Covid demolished Ashley’s dream flying career but after eight months driving buses during lockdown he is taking to the skies once more

Maghaberry man Ashley Robinson is about to take the air again as a commercial jet pilot - after spending an enjoyable eight months piloting a Translink bus during lockdown.

By Philip Bradfield
Thursday, 14th April 2022, 6:46 pm
Updated Thursday, 14th April 2022, 7:00 pm

The 38-year-old father of four always harboured a desire to be a pilot, since visiting an aeronautical museum in his childhood and coming away with a model Red Arrows jet. 

However the exceptionally high eyesight standards required appeared to be an insurmountable problem and as he grew up he resigned himself to developing his other great passion of cooking.

His plan B was to become an RAF chef but after graduating from catering college he secured a job at the International Airport, where he made good progress and met his wife Naomi. But after being left a cottage in his grandfather’s will, they decided this was his last chance to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot.

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Maghaberry man Ashley Robinson undertook a gruelling journey to become a pilot and was just settling into his career when lockdown hit, so he retrained as a bus driver. Now the skies are opening up again he is preparing to spread his wings once again.

Aged 31 and with three children, he left to live with her father in Canada for nine months in 2015 for an affordable training programme that had a “more realistic” eyesight requirements.

This coincided with complications in her fourth pregnancy and resulted in their nine-year-old son Peter going to live with Ashley for several months while he was training. As a result the pair would often be doing academic work in the morning, with Peter accompanying his father on flying lessons in the afternoon.

After a further five months converting his qualifications to UK standards in Bournemouth and a further course to qualify for passenger jets in Dublin, Ashley began the hard slog of looking for a job. He started with freelance work as a second pilot flying special medical patients to England on small dual propeller craft in May 2018. His big break came a year later when he finally landed his first job with CityJet, flying from Dublin to London and later all around Europe.

“Knowing how hard I worked to get to that point, I felt like I was ten feet tall when I first walked through the airport with my First Officer’s uniform on,” he said.

He was flying the dream for almost two years when in March 2019 the pandemic hit and the planes he was flying to and from London had almost no passengers.

“I knew then that the job was coming to an end - but for how long nobody knew.”

Now a father-of-four, who was still repaying debts incurred in qualifying, he found work with Tescos, picking and packing internet orders alongside furloughed accountants and solicitors during lockdown, and piloting a grocery delivery truck. However, while he was glad of the work, the hours and income were not enough for his demands. He spotted a Translink advert for bus drivers in the newspaper and said to himself: “I could do that”.

At interview he acknowledged that he would return to flying as and when it might be possible - although nobody knew then when that might be. He ended up driving buses around Co Down and Armagh and up into Belfast for almost eight months.”You meet some lovely characters and I found it very enjoyable to drive a big vehicle. And I will definitely be making sure I keep my skills and licence up to date.”

But then as Covid rules began to relax and the skies began to open again, his heart turned back to his first love and he started looking for opportunities once again.

He is now undergoing induction and training in Leeds to fly the Boeing 737-800 with, hoping to be back in the sky by the end of June. “It is surreal. I feel almost like someone is going to come and take it all away from me again. It finally feels like our family life will arrive at where it was meant to be and that is why we went through all this hard work and pain.

“Naomi - who is my rock - my mum and dad and in-laws have all given so much to make this happen. And with my higher salary now I want to make the lives of all those that I love so much better.”