A former Waringstown girl has taken to the skies across the big pond and is hoping to one day earn her wings as a pilot with Air Canada.
At the age of 16 former Banbridge Academy student Alex Hawthorne moved to Canada with her mother Alison and brother Daniel. The move came about after Alison, a flight attendant for many years, married a Canadian pilot whom she met on her travels - a case of love at first flight.
They married in 2006 and the family now live in Kitchener, Ontario, roughly an hour outside Toronto.
Inspired by her step-dad Doug, Alex has already gained her full private pilot’s licence, is currently working on her commercial licence, and hopes to one day follow in his footsteps and fly with Air Canada.
Alex, now 24, recalled her first ever flight: “The first time I was on a commercial aircraft was when I was four years old. I was going to Lanzarote with my parents and brother. I was really excited. The noise was a bit frightening, but I loved the speed of the take off. Back in those days you were still allowed to visit the pilots in the flight deck, so my brother and I went up with a flight attendant and I remember wondering what all the buttons were for.
“My first flight in a small single engine aircraft was when I was 15 years old. I was in the RAF ATC (Royal Air Force Air Training Corps) Lisburn 817 Squadron. I had begun flight lessons with an RAF flight instructor in a Grob Vigiliant T1 motor glider, and soon after that I received my gliding certificate.”
Speaking of her inspiration she said: “My stepfather inspired me to become a pilot. My mum was a flight attendant for First Choice Airways and was based out of Dublin, were she met my Canadian stepdad Doug Glussich. He was on a pilot exchange with his Canadian airline Sky Service, so was based out of Dublin for six months.
“After meeting him when I was 15, I thought the idea of flying a plane would be a fun career. It gave me the incentive to join the air cadets and see what flying was all about. He now is a captain for Air Canada, which is my end goal.
“I think it’s very important to love what you do, and for me my passion is flying. I also love to travel.”
She added: “My most difficult flight as a pilot was my PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence) flight test. I did it on 9/11 2012. Which kind of added to the nerves.
“I had a number of procedures to conquer to prove that I was a good and, of course, safe pilot. I had to simulate emergencies (such as an engine failure, stalling the aircraft, electrical failures) and recover from them in a safe and timely manner.
“The examiner also put me into a spin and a spiral dive (these can happen if the aircraft is stalled or from engine failures) and we’re trained to recover quickly as we have a small window to do so before the point of no return.
“It can be scary, however, we don’t really have time to be scared as we have to quickly do a number of steps to recover the aircraft back to straight and level flight. I studied hard for the flight test, and ended up getting 107/120. It was such a relief to have passed, and with a good mark.”
She offered the following words of encouragement to girls thinking of taking to the skies: “To other young women considering this career path... go for it! Women don’t realize that this career is an option for them. I certainly didn’t until my mum and stepdad introduced me to the world of aviation.
“In Canada, less than 10% of pilots are female. And I’m sure back home this number is even smaller. But it’s like anything else - it takes a lot of school, study and commitment, but is achievable just like any other career.
“Women are afraid to step into this industry as it is considered ‘a man’s world’. But if men can do it, then women can do it better!
“You just have to have confidence in yourself and be determined to succeed. Being up there, in control of the aircraft, is the most exhilarating feeling ever. It’s really like no other, you get such an adrenaline rush from it. So being able to do that everyday is really like a dream come true. Girls, the sky is the limit!”
Talking about what she missed most about home she said: “I miss my family the most. My grandparents, aunt and uncles, and cousins. They are all in Waringstown and Banbridge. I still try to go home at least once a year to visit, but it can be difficult not seeing them often.
“They’re all great supporters of me being out here and training to become a pilot, so that means a lot and cheers me up on the days I feel homesick.
“The next thing I miss is the food. There are no chippies out here, so I definitely still get cravings for battered sausages and good ole chip shop chips. And I miss all the crisps, biscuits and chocolate bars. What I wouldn’t give somedays for a packet of Tayto cheese and onion, or a Wispa! Canadians don’t know what they’re missing!”
Alex flies out of Waterloo Wellington flight centre, which was awarded the most female friendly flight training centre worldwide in 2013 by the Woman in Aviation Organisation.
Her brother Daniel (23) is a professional snow boarding instructor.