Belfast Telegraph

The Big Interview: 'Aviation is difficult and no two days are the same, but there's nowhere else I could get a job like this'

The Big Interview: David Shaw

By Ryan McAleer

Growing up in Templepatrick, under the flight-line of Belfast International Airport, David Shaw was always looking to the skies. The sight of jets roaring overhead clearly had an influence.

Three decades on, David is now account manager at Woodgate Aviation at Aldergrove, while his older brother Neil joined the RAF.

"My family was always interested in aviation," he says. "I grew up looking at aeroplanes all my life."

Aviation plays an even bigger role in his own burgeoning family of four - his fiancee Clare (Gillespie) works as a member of cabin crew with Aer Lingus.

"It works well, because you're with someone who understands the aviation game, that it is 24/7, doesn't stop and schedules change."

Their third child is soon on the way, joining daughters Evie and the aptly named Amelia.

But was she named after the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart?

"In my head, yes," says David.

Still living under the flight path in Templepatrick, David enjoys a short commute to the office next to Belfast International Airport.

Woodgate Aviation may not be a household name, but the 50-year-old family business plays a massive role for hundreds of families here.

That's because the aviation company has the contract to transfer transplant and other seriously ill patients from Northern Ireland to Britain.

Using its own road ambulances, the firm operates a home to hospital service for 380 patients a year, transferring them to London, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

The air ambulance service represents about 80% of all activity at the Co Antrim company, which also operates out of a second base on the Isle of Man.

Times have changed since founder Mike Woodgate set up the company in 1969 in what was a somewhat more glamorous era for aviation.

Before budget airlines dominated the skies, private contractors such as Woodgate Aviation earned their keep by flying business figures to Britain for important meetings.

"We would have been taking them over and back in the same day, so saving on hotel costs and long journeys to airports and flying them much closer to their destination," he explains.

In previous years, the company also moved cargo for Royal Mail and flew newspapers from Edinburgh.

Woodgate was eventually taken over by Holywood man Alan Keen.His son John now largely holds the reins. "I started as an operations assistant, and being a small family-run business there were always opportunities for promotion," says David.

"I had studied at Queen's, doing aeronautical engineering, so that allowed me to get involved in the maintenance side of the business."

The course, which focuses on aircraft design, in some ways acts as a conveyor belt for the aviation industry in Northern Ireland and beyond.

"By doing that, I ended up getting a broad spectrum of everything that went on through the business."

David's first weeks on the aeronautical course in September 2001 coincided with one of the darkest periods in aviation - 9/11.

"It had a serious impact on the industry," he says.

"By the time I was graduating in 2004, the job prospects in the design side were difficult to come by."

These days, the company is divided between the services it offers private aircraft owners and its contract for transferring seriously ill patients.

It employs around 40 people between its operations at Aldergrove and the Isle of Man.

"The business has changed from being air taxis, operations and cargo towards air ambulance. It's probably 80% of our total business at the minute," says David.

"We've a lot of patients here who need to go to the mainland for specialist treatment, and very often the only way to get them there is by air, with time being critical.

"We offer a bed to bed service. We have our own road ambulances.

"We pick up the patients from hospital or home, bring them straight to the airport, on to the aircraft and we arrange transport at the destination for them."

The contract it has operated for the Health and Social Care Board since 2006 means the Templepatrick man, and his crews, must always be on standby.

"My phone is 24/7, but we have a great team of operations staff," he says.

One essential task the company fulfils is transferring seriously ill riders from the Isle of Man's world famous road racing events, such as the TT.

Some of the glamour still exists at Woodgate Aviation. The company offers a service for the super rich, providing hangars and servicing for privately owned aircraft and VIP lounging for the owners.

"We have three aircraft based here full-time for private owners. These are high net worth individuals," says David.

Woodgate arranges everything from private hangars and maintenance to organising food, wine and crew, even air hostesses if needed.

It also works as a liaison with aircraft manufacturers where a potential customer wishes to take a closer look at a plane before buying.

But it's not cheap. Buying a private aircraft starts from around $1.5m and increases well into the tens of millions.

"A typical mid-sized jet will cost you around $6,500 (£5,000) per hour to operate," explains David.

"The average owner is probably looking at around $1.5-$2m (£1.1-1.5m) of a budget in a year, just to run the aircraft." With the wealth and prestige that surrounds The Open, Woodgate is well placed to reap some of the peripheral rewards when Portrush hosts one of golf's most famous events next year.

David said the company has been taking steps and expects to attract both players and wealthy individuals.

"We have already started a promotion to offer free aircraft handling," he says.

"Their aircraft can pull up and we'll have their chauffeured car or helicopter arriving at the same time to pick them up from the steps of the aircraft and take them on to Portrush or wherever they're staying."

Just last month the company enjoyed an endorsement from former world number one Ernie Els during a three-hour stopover at its facility.

"Ernie was great, very relaxed. To be honest, with these types of people we try to be discreet, just make sure they're comfortable and leave them to it," he says.

Looking ahead to the business potential for next year's event at Royal Portrush, he adds: "There has been nothing before that has been on the scale of The Open. We are trying to market our facility that we are ready and open."

The complex at Aldergrove recently underwent a £2m upgrade, with plans in place for further development of a similar size.

"The planning permission is there, it's just a matter of when we're going to push the button on it," he says.

It may be glamorous, but the aeronautical world is one of the most regulated industries on the planet.

"We're bound by tight regulations - the same regulations as British Airways and easyJet," says David.

One of the biggest issues for the company in recent years has been IT.

"With so many modules to our business, from aircraft management to maintenance, we struggle massively with software and IT integration with all these various departments."

He said the company is actively trying to streamline things by replacing older systems and working towards greater integration."

"Aviation is difficult, it changes daily. No two days for me are the same," he concludes.

"But there's nowhere else I could get a job like this."

Belfast Telegraph

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