Claire Cronin is currently an A330 First Officer with Aer Lingus. IASA had the pleasure of interviewing Claire in June 2019 regarding her role at the time as an A320 First Officer, and a First Officer Type-Rating Instructor.
The fact that it’s so different to a lot of other jobs out there. I was curious about aviation in general and once I explored the career options within this sector I knew it was where I wanted to be. The day to day task of flying an airplane, working with different people, travelling to new places and the fact that it’s a steady career option made the job very attractive to me.
No, I didn’t think about becoming a pilot until my early twenties. I had just finished my degree and was working in the finance industry. Very quickly, I knew that the 9-5 office job lifestyle wasn’t for me. After looking around for other options, I explored the idea of a career in aviation. Initially I wanted to pursue a career in Air Traffic Control because of my mathematical background, but after more research I then found myself more interested in becoming a pilot. So for me, I was quite late getting into this job and I think that’s important because it doesn’t have to be a lifelong dream. It can come upon you by chance, and it’s never too late to start.
During secondary school, Maths was always my favourite subject. I liked the fact that the answers are rule based, logical, black and white and not subjective. After the leaving certificate, I completed a degree in Mathematics in Trinity College. The course was four years long, and although I got through it in the end, I found it very difficult. I think this initial background helped my career in that pilots are often presented with complex situations that they must think about logically in order decide the safest option. After college, I looked at doing a Masters in Actuary in Edinburgh but decided to take a break from studying and get some real life experience within the workplace. I applied to a company called First Derivatives who hire Maths, Business and Engineering graduates, train them up and place them into financial companies for consultant work. I took this opportunity as I decided I needed a few years to work and gain some independence. I was placed in AIB in Ballsbridge, where I remained for two years. Here, I was involved in the Data Analytics and Global Risk team. Being part of such a great team was pivotal to my success as a pilot. I had the opportunity of working both in big groups, and one on one with people from various backgrounds. I feel this helped with my teamwork and communication skills which I now use on a daily basis. Having a technical background, although not essential to become a pilot, I think it has benefitted me. Task management, logical reasoning, adaptability and good prioritisation are all skills which I picked up along the way from school, college and my previous work experience. These qualities have all been essential in my career to date.
There are two different routes a student pilot can take to securing their licence, integrated or modular. Initially, I was training in a modular fashion which meant that I was doing the training in different chunks, as much as I could afford at any one time whilst still working full time. I started flying every weekend in Weston airport, up until the point where I was ready to take the flight test for my private pilots licence. During that time, I was fortunate enough to secure a place on the Aer Lingus cadetship programme. This meant that I would now complete my training on an integrated course at Flight Training Europe in Jerez, Spain. As part of an integrate course, students generally live and study on campus. In my class there were 12-14 students from all over the world, some self-sponsored and some under a different airline cadetship. Initially, we started with the theory behind flying an aircraft, as you can’t just jump into one straight away. There are 14 ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence) exams that must be completed. During the first four months, we had classes from 9-5 Monday to Friday in order to prepare us for the first 7 of these exams. During the next few months, things get a bit more exciting as students start flying as well as spending time in the classroom. To begin with, each student starts flying in a single engine piston aircraft and each day alternates with ground school to cover the final 7 exams. This was a good balance as ground school can be heavy going, and it’s great to finally put some of the theory into practice. The third part of the course was full time flying so at this stage the students will fly a multi-engine aircraft in order to gain a CPL. After 14 months, students graduate and complete an MCC (Multi Crew Cooperation) course to help them operate in a multi-crew environment since before then each student has only flown either solo, or with their instructor. Our class then returned to Dublin where we completed a JOC (Jet Orientation Course) to introduce us to jet aircraft. Lastly, we undertook the initial type rating on the Airbus A320 which consisted of simulator sessions to apply the skills learned in Jerez onto a more advanced aircraft. These simulator sessions are also where we acquire our in depth knowledge of the technical aspects of the A320 aircraft. Once we completed our skills test in the simulator, we were lucky enough to fly an aircraft down to Shannon airport where we each completed a minimum of 6 landings in the real airplane. That’s one of my favourite memories to date, quite the experience! After that, I began flying passengers on our European routes under the supervision of a Training Captain. Once you are comfortable, and pass your initial line check, you are then able to fly as a regular First Officer on the A320 fleet. When people ask how long it takes to become a pilot and you say about 2 years in total, they can be quite amazed. The training is compact but intense and enjoyable.
After two years of flying around Europe, I felt I was ready for the next challenge. The job of Type Rating Instructor (TRI) was advertised and I applied for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to continue improving my technical knowledge of the aircraft. Modern day aircraft are so reliable that it is rare to see any failure of our systems during flight. I felt that experiencing such failures within the simulator environment on a daily basis would help me prepare even further should it ever occur on the real aircraft. In order to be able to teach a topic, the instructor must know it inside out and be able to answer any questions that a student might have. For that reason, I felt that by becoming an instructor I would have to push myself to learn even more which would always stand to me in the future when I go forward towards command. Secondly, teaching is very rewarding. When you take a brand new pilot that has never flown this aircraft and you can teach them how to fly it, and understand the systems and operating procedures, it’s pretty amazing!
There are so many different duties that a Type Rating Instructor can do – From initial ground school days which can include standard operating procedures, abnormal and emergency checklists, cold weather operations, route network familiarisation and transit checks all the way up to the simulation sessions where you give in depth instruction of complex failures and emergency situations. As a TRI, there is a great mix of flying and instructing which is probably one of my favourite things about the role.
This is where the cliché answers come in because I do like that every day is different. Every day you’re working with a different crew be it your fellow pilot, cabin crew, ground staff or air traffic control. Each day can be a new destination, so the airport, approaches and weather make for a totally new experience. I like that every day can present a challenge whether its weather, technical issues or air traffic control restrictions, the job never gets boring!
The biggest challenge for me is maintaining a good work life balance. Working unsociable hours is unavoidable in this industry and it’s important to correctly manage your rest. When you work shift work, it leaves very little time for other important aspects of your life like family, friends, hobbies etc. I try to make plans in advance for my days off so that I don’t miss out.
Another challenge for me is maintaining a high standard of operation. We have simulator checks every 6 months so it is essential to keep up to date with new procedures and legislations. Each individual pilot is responsible for their own development towards command so it is important to always stay one step ahead, and be ready for the next phase of assessments that may be coming down the line.. In terms of instructing, the main challenges here are those that are associated with any teaching role. There’s a good amount of preparation involved, from self-revision to lesson plans. Adaptation is also important, so that you can alter your teaching style to best suit your student, whether they are a theorist or a pragmatist etc. Staying on top of your game is key, as you have to maintain high standards of flying if you wish to instruct the trainees to do the same.
Everyone faces setbacks at some stage in their career. I was unsuccessful the first time I applied for the cadetship, but I didn’t give up. Initially, the main challenge facing any student pilot is money. I overcame this by starting down the modular route, and did as much flying as I could afford at any one stage. I was incredibly lucky to get the cadetship on my second attempt so my training costs were covered by Aer Lingus, but the biggest obstacle that most people face is trying to finance the training.
Tradition. Back in the day when air travel was gaining popularity, and pilot numbers were on the rise, it was still the case that men worked to provide for the family. For that reason, it’s inevitable that more men ended up in the Flight Deck. However, it seems that the industry has been slow to change since then, especially when compared to other professions such as teachers and solicitors. It is important to encourage more women to join this interesting, highly-skilled and well-rewarded profession.
Not particularly in aviation. However, I was surrounded by a great group of women in AIB when I was working there. Most of my team were women who were very successful and had worked their way to very high positions. They were invaluable to me when I started pursuing a career as a pilot. They were very encouraging, provided me with a lot of help preparing for interviews and assessments along with being flexible with hours off towards my flying lessons. I really felt they understood my ambition and were very supportive throughout.
Creating awareness. Many of us give our time to highlight the opportunities of pilot careers to young, female audiences, especially schools and colleges. I attend several career days to talk to pupils about becoming a pilot and I receive a lot of positive responses, but a lot of girls don’t realise that it is an option. Once they know, many realise that it is a very attractive career. Perhaps girls don’t consider a career as a pilot because they don’t see women in the media as pilots. It’s important to have good role models, both male and female. There is already campaigns to encourage young women to take up science, engineering, technology and maths, which are useful subjects for pilots. It would be my opinion that we need to start promoting the career to even younger girls, perhaps at Primary level. A lot of my colleagues have attended their child’s playschools to talk to the children about this exciting career so going forward, it won’t seem so unfamiliar to children then when they see a women in the flight deck. Slowly, we can change the stereotype, but without quotas, it’s always important to have the best person for the job.
Go for it! If it’s what they want to do, then nothing should stop them. Gender has never played a role in my career to date, I haven’t had any restrictions because I’m a woman. Aer Lingus has always had one of the highest percentages of female pilots in Europe and all with no gender pay gap. If you are hard-working, determined and passionate then there is no reason this career isn’t for you.
I would like to be promoted to Captain, and hopefully continue with the training. It would be great to see a lot more women joining the industry and hopefully working alongside me in the flight deck.