Kennedy, Percy William (‘Darby’) (1914–2016), aviator and founder of Weston aerodrome, was born on 11 June 1914 in Barronrath, Straffan, Co. Kildare, one of nine children, to Edward ‘Cub’ Kennedy, breeder of racehorses (including the famous stallion the Tetrarch), and his wife Beryl Doris ‘Dorie’ Kennedy (née Lumsdaine). The Kennedy family was long established in Kildare – Darby Kennedy’s grandfather John Kennedy was one of the founders of the Kildare hunt and was created a baronet in 1836. His mother Dorie was an Australian of Scottish-Irish descent, a third cousin of Robert Barton (qv) and Erskine Childers (qv) through her mother and was also related to Andrew Barton Paterson, better known as ‘Banjo’ Paterson of Waltzing Matilda fame.
Kennedy boarded at Uppingham public school in Rutland, England, but during the summer holidays he would return to the family home at Bishopscourt, Straffan, where he often rode the ten-mile journey to Baldonnell aerodrome (renamed Casement aerodrome in 1965) on horseback. It was here that he caught the flying bug: he received his pilot’s license on 27 July 1932, and two years later joined the Aeronautical Engineering College (later Air Services Training College) at Hamble, Southampton, from where he gained his navigation and aeronautical licences. While there he also met his future wife, Joan Cooper; they married in 1936.
From the outset Kennedy’s ambition for Irish aviation was immense. As early as 1931 he had eyed land between Leixlip and Lucan, on the borders of Kildare and Dublin, with a view to establishing an aerodrome. In 1934 he took the idea further, returning briefly to Ireland with a plan to establish an air service between Dublin and Cork, but it appears to have come to nothing at that time. Between 1935 and 1937 Kennedy was first officer on Imperial Airways (which merged with British Airways Ltd in 1939 to form the British Overseas Airways Corporation), flying a Handley Page HP42 to South Africa, India, Malaya and Hong Kong. In 1937 he extended his flying skills by qualifying as a seaplane pilot and for a year flew a Sunderland flying boat on the pioneering Lake Victoria and Nile routes.
In 1937 Kennedy resurrected his plans for an aerodrome in Ireland: he applied for a licence to operate flights out of Weston and the following year formed the company Weston Ltd, offering flying instruction and charter flights. The following year he joined the recently formed Irish airline, Aer Lingus, which had begun flying in May 1936 between Baldonnel and Bristol using a six-seater biplane named Iolar (‘Eagle’). By the time Kennedy joined Aer Lingus, it had expanded its service to include London and Liverpool, and from 1940 operated from the newly built airport at Collinstown, Co. Dublin (now Dublin Airport). That year Kennedy had the distinction of being the first pilot to fly out of the new airport, piloting an Aer Lingus Lockheed 14 to Liverpool. Aer Lingus flights were severely curtailed during the second world war, but from November 1945 regular flights to London, Liverpool and Bristol were resumed. By this time Kennedy was the airline’s first ‘chief pilot’, and on 17 June 1946 he and Captain W. J. Scott flew Seán Lemass (qv) to Paris for the airline’s inaugural flight to continental Europe.
After ten years with the national carrier, in 1947 Kennedy abruptly left Aer Lingus. His reason appears to have been frustration at interference from the incoming government under John A. Costello (qv) regarding transatlantic flights – Aer Lingus had ordered five Lockheed L-749 Constellations with a view to expanding flights to New York but were curtailed in their ambitions. With so much flight experience behind him, Kennedy was in a prime position to open up aviation to the wider public and so, in 1947, he established a flying school at Weston aerodrome. This was the culmination of the long-term plan he had formulated as early as 1931. Flying a de Havilland Rapide and de Havilland Dragon, Kennedy organised pleasure flights at Tramore (Waterford), Waterville (Kerry), Rosses Point (Sligo) and other beaches long enough for a plane to take off from and land. He also offered chartered flights.
John B. Jermyne’s account of chartering two planes from Kennedy in 1948, to bring the Munster cricket team (which Jermyne captained) from Cork to Belfast, summed up the adventurous spirit of early aviation in Ireland. The planes took off from a prepared cow field at Farmer’s Cross, Cork (close to what is now Cork Airport), but on the return journey the following evening were unexpectedly forced to land near Cahir when weather prevented them from flying over the Galtee mountains. They landed in a small field on the farm of George Waterhouse; after the long grass brought the plane to a halt, Waterhouse insisted the passengers and small crowd that had gathered join him for a glass of whiskey (Jermyne, 1974). Alcohol played a role in another story involving Kennedy’s charter planes. When Kilcullen publican Jim Byrne and a group of friends wished to continue drinking after midnight, they hit upon the bright idea of going to Shannon airport, then 120 miles from where they were situated. Kennedy, a friend of Byrne’s, agreed to let them charter a plane, which took off from Weston at midnight. When one of the passengers observed that there were red lights in the field ahead of the plane as it prepared to depart, he was told, ‘that’s the wife, in the car … When she turns we have to lift, or we go through the hedge’ (Brian Byrne, 2018).
Throughout the 1950s Kennedy’s aerodrome offered commercial flights to airstrips in Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as flight training for aspirant pilots. In 1953 he was instrumental in founding the Aero Club of Ireland (now the Leinster Aero Club), based at Weston, which proved a focal point for keen amateurs as well as pilots looking to make flying their profession. The club also provided the impetus for four successful air displays between 1955 and 1958, which were hugely significant in reviving private aviation in Ireland after the war. During that decade Weston became known as a prime pilot training location in Ireland, a reputation it retains to the modern day. In 1959 Kennedy rejoined Aer Lingus and for the next decade he flew as chief pilot – in 1969 he and his son Roger were the airline’s first father-and-son captain and co-pilot on the same flight deck. He retired from Aer Lingus that same year, and the flight school at Weston became his primary focus.
In addition to training pilots, both professional and amateur, Weston was also used as the base for several movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. John Guillermin’s first world war movie, The blue max (1966) was shot at Ardmore Studios in Bray, but the action sequences were mostly shot at Weston. Pilots from the Irish Air Corps helped recreate the live dog-fight scenes and Kennedy trained leading man George Peppard to fly a Tiger Moth for some of the flight scenes – the studio was understandably reluctant to let Peppard take to the air until shooting was near completion. After the success of The blue max, Weston was again chosen to film flight sequences for another first world war film, Darling Lili (1970) and the following year Von Richthofen and Brown was filmed there. Following a series of accidents during filming of the latter, Irish authorities insisted that production was closed down for several days while investigations took place. Stunt pilot Charles Boddington lost his life when the nose of his plane ploughed into the airfield, while pilot Lynn Garrison and star Don Stroud were badly injured when their plane struck powerlines and plunged into the River Liffey.
During the last decades of the twentieth century, Kennedy continued to improve facilities at Weston, adding a tarmac runway to replace the grass one in the 1980s, for example, and he was instantly identifiable in his overalls out on the airfield. In 2002, at the age of eighty-eight, he finally relinquished control of the airport, selling it to developer and hotelier Jim Mansfield (qv). Kennedy then retired to Malaga, Spain, though his wife Joan remained in Ireland where she died in 2006. Darby Kennedy died on 15 May 2016, just short of his 102nd birthday, and was buried in Oughterard cemetery, Ardclough, Co. Kildare. He was survived by his five children and his partner Renate. Kennedy’s contribution to Irish aviation over almost seven decades was immense. He was part of a pioneering cohort who laid the foundations of innovation and safety in the aftermath of the second world war, one of the founding members of the Irish Airline Pilots Association in 1946 (serving as its first president), and in 1991 he received the Pike Trophy for his outstanding contribution to civil flying instruction. Aviation author Bob Montgomery believes his greatest contribution, however, was the establishment of the Aero Club of Ireland; its air displays during in the 1950s were hugely significant in the revival of private aviation in Ireland and confirmed Weston as Ireland’s premier pilot training location.