Cork pilot: I've swapped my jet for a tractor!

The pandemic has changed many lives — here, Cork pilot Kieran O’Regan tells CHRIS DUNNE that he has been driving a tractor for a living since being grounded by Covid
Cork pilot: I've swapped my jet for a tractor!

FEET ON THE GROUND: Pilot Kieran O’Regan behind the wheel of a tractor

FOR Kieran O’Regan, the pandemic has meant swapping one cabin for another — and taking his head from the clouds and placing his feet firmly in the soil.

The 41-year-old from Ladysbridge, East Cork, is a pilot for Aer Lingus, but the onset of Covid-19 has seen him grounded. So he has reverted to his original passion for driving tractors!

“Ever since I was a small boy I was always mad about all kinds of machinery,” says Kieran, who was piloting tractors around farm-yards when he was nine years old.

“Everything about big machinery fascinated me. How it worked, how it moved, what made the engine tick. As a teenager, working around home with local farming contractors, I was in my element.”

But the big machines in the sky fascinated him even more.

“Flying has always been my passion for as long as I can remember,” says Kieran. “It was always my goal to be a commercial pilot.”

When the virus arrived, bang! The entire aviation sector and most of the 143,000 workers the industry supports found themselves without work.

Kieran decided to look to other horizons to keep himself occupied and keep himself afloat and can now be seen driving tractors for a living for agricultural contractor John Flavin.

“I have bills to pay like everyone else,” he says. “Working for a farming contractor is more of a necessity. John and I have been friends all our lives and he took me on, driving machinery, tilling, ploughing, harvesting and later in the season, doing the silage.

“I feel very fortunate to be occupied and having a reason to get up every day. Being out in the fresh air is really healthy. The countryside is a lovely environment to be in.

“Keeping busy is a good thing; there is so little to distract us these days. Not dwelling on the negatives is important.”

Kieran has been a pilot with Aer Lingus five years, and first flew solo at Cork airport aged 16. He still meets old friends from the sky while chugging round the great outdoors in East Cork. “Ploughing the fields, the seagulls are squawking all around you! The seagulls and the hawks flying above you is relaxing.”

He has found it easy to transfer his skill-set, thinking outside the box, decision-making, problem solving, getting on with the job, learning new skills, while promoting camaraderie with his work-mates. It all makes the working day — albeit ploughing along in the middle of a wheat field instead of gliding along fluffy clouds — an uplifting experience.

“Working with agricultural machinery is nothing new for me,” says Kieran. “I was always used to it. The agricultural machinery and farm machinery implements are a little different now, but it’s all a learning curve for me.”

Kieran who travels the world extensively as a pilot, is clearly a home-grown boy at heart.

“I can operate agricultural machinery and I can service and fix the machines too. I worked in construction in the city for a while before it shut down due to Covid.”

He is very adaptable, but some habits from his pilot days are hard to break. “Ironing a shirt feels weird now!” says Kieran laughing. “When I was reporting for duty at the airport; I’d be pristine! My uniform was perfect. I was always well turned out and clean-shaven. It’s a bit strange for me now covered in oil and having a beard! I just want to get back into the air.”

Kieran studied electronic engineering, physics and instrumentation in third level so he could start working to fund his passion.

“I never let the dream go,” says Kieran, who began his initial training at flight school Bankstown, Sydney. “I did my entire flight training in Australia. I was working full-time and doing exams, flying at the weekends. After converting my Australian pilot’s license to the European equivalent, I was lucky to land a job with Aer Arran, now Stobart Air, who were hiring.”

Competition to take off was keen.

HIGH-FLYER: Kieran O’Regan in the cockpit in his normal job as a pilot
HIGH-FLYER: Kieran O’Regan in the cockpit in his normal job as a pilot

“Getting my first job was hard,” says Kieran. “The competition was fierce. Flying the turbo-prop for Stobart was the gateway to getting a job. I progressed to Aer Lingus after three years, which was the pinnacle for me. Aer Lingus was my future.”

What is the freedom of flying like?

“It is amazing,” says Kieran. “There is no feeling like it. In Australia, the weather can often be stormy, but it is never foggy. It’s a different climate. Flying conditions in Ireland or in the UK, Bristol, for example, are totally different. Fog and wind can be challenging so you formulate a plan.”

Kieran says the Irish Government haven’t formulated a plan to open up the Irish aviation industry post-Covid.

“Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan admitted that,” says Kieran. “That seems bizarre considering the aviation industry generates €17 billion annually to our net GDP.

“We’ve got no meaningful financial aid from the Government to keep the industry open. From airports to aircraft leasing, to tourism, to providing and maintaining essential connectivity attracting direct foreign investment into this country; support from our Government is vital.”

“Lufthansa is commencing a twice-weekly Cork-Frankfurt service for the summer of 2021,” says Kieran.

Other countries have financially supported their airlines realising they are essential to the world economy.

“I should be looking at flying out of Cork Airport this summer,” says Kieran. “Instead, I’m in the cab of a tractor.”

“We see now airlines are moving crafts to other countries. Getting them back will be very difficult. To buy a A320 airbus would cost millions of dollars. We need the finances to pay for the lease of planes, the maintenance of planes and the parking fees for planes, so that we can be ready to go when travel spikes again.”

Kieran, who hasn’t flown since December 21 last year, is relieved that his currency and medicals are up to speed. “Many other pilots haven’t been able to do their proficiency line checks or Sim checks. Being grounded for the second consecutive summer is devastating.”

Kieran misses the camaraderie of flying.

“Everyone works as a team. The Captain is the manager who involves everyone in his decisions. You know, I never saw it as glamorous, I know some people do. Maybe working as a pilot or as cabin crew seemed glamourous back in the day. For me, it is what I do. It is my passion.”

Kieran is appealing to people to support the recovery of Irish aviation.

“Join the conversation,” he says. “Write to your local TD’s to prompt them to help the aviation industry to recover. If we don’t recover we are not looking at a recession economy-wise. We are looking at a depression.”

For now, in the lush countryside, surrounded by nature and by his friends, he is enjoying the view, keeping it country. But his eyes still scan the horizon.

“I want to get back in the air again. It’s what I do.”

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