Love is in the air
If you thought working alongside your other half might be fun, Belfast husband and wife Jo and Andy Mackenzie are taking it to a whole new level as pilots for the same airline. Audrey Watson meets the couple who have brought romance to the flight deck.
According to Sigmund Freud “all that matters is love and work” and for Belfast-based husband and wife pilots Jo and Andy Mackenzie, never a truer word was spoken. The couple, who work for Flybe, are often in the cockpit together flying routes all over Europe from George Best Belfast City Airport, and while some might find working and living together a bit of a strain, first officer Jo and line training captain Andy, who first met as a result of the 9/11 attacks on America, take it all in their stride.
“The week after we got married, Andy and I were flying together and he had to announce over the tannoy that Captain Andrew Mackenzie and First Officer Mrs Jo Mackenzie were piloting the plane,” laughs Jo. “We wondered how long it would take for the passengers to realise that we were husband and wife.”
“Flying together is actually very enjoyable,” says Andy. “We weren’t sure if it would work at the start, but decided to try it and see and if we didn’t like it, we would ask for the roster to be changed. But it was great. We just slip into work mode and get on with it.”
But what if they have had a row?
“Some couples thrive on a good argument, but Andy’s not an arguer — it’s normally just me arguing at him,” jokes Jo.
“At the start I did think it might be a bit weird, but you leave everything behind and slip into professional mode — you have to as there is a lot of concentration involved in flying a plane.”
Originally from Australia, Andy (33) grew up in Manchester and first met Belfast girl Jo (32) 10 years ago when the terrible events of September 11, 2001, threw both of their career ambitions into disarray.
“It’s weird how that date changed so many people’s lives,” says Jo. “It was a terrible thing to happen, but if it hadn’t, Andy and I would never have met.
“I had just finished studying aeronautics at Imperial College London that June and had been travelling over the summer before I was due to start training as a pilot with British Airways in September.
“However, 9/11 changed everything and on September 13, 2001, the course was cancelled. I came back home to Northern Ireland with no job and not knowing what to do next. As I had done my dissertation on air accident investigation, I managed to get sponsorship to do a masters degree in air accident investigation at Cranfield University.
“Andy was halfway through a cadet pilot scholarship with Flybe and was training with Cabair at Cranfield Airport. Because the whole industry was in a state of upheaval, he didn’t know how long he would have to wait after finishing his training to get a job.
“One month after the planes hit the Twin Towers, we met by chance in a bar when I was on a night out with two of my course-mates — one of whom also met her future husband that very same evening.
“I was at the bar and a guy from Andy’s course started chatting me up and then I was introduced to Andy.”
Although the couple shared a kiss that night, they remained just good friends for six years before becoming a couple and marrying on October 14 last year.
Says Andy: “I remember that night well, but afterwards our paths diverged and I went to Exeter with Flybe for a few years, but we always stayed in touch and if I had any time when I flew to Belfast, or had a stopover, we always met up.”
Adds Jo: “I’ve since discovered that those stopovers weren’t coincidence — he was actually requesting the Belfast routes,” she laughs. “And he deliberately stayed at the Stormont Hotel, just round the corner from me!”
Despite her original course being cancelled, a few years later Jo got another sponsored place with BA to train as a pilot and ended up also working for Flybe. And when Andy accepted a job based at George Best Belfast City Airport, the couple’s close friendship soon blossomed into romance.
Becoming a pilot was something Jo had wanted to do from a very early age — despite her father’s fear of flying.
She recalls: “We lived in Castlereagh and from our house you could see the final approach of planes flying into the City Airport and I was always mesmerised.
“When I was 15, for my birthday I asked for a trial flight where you are taken up in a private plane for an hour and shown all the controls. As soon as we left the ground I knew I had to fly and that was me hooked.
“At Imperial College, there was a university air squadron where I was taught to fly by the RAF. And then during my summer break one year, I went to San Diego and got my private pilot’s licence.
“When I was little, dad was a bus driver
and he always jokes that I followed in his footsteps only my bus has wings and I don’t take the fares!
“Dad is really terrified of flying. We did manage to get him to Spain just once for a holiday when I was a young girl, but that was only because mum told him that we would go without him if he refused to fly,” she laughs.
“Andy is very reassuring with him and when I started at Flybe, he travelled with him as a passenger and I flew the plane. We went to Aberdeen and back and dad had tears in his eyes. I think it was a mixture of pride in me and in himself because he had done it.
“But he still hates flying and there’s no point in pushing things — of course, me being a walking book on air disasters because of my master’s course doesn’t help,” she laughs.
Although the number of female pilots is on the increase, it still comes as a surprise to some passengers that a woman will be at the controls. So has Jo experienced any prejudice?
“There are lots of people who still like to make a joke about it,” says Jo. (“A bit like women drivers,” laughs Andy.) “And it is a bit of a novelty, especially for the older generation who sometimes comment.
“Once, early on in my career, a guy was boarding in Manchester and when he realised that there would be two females flying the plane, he said that he wouldn’t get on the flight.
“A member of the cabin crew was very straightforward and told him that he was very welcome to get off and pay for a later flight, so he got on board. But that attitude is very rare.”
Becoming a pilot doesn’t require a university degree, but it does require self-financing up to £100,000 and only the very few are lucky enough to be ‘sponsored’ by an airline.
Says Andy: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a pilot. I was one of the lucky ones, but it took me a year to get sponsorship, during which time I worked as a dispatcher on the ground at Manchester Airport, where my mum worked. There are only about four sponsorships each year with BA and up to 1,000 people apply. Many end up borrowing the money — it’s like an enormous student loan, without any guarantee of a job.
“If you have sponsorship, then you repay the company by working and flying with them for a number of years.”
Adds Jo: “It really is very competitive. I think the fact that I had shown an interest in flying from a very early age, had a degree in aeronautics and also the master’s and also got my private licence independently helped me get sponsorship and proved my commitment.
“But it’s the best job in the world. If you get a really clear night you can see how the country fits together and the cities are formed. The Belfast approach is lovely because you can see the lough and circling over it is beautiful.
“And I’m still captivated by how these huge planes stay in the sky. I know all the laws of physics, but there is still something very magical about it.”
Is being an airline pilot as glamorous a job as it appears in films?
“It’s definitely not,” she laughs. “I think 20 years ago if you were flying to New York it might have appeared so, but people become pilots because they really love flying, not for any other reason.
“Some mornings you have to get up at 4am and the only glamorous thing is that around 6.30am, you pierce through the cloud space and see the dawn and the blue sky — and that is amazing.
“However, once my roster saw me flying to Alicante, Malaga, Verona and Faro all in the one week, but you are only there for 35 minutes while the plane is turned around, so you don’t even have time for an ice cream.”
“You walk off the plane, feel the sun on your skin and then walk back up the steps,” laughs Andy. “The days of long stopovers in exotic places are long gone.”
Adds Jo: “One of the best things about the job for Andy and I is that because we work out of the City Airport, there are no flights after 9.30pm, so we get to do what we really love and fly all over Europe during the day and then get to come home to Belfast every night.”