends in the pub and I watch Father Ted on repeat.

On Monday morning I pray for rain to delay my flight. Instead, it’s an amazing sunny summer’s day- clear blue skies- no winds.

Ideal flying conditions- if you know what you’re doing.

I don’t. The review flight is bad enough for the grumpy impatient instructor to schedule me for the review flight with the flight school commander. Then, it’s like good cop, bad cop. The flight school commander is calm and kind-everything I need to reduce the stress I’m feeling under instruction and for me to land the plane without hitch.

Or should be everything.. but isn’t.

We complete the flight, and make our way back towards the debrief room where we normally returned to after flights, My calm kind pilot, takes off his helmet, and motions for me to take off mine and we stand there in the sunshine and I know the result.

Gently he lets me know that I would not be the first female pilot the Irish air corps would see.

Instead that honour falls to my class mate. The following summer her photo is on the front of national newspapers. I am so proud of her, but tears prick my eyes all the same.

I’ve been on many many flights since, and I have had no desire to fly the planes myself, but I have a deep appreciation for each successful landing.


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