A CORK woman is being celebrated for making aviation history as Ireland’s first female aerobatic stunt pilot.
Laura Russell, who works as first officer for Aer Lingus, is currently preparing to compete in the Las Vegas World Advanced Aerobatic Championships taking place in November of this year.
The Monkstown native is one of many female success stories being highlighted today as part of International Women’s Day.
The global initiative champions the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women across the world.
Laura is looking forward to flying the flag for Cork woman at the World Advanced Aerobatic Championships (WAAC) which are held every two years under the auspices of the FAI Aerobatics Commission. Member countries vie annually to host the event with a group from the USA submitting the winning bid for 2023.
The event will take place in host airport Jean Nevada, just minutes from downtown Las Vegas.
Monkstown native, Laura- whose day job has been flying Aer Lingus passengers since 2017- said she owes much of her success to growing up around strong women. She described her mother Mary, aunt Cathy and late grandmother Patricia as her main influences growing up.
“Sometimes people can be negative,” she said.
The dream all started with a flying lesson purchased by Laura’s grandmother.
“My mum bought me a flight to Edinburgh for me and my nan. I think that was my very first commercial flight and I loved the experience. All I did after that was look at the sky and think about how amazing it would be to fly an airplane. Nan was a complete daredevil. When she saw how interested I was she decided to buy me a flying lesson. November of 2004 was my first time flying.” Laura initially studied physics at UCC before pursuing her dream of becoming a pilot.
“I was finishing my degree in physics at UCC so I was a broke college student- as you might imagine. When I finished my degree in 2008 I still hadn’t enough hours for the commercial pilot license course. I ended up sticking with physics and won a scholarship to do a PHD that would keep me employed for three or four years. This meant I had a little income. It wasn’t much but it would allow me to keep building my hours.” Ms Russell is now a First Officer with Aer Lingus.
“I’ve been flying passengers since 2017. It was quite a long process and took 11 years between me starting flying and getting the role.” The Cork woman said misconceptions still exist about females in the aviation industry.
“A lot of people have assumed that I’m cabin crew. I’m not particularly precious about these things and don’t tend to worry but it can be funny sometimes. In a way it’s mad because they assume that the male I’m flying with is the one and only pilot.” She described one such example.
“I was on my way back to the flight desk when one woman asked me if I could get her a bottle of water and organise to have her moved seats. I advised her to check with a member of cabin crew and she was so embarrassed after realising her mistake.” She praised Aer Lingus for championing female pilots.
“There are four female pilots which is high when you look at other parts of Europe. I try to highlight what I do as much as possible. You’ll hear people see that “if you can’t see it, you can’t be and that’s certainly true when it comes to a career like this.” Aerobatic flying is a huge passion of Laura’s.
“What I do is competitive. It’s a sport with very specific rules. There are rules governing your manoeuvres, their order and how precisely you fly them. It’s basically the aerial equivalent of ice-skating in that ice-skaters have to complete a particular set of manoeuvres. What we’re doing is like what ice-skaters do but in the air.” She opened up about her love for the sport.
“I have difficulty describing how the whole experience makes me feel because it’s a uniquely personal thing. It’s a completely addictive sport. The sensation of flying a series of aerobatic manoeuvres is an amazing feeling. There is something absolutely ethereal about the experience. When you’re back on land it’s hard to shake the adrenaline out of your body.” Laura said that music helps settle her mind while flying.
“My first love is metal but electronic music is beautiful when flying and there is something about it that settles my mind. A typical aerobatic sequence is probably four minutes long. Take off to landing is only ever between 15 and 20 minutes in total. The performance has to happen within a one kilometre cube of airspace. The whole flight will consist of 10 or 14 aerobatic figures so the basic elements would be a loop and a roll before they move up the levels and become more complex.” The Cork woman is proud to be making her mark internationally.
“It’s the first time an Irish female is ever going to do this. For me, this is a big deal, not just because it’s making a little bit of Irish history but also because of the long journey it’s taken me to get to the level I’m at. There’s very little aerobatic flying in Ireland which is why I go to the UK all the time to train. Like with any aviation endeavour its quite expensive too so I’m actively looking for sponsorship opportunities too just to help with the training. To win a trophy you are looking at quite a mountain of training and preparation for it.” Safety is a huge aspect of Laura’s air show performances.
Laura’s UCC physics qualifications have lent themselves well to a successful career.
“Every day I fly-whether it’s commercial or aerobatic- I’m looking at the ultimate application of physics. Each second of every flight relies on my physics background. It’s made the technical aspects of flying very easy to digest.”