Interview with Donal Foley

Flight Instructor, Irish Aviation Authority


1. Can you tell us about your flying career?

At the age of 13, as a young boy in Cork, I got this wild notion that I would like to be a pilot when I grew up. I can remember the very second it occurred to me and from that moment the idea took over my life and became all consuming. Cork airport had not even had a sod turned at that time and I had never seen an aircraft on the ground so the dream was purely that - a childish dream by a young lad who probably should have been doing his school homework or running errands for his Mammy (we didn't have Mums in Cork at that time). That was 1959.

I left school in 1964 (PBC Cork). I have been in Aviation ever since. I spent 6 years as a pilot in the Royal Air Force where I flew Fighter and Transport Aircraft during the cold war. I returned to Ireland in the early seventies and re joined Aer Lingus. (I had been in Aer Lingus briefly before joining the RAF). I spent a total of 31 wonderful years with our National Airline - always flying. I became Chief Pilot and eventually Director of Flight and Technical Operations. I flew all routes in Europe and to the USA and Canada. In 2001 I was invited to join the Thomas Cook organisation as Director of Flight Operations based in Manchester. I spent seven years with Thomas Cook and absolutely loved it (and Manchester). I retired from there in 2008.
Having sworn on a stack of Bibles that I was never going to work  - flying was never work -  I spent a year retired. It was great. I'd had a great career and I loved being retired, and I was busy all the time. Then, another long story, I found myself recruited into the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) as a Flight Operations Inspector. The IAA is the Aviation Safety Regulator for Ireland and I and my colleagues conduct checks on Pilots and Flight Operations Departments in the Irish Airlines. I am assigned to a well known very large Irish Company so I get to see another side of the business. I also own, with two other friends, a single engine vintage aircraft and I am separately a Flying Instructor with a flying Club.


2. What does being a flight inspector involve?

The IAA is the regulator and I am one of the regulators (Inspectors). We fly in the cockpit and check the pilots and the operations. Unlike the commercial end of aviation which was deregulated by Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher the operational side of aviation is highly regulated - purely for safety. We also check that the back-up systems as required by law are all in place and up to date including the training side of the airline which is a major part of a pilot's life.

3. What was/is your favourite flying route and why?

Best bit has to have been as a carefree young Fighter Pilot in the Royal Air Force (with a Cork accent!). Flying into dirt strips in Africa on the C130 Hercules aircraft was also fantastic. At other times we were operating near the north pole which offered a somewhat different challenge. The Middle and Far East flying was great as was going to the Carribean and South America with Thomas Cook Airlines. Also great was flying the USA routes with Aer Lingus. There was something magic about flying Irish people to and from the USA. Whether it was kids in Summer going to work on their J-class visas or Irish-Americans coming home on holidays. Bringing the Irish soccer team home from Italia '90 was an honour as was flying a most diminutive lady home from Liverpool to Dublin. That Lady was Mother Theresa. I had a fascinating conversation another time with Professor Stephen Hawking at Cork airport before flying him to London. The pleasure of bringing people home for Christmas - their excitement was so infectious and it's probably as close as one will ever get to the feeling of being the Catcher in the Rye. There was of course sadly the other side but that's best put to one side for now. Pilgrimage flights to Lourdes were very sobering and yet most fullfilling in another way. Closer to home it was a privilege to fly the first Aer Lingus aircraft into Knock, Sligo, Galway, and Kerry. Flying the DH 84 (the Iolar - Aer Lingus' first aircraft) all over Ireland and the United Kingdom was a pleasure.

4. What is your scariest flying memory?

I wouldn't say scary but there were three occasions when I had cause to wonder! All three were weather related. Once in Africa flying from Lagos to Port Harcourt. Big CBs everywhere and I just could not believe that the atmosphere could carry so much moisture but even more so that a jet engine could ingest so much water and not flame out. The second occasion was one summer evening climbing out of Boston with wall-to-wall thunderstorm activity. I had never seen such an abundance of electrical storm activity anywhere. I did ask myself 'what am I doing here?'. Interesting how on that occasion we did not have a lightning strike and yet on seemingly far less weather active occasions I've been hit about a dozen times. The third occasion was with Thomas Cook flying into one of the Caribbean Islands. The radar scope was all pink i.e. very severe weather. I had seen it red (severe) many times but never pink. The colour was the only pretty part of that approach and landing.

5. Have you flown near a Cumulonimbus?

As mentioned in question 4.The on board weather radar was generally very good and the forecasting great. (Let me say it now very loudly and I will repeat it anywhere and often to any audience - the Irish Met Service in my 45 years experience is the best in the world). CBs, like politicians, are best avoided by about 5 miles and at least 5000 feet.

6. Given your job description, you must a high appreciation of clouds and how they form. Of all the various clouds types there is, which one would you describe as the most visually appealing? and which type would describe as being the most practically unappealing?

The clouds, all clouds, have always fascinated me. All the different shapes and shades. I used to feel like I was Peter Pan. I suppose on evenings flying west looking at Cirrostratus backlit by golden sunset takes some beating. Mind you on the otherhand descending east on a summer morning skirting the good weather cumulus puffs was also lovely. I think though for sheer majesty a fully developed CB with a towering anvil is hard to beat. Nimbostratus I suppose must be bottom of the pile. Rain, more rain and more rain.

7. Was becoming a pilot a childhood dream and if so, did the actual experience of being pilot live up you to your childhood expectations?

My career as a pilot has far exceeded all my expectations. I looked forward to every flight and was never disappointed. I still do.


8. Is there any specific type of airliner that you would love to fly, but have not yet had the opportunity?

I suppose the Airbus 380 - but too old now!


9. Can you describe the importance of weather forecasts for aviation and have you at any time trusted your own intuition over them?

I could not possibly overstate the importance of forecasting to aviation. Based on the forecast you go or do not go. You know where best to track whether it be to avoid turbulence or take advantage of a jetstream (or avoid it as the case may be). Of course forecasting can never be 100% accurate but at worst it gives you some idea of what to expect. Other than small local phenomena which one becomes aware of from time to time. Like for instance in Cork before the upgrade of the approach facilities I was always aware that a wind shift from southerly to about 210 degrees seemed to lift a 100 foot cloud base to the 200 feet then required for landing I would never trust my own intuition before the forecast from Met (I was too spoiled over the years with excellent forecasting - especially by the Met Éireann team).

10. Does piloting an airliner ever become 'second nature', or do you still get nervous before a take off / landing?

No to both. Training and retraining is so much part and parcel of a pilot's career that one is very much in one's comfort zone in the cockpit but always very aware of the need to keep ahead of the aircraft.

11. Are you scared of heights?

I don't like unprotected heights e.g. edges of cliffs, high bridges, even up on the garage roof. As long as I'm protected on all sides as in an aircraft I have no bother.


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