LORNA SIGGINS Marine Correspondent The Irish Times
Shannon rescue helicopter is taken for granted now in the skies above
the west coast as it approaches its 20th birthday, but it took a series
of tragedies before the crucial service was established
A HAG OR
"cailleach" was chasing Cuchulainn across Loop Head, Co Clare, when he
leaped onto a rock several metres offshore. She attempted to follow
him, fell into the sea, and her body was washed up on the headland
named after her.
Were she to repeat her unfortunate experience
now, the "cailleach" might well have survived and found herself at the
end of a winch suspended from Shannon's Irish Coast Guard air-sea
Airman Jim O'Neill might even have told her a few
jokes to calm her, having already spotted her in the briny with his
heat-seeking infrared camera before leaving the aircraft by cable and
karabiner with his bag of parademical gear.
For just as Hag's
Head is a distinctive part of the southern Clare shoreline, so the
Shannon rescue helicopter has become an institution - taken for granted
now in the skies above the west coast as it approaches its 20th
On a Sunday evening training mission, its presence is
a subconscious comfort for the novice surfers - resembling diving
beetles - navigating the swell off Lahinch, and the passengers on the
Doolin-Inis Oírr ferry. An indigo Atlantic seems deceptively tranquil
as the Sikorsky S-61 sweeps over the weathered rock buttresses forming
the Cliffs of Moher.
There's a constant patter on the high-
frequency radio, with talk about results of football matches mingling
with communications between Shannon air-traffic control and the
helicopter, call sign Golf Charlie Echo. Should that call sign change
to Rescue 115, it is a signal that the training run has become a rescue
"Bring some money and your mobile phone," Capt Cathal
Oakes had advised this reporter, before becoming airborne with co-pilot
Micheal Moriarty, winch operator Ciarán McHugh and winchman Jim
O'Neill. "Just in case we have to drop you down somewhere en route."
didn't arise; but when Capt Oakes donned a pair of plastic glasses,
almost completely covered in tape, it was a reminder that even a
routine training flight is accomplished under pressure. The glasses
simulate night-time conditions. There will be several more exercises by
crew members, each having to update his skills constantly, before we
Ironically, the most successful missions are often those
no one hears about. Only a fraction of the more than 3,000 rescue
flights Shannon has recorded over the past two decades have made
IT WASN'T ALWAYS like this, as those who campaigned
over decades for adequate aerial support for the Royal National
Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) clearly remember. Back in 1958, the crash
of Hugo de Groot , a KLM flight, off Galway, with the loss of 99 lives, prompted such demands.
people will wonder why air-sea rescue operations should have to be co-
ordinated from Scotland and southern England when the accident took
place within the air-traffic control area of Shannon Airport. Had there
been a helicopter in the Republic - not necessarily at Shannon - it
could have searched the crash scene by mid-afternoon at latest," this
newspaper reported on August 15th, 1958.
There were to be more
such calls, particularly from the fishing industry, over subsequent
decades. For although pioneering Air Corps pilots undertook many
rescues from Baldonnel from as early as 1963, capability was severely
restricted by geographical location and helicopter flying range. Much
of the coastline was dependent on the goodwill of Britain, principally
through the RAF.
It took the death of Donegal skipper John
Oglesby on the deck of his boat, Neptune, off the north Mayo coastline
in 1988 to change all that. Oglesby, whose son was among the crew, had
his leg severed by a trawl warp.
The nearest lifeboat station at
the time was Arranmore, Co Donegal. By RAF calculations, the vessel
would have reached port before the closest available helicopter would
have reached it. Oglesby bled to death within sight of land.
McGinley was distraught and angry at the manner in which Oglesby, a
close friend of her partner, had died. After a public meeting in
Killybegs not long after the accident, McGinley established the west
coast search-and-rescue campaign, run with a group of people including
Aran Island GP Dr Marion Broderick, Joey Murrin of the Killybegs
Fishermen's Organisation, Bryan Casburn of the Galway and Aran
Fishermen's Co-op, former Naval Service commanders Eamonn Doyle and
Paddy Kavanagh, former Air Corps pilot Comdt Fergus O'Connor and
solicitor Peter Murphy.
Its single-issue focus yielded swift
results. An interdepartmental review group, chaired by former garda
commissioner Eamon Doherty, recommended that the Air Corps place a
Dauphin helicopter on permanent 24-hour standby at Shannon as an
interim measure - and so the first dedicated west coast air-sea base
was in operation by September 1989.
A final report recommended
that a medium-range helicopter service be provided to the State on
contract from Shannon, with an operating radius of 200 nautical miles,
and that the Air Corps Dauphin at Shannon be relocated to Finner
military base in Co Donegal.
The Irish Coast Guard also owes its
origins to that report, and to McGinley's campaign. The first coast
guard director, Capt Liam Kirwan, effected a radical transformation of
capability, assisted by the RNLI, which moved rapidly to open a new
lifeboat station in Ballyglass, Co Mayo, as part of a further expansion.
RUN BY Chris Reynolds, the Irish Coast Guard service can provide
coastal, offshore, mountain and inland rescue. Aircraft cross the
Border when requested and can assist Britain when required.
became a commercial rescue base within two years, with Irish
Helicopters initially replacing the Air Corps. Air-sea rescue bases at
Sligo (replacing Finner camp), Dublin and Waterford were to follow,
with the contract for all four now held by CHC Helicopters.
Capt Dave Courtney, a former search-and-rescue pilot, recalls in his recent autobiography,
Nine Lives , how operating procedures blended the best of
experience from the RAF, Royal Navy, Air Corps, British Coastguard and
commercial companies serving the North Sea oil industry.
such as the near ditching of the Shannon helicopter shortly before
Christmas 1993, helped to refine those procedures.
The S-61 had been called out to assist an Irish-registered Spanish fishing vessel,
Dunboy , with 13 crew on board, which had lost engine power
some 65km west of Slyne Head in winds of up to 150km an hour. Winchman
John McDermott had just landed on the vessel's deck in a heaving sea
when the boat listed 70 degrees, the cable broke and about 120ft
wrapped itself around the aircraft's blades. A Mayday call was issued,
but the helicopter, flown by Capt Nick Gribble and co-pilot Carmel
Kirby managed to recover and fly to Galway, leaving McDermott to be
picked up by the RAF hours later.
Not only has flying become
safer, but the decision to approve paramedic training for use by winch
crew on missions has also helped to save lives. "We used to scoop and
run to the nearest hospital," O'Neill explains. "Now we can give
certain types of treatment en route."
Even before that
particular development, the Shannon S-61 had marked its first emergency
birth. On March 17th, 1996, Sorcha Ní Fhlatharta saw first light of day
in the helicopter cabin, when her mother, Mairéad, delivered her with
the assistance of two nurses and the helicopter crew en route from Inis
Oírr to University Hospital Galway.
"The crew were great and it
was a sort of a distraction," the mother said some years afterwards. "I
really didn't have time to think about the pain."
TRAMORE TRAGEDY: 'SERIOUS DEFICIENCIES'
Even as Shannon prepares to celebrate two decades serving
the coastline, helicopter and maintenance crews will also remember the
sacrifice of colleagues - notably the four members of the Air Corps who
died 10 years ago this week in the Dauphin helicopter crash at Tramore,
Capt Dave O'Flaherty, Capt Michael Baker, Sgt
Paddy Mooney and Cpl Niall Byrne were returning from the first night of
the rescue mission in the early hours of July 2nd, 1999, when their
helicopter collided with a sand dune in thick fog.
The official investigation highlighted "serious deficiencies" in the support given the four crew.
four had only learned on July 1st - the day the search-and-rescue base
at Waterford Airport was converted to 24-hour cover - that there was no
provision for after-hours air-traffic control. An agreement had not
been concluded by the Department of Defence and the airport management.
report by the investigation unit specifically noted that considerable
pressure was brought to bear on the late Capt OFlaherty, as detachment
commander, to accept the rescue mission in search of a small boat with
four adults and a child.
In June 2008, Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea awarded posthumous Distinguished Service Medals to the crew of Dauphin 248.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times