LORNA SIGGINS Marine Correspondent The Irish Times
The 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 helicopter.
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 birthday.
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 "tasking".
"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."
It 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 land.
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 headlines.
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.
"Many 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.
Joan 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.
NOW 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.
Shannon 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.
Challenges, 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, Co Waterford.
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.
The 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.
The 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