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Six years later, Miss McIlraith (23) is now one of the New Zealand Airline Academy’s nine flight instructors at Oamaru Airport.
Originally from Pleasant Point, she began the role about a year ago after gaining accreditation in Invercargill and Timaru.
When she was still at school and "wondering what I was going to do with my life", her parents bought her a trial flight for Christmas.
"Within five seconds I was like ‘Yes, this is me’," Miss McIlraith said.
The novelty of flying had still not worn off. She got a thrill every time she flew over snowcapped mountains.
"And the students keep you on your toes," she said.
Eventually, she hoped to fly commercially for a major airline but, until then, she was enjoying her work in Oamaru.
The New Zealand Airline Academy had remained busy this year, even though new international students had been unable to start due to border restrictions, she said.
"Throughout Covid it’s been really reassuring to keep working. It’s been good, it’s really consistent."
However, New Zealand Airline Academy chief flight instructor Celroy Mascarenhas said it was important the country’s borders were reopened to international students soon.
At present, 74 international students were training at the academy and it had been swamped with enrolment requests, Mr Mascarenhas said.
Despite the number of international flights falling because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Asian domestic market, where most of the students came from, remained strong, he said.
"The civil aviation minister of India has forecast a shortage of 10,000 pilots in India over the next five years.
"So it is very important that borders are opened to these high net-worth students who bring in a significant amount of money into the economy.
"They are even happy to pay for their own quarantine at an approved facility, if required, and are ready to come over at short notice."