Look up ... it’s been 75 years

Aer Lingus is celebrating 75 years in the air next Friday. Pól Ó Conghaile looks at the special role the iconic airline has played in the history of the state

IT WAS 75 years ago next Friday, on May 27, 1936, when Captain Eric Armstrong took off from Baldonnel aerodrome in a DH84 Dragon named Iolar (eagle). The pilot was carrying three dignitaries and two paying customers on an historic journey — Aer Lingus’s inaugural flight which went from Dublin to Bristol.

The plane was scheduled to depart at 9am. It had been blessed by the airport chaplain, and the small crowd in attendance included then-Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass, and poet and surgeon Oliver St John Gogarty. Inauspiciously, Iolar was late departing for its two-hour flight, resulting in the two paying passengers missing their onwards train connection to London.

Fast forward three-quarters of a century. Crummy queues. Security frisks. Cheap flights that, after taxes, airport charges and security fees are added, add up to multiples of the advertised fare. The image of a five-seater running late for its maiden flight seems almost quaint.

Remember, however, that the Wright Brothers had hauled their first plane into the air to fly for all of 12 seconds just 33 years earlier. Alcock and Brown had crash-landed in a bog outside Clifden just 17 years before. Commercial flight was very much in its infancy, and Aer Lingus’s inaugural flight represented the dawn of a new era for a fledgling island nation.

Aer Lingus Teoranta was founded on May 22, 1936, as a company with the responsibility for flying commercial traffic into and out of Ireland. At the time, some small airlines already existed in Ireland, and Seán Lemass seems to have been concerned that if the government didn’t advance its own commercial aviation strategy, a national airline would have been compromised. There was a faintly familiar problem, however, as Mike Cronin writes, in Doesn’t Time Fly, his social history of the airline: “Aer Lingus had no money.”

Just as pressingly, in 1936, it had no planes. But luckily, the new airline was able to secure a loan from Blackpool and Wes Cast Air Services, to purchase its inaugural craft, the DH84 Dragon.

Despite its late departure, Iolar landed successfully in Bristol, and by the end of 1936, Aer Lingus had added a further route to Liverpool. It would be some years before Lemass’s vision of the Irish State as an international junction for air traffic would come to pass, but it was a start.

In Cronin’s book, Dermot Cavanan, whose father worked as a flight sergeant from 1923 to 1966, recalls living on site at Baldonnel. Whenever the keys to Iolar were mislaid, he relates, his brother Leo was slotted through the cockpit window to open the door from the inside. “His reward for doing so was that he was allowed to take some of the boiled sweets from the seat pockets!”

The Second World War stalled Aer Lingus’s progress, but the airline came back with a bang in 1945 at the new Dublin Airport at Collinstown. Routes mushroomed following an agreement with Britain that granted access to Shannon for transatlantic flights in return for sole rights on routes between Ireland and Britain. Before long, there were flights to Paris, Amsterdam and Rome.

Since then, of course, the Aer Lingus shamrock has flown through some of the most exciting and challenging times for global aviation. Aer Lingus was a flagship for Irish tourism, but also a spiriter-away of emigrants. Its Carvairs, Vickers Viscounts, Super Connies and 747s created an emotional connection that continues to resonate today.

The early days of transatlantic flight, in particular, evoke a golden age of air travel.

Aerlínte Éireann’s first commercial flight from New York to Dublin took off on April 24, 1958. As it did so, Captain Bill Donahue sang ‘Kevin Barry’ over the PA system to passengers, including the Mayor of New York, 30 American reporters and various pillars of the Irish American community.

“We flew for about four-and-a-half hours,” as Brendan O’Kelly, a retired Aer Lingus Sales Manager for North America, told me some years ago.

“And then the captain announced that the luck of the Irish wasn’t holding up. There was an engine failure ... we had to dump fuel, which in those days was a dangerous, fraught thing, because the fuel gushed out very near the propellers.”

“It was terrifying, let me tell you,” added Miriam Conway, one of three cabin crew on duty that night. “I felt my graveyard was going to be the Atlantic.”

The N1009C diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. One 22-hour delay and a refitted engine later, it flew on, via a brief stop in Shannon, to land at Dublin Airport. The return flight to New York, Aerlínte Éireann’s official transatlantic inaugural, was seen off by Éamon de Valera.

Before the transatlantic era, in 1939, Aer Lingus had secured its first cabin crew member when Eva Toner, who worked in the publicity department, put together her own uniform and acted as an impromptu stewardess on the Dublin to Liverpool route.

It wasn’t until 1945, however, that the first official air hostesses were put to work on the Dublin to London service, after newspaper ads solicited applicants aged between 21 and 26, weighing 7.5 to 9 stone, and of course, being “attractive, intelligent and [having] personality and charm”.

“If you got into [Aer Lingus], it was considered one of the top jobs going,” as Miriam Conway told me. “Ireland was such a small place, and so parochial,” she continued. “Everyone knew everyone else. A lot of the crews even married each other ...”

At the time, the press and public in Ireland were obsessed with glamorous Aer Lingus air hostesses. A story even did the rounds that a princess descended from Russian royalty had applied for — and failed to get — a cabin crew position with the national airline.

For their troubles, cabin crew with Aer Lingus were banned from cycling to work, smoking, arranging dates with passengers and, until the marriage bar expired in 1970, all women who chose to marry had to leave the airline. The first male crew member was appointed in 1978.

In 1971, Aer Lingus accepted delivery of its first Jumbo Jet. Eight years later, Pope John Paul II would fly from Rome to Dublin and later from Shannon to Boston on a specially-chartered 747.

Aer Lingus has had its bad days too, of course. Also in 1971, for instance, insurers insisted the airline pay a special war risk of £500,000, due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Earlier, in 1968, Aer Lingus Flight 712 crashed en route from Cork to London, killing 61 passengers and crew off Tuskar Rock, Co Wexford.

A 2002 report identified a structural fault in the plane’s tailfin as the most likely culprit, but speculation continues to this day that a British missile was involved.

The original Iolar also met a tragic fate. Sold on in 1938, it operated a service between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles during the Second World War. On June 3, 1941, the aircraft disappeared without trace, most likely shot down by German JU88s active in the area at the time.

Aer Lingus ended its days as the state airline when it was publicly floated in 2006, and has since battled not only the global economic downturn, but seemingly endless industrial disputes and a belligerent shareholder in its main short-haul competitor, Ryanair.

Despite its failings, and ongoing difficulties in transitioning from a state-owned airline to a nimbler, 21st-century service, Irish people still have an emotional attachment to Aer Lingus.

Sure, we pay for snacks, bags and seat selection. Yes, flying has become nastier (unless you’re one of the privileged few who turn left when boarding the plane). But there’s still something about an Aer Lingus smile that evokes Irish service at its heartwarming best.


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