Denise McDonagh: Senior First Officer

What first piqued your interest in aviation?
My initial interest in flying and aviation was triggered when Knock airport was built near my home in the west of Ireland, during my childhood. I was completely fascinated and intrigued by the magic and mystery of flight. My curiosity continued and fuelled a passion for aviation. The notional dream of becoming a pilot was just that and didn’t seem to be a realistic ambition or career.

I embarked on a military career serving 13 years as an army officer in the Irish Defence Forces. While in the military I gained exposure to some military pilots who shared their knowledge of how best to train to become a pilot and what was required. I knew my passion for aviation hadn’t gone away and I decided now with the security of an established career to invest in my journey and desire to become a pilot in my spare time.

How did you get to realise those ambitions?
In order to turn this ambition into a reality I contacted a flight school to arrange an introductory flight to experience the sensation of flight. I also arranged a meeting with the head of training to gain knowledge of the various options available to me for my personal journey and specific situation of being in full time military service with the aspiration of training in my spare time. I would advise anyone with aspirations of becoming a pilot to research the training programme, the subject content, the expected cost involved, and to speak with pilots and flight schools who can provide real advice and experience.

What advice do you have for aspiring pilots?
Advice to aspiring pilots would be: do not feel overwhelmed, everyone starts at the beginning. Gather as much information as possible on the training and process involved and speak with pilots to gain an understanding of the lifestyle to expect. There will of course be challenges but aviation is a passion. If it’s your passion the challenges are all surmountable.

What are some of the highlights of your flying career?
I commenced flight training September 2009 and qualified August 2011. I secured my first job in May 2012, and joined Virgin Atlantic July 2015.

Experiencing the freedom and exhilaration of my first flight was very special. Turning my passion and notional childhood dream of becoming a pilot into a reality step by step, irrespective of challenges faced, I found most enjoyable. The people you get to meet, the experiences shared and the memories made.

And the most challenging bits?
The most challenging aspect for me was probably the uncertainty of employment and the huge financial investment required.

If I was to do this all over again I don’t feel there is anything I would change, apart from following my dreams sooner perhaps? However, the life experience and military service equipped me with excellent tools and a solid foundation to turn my notional dream into a reality.

Why Virgin Atlantic?
Virgin Atlantic is an incredible brand that I am very proud to represent. It is an iconic, dynamic and progressive brand that embraces diversity and leads the way in innovation, always seeking opportunity. It has an amazing global footprint and is both well respected and loved, yet manages to maintain a personal touch where people are valued.

I am most excited to continue my professional development and aspire to become a captain at Virgin Atlantic once the opportunity presents. I would hope to have the opportunity to play a role in aviation training. Inspiring / assisting aspiring pilots by sharing knowledge or experience is something I that I feel passionate about, creating a way to follow your dreams and passions.

Which women have inspired you?

  • Amelia Earhart, no explanation needed
  • Mary Robinson (from my home place, first female president of Ireland, a cultural, political and diplomatic inspiration)
  • Sonia O’Sullivan (I have a huge passion for sport and sports people, their drive, dedication, motivation and sacrifice in order to achieve their ambitions.)

Return to our inspirational women page