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Irish Tsunami: Myths and Dangers to Aran?

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DICK AHLSTROM Irish Times Science Editor

IT HAS happened before - and it could happen again. Ireland's coastline could be struck by a huge tsunami triggered by any one of a number of events.

"Yes we do have the potential for a tsunami because we have been hit in the past," said Prof Mike Williams of NUI Galway.

Don't start counting down the days just yet, he cautions. It will take a large earthquake, underwater landslide or even an asteroid striking the Atlantic before we see the next big one.

Prof Williams will deliver a talk, Irish Tsunami - Myths and Dangers this evening at the Institute of Technology, Sligo, an event planned as part of Science Week.

He became interested in Irish tsunami events when trying to sort out why so many huge boulders lie perched atop cliffs on our coasts and in places like the Aran Islands.

Clearly they had been tossed there by tsunami or storms. After extensive research he decided on an answer. Some were tossed out of the sea in 1839 on the so called "Night of the Big Wind", he said.

More spectacularly, a massive earthquake in the Gulf of Cadiz off Portugal on November 1st, 1755, kicked up a huge wave that pushed into the Atlantic. It rushed up Galway Bay to carry away people and knock down part of the Spanish Arch. The "Lisbon earthquake" had unexpected consequences, Prof Williams said. "It persuaded the king of Portugal to live in a tent for the rest of his life."

A repeat represents the most likely cause of a tsunami today, Prof Williams said, but would be impossible to predict.

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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




Mental Health break

Try Blowing on it:
This cartoon, from Alex Gregory at "The New Yorker" (May 11, 2009), is a pause for fresh air. windturbines.jpg

From Labrador to a Connemara Bog...

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By Lorna Siggins and Jem Casey

SOME NINE decades after the British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown flew across the Atlantic and landed in a Connemara bog, their historic non-stop flight was celebrated with an air show in Clifden, Co Galway, at the weekend.

In April 1913 (renewed in 1918), the Daily Mail offered a prize of £10,000[4] to "the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and any point in Great Britain or Ireland" in 72 continuous hours".

The flight nearly ended in disaster several times owing to engine trouble, fog, snow and ice. It was only saved by Brown's continual climbing out on the wings to remove ice from the engine air intakes and by Alcock's excellent piloting despite extremely poor visibility at times and even snow filling the open cockpit. The aircraft was badly damaged upon arrival due to the attempt to land in what appeared from the air to be a suitable green field but which turned out to be the bog on Derrygimlagh Moor, but neither of the airmen was hurt.


The world's only "formation" wing walking team, a jet display and a visit by a replica of the Vimy Vickers model used by Alcock and Brown were among highlights of the event atthe weekend, hosted by Connemara Chamber of Commerce.

"Today we take transatlantic travel for granted, but in 1919, these men undertook a dangerous, life-threatening trip which in time opened the skies for us all," the chamber said in a statement.

"Imagine for a moment the hub of activity that was Connemara 90 years ago when these two men literally dropped from the sky into the bog, and were able to send a message from Marconi's wireless radio station to inform London they had made it across the Atlantic - thus assuring themselves their rightful place in history," said the chamber of commerce statement.

They flew a modified Vickers Vimy IV twin-engined bomber powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines, each of 360hp, taking off from Lester's Field in St. John's, Newfoundland at around 1:45pm, June 14, 1919

The aircraft crashed on landing (53°26′N 10°01′W / 53.433°N 10.017°W / 53.433; -10.017) in a bog near Clifden in Connemara, Ireland [7], at 8:40am on June 15, 1919, crossing the coast at 4.28pm. They flew 1890 miles (3040 km) in 16 hours 27 minutes, at an average speed of 115 mph (185 km/h).[8] The altitude varied between sea level and 12,000 ft (3,700 m) and 865 gallons (3,900 L - assuming imperial gallons) of fuel were on board.

An Alcock and Brown exhibition, by Connemara historian Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, and a ground display by the Defence Forces was also part of the programme.

The Vimy Vickers replica was flown from the Brooklands Museum in Surrey, England, to Connnemara by John Dodd and Clive Edwards, landing at Galway Airport before flying west to Clifden.

Two memorials commemorating the flight are found near the landing spot in County Galway, Ireland. The first is an isolated cairn four kilometres south of Clifden on the site of Marconi's first transatlantic wireless station from which the aviators transmitted their success to London, and around 500 metres from the spot where they landed. In addition there is a sculpture of an aircraft's tail-fin on Errislannan Hill two kilometres north of their landing spot, dedicated on the fortieth anniversary of their landing, June 15, 1959.

Memorial, County Galway

A third monument marks the flight's starting point in Newfoundland.

A memorial statue was erected at London Heathrow Airport in 1954 to celebrate their flight. There is also a monument at Manchester Airport, less than 8 miles from John Alcock's birthplace. Their aircraft (rebuilt by the Vickers Company) can be seen in the London Science Museum in South Kensington.

A number of teams were vying to win the Daily Mail prize (one of many aviation prizes awarded by that newspaper). The first attempt was launched from England. The Short Brothers aircraft company had produced the first prototypes of the Short Shirl torpedo-bomber towards the end of World War I.

A Shirl was modified with extended wings and a huge external fuel tank to produce the Short Shamrock, of which only one was built. The underslung fuel tank can be seen in the photograph below.

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The Shamrock was powered by a Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engine, which was one of the most reliable aircraft engines of its day. Carrying a total of 435 gallons of fuel, it had a theoretical range of over 3,000 miles.

On April 18th, 1919, the Shamrock took off from Eastchurch in England to fly across the Irish Sea to The Curragh, Ireland, on the first leg of its trans-Atlantic flight attempt. Unfortunately, the engine failed 12 miles out to sea. The pilot, Major J. C. P. Wood, attempted to glide back to land, but was forced to ditch the aircraft in the sea a mile off Anglesey. The aircraft remained afloat, and was towed to the beach, but could not be repaired quickly. After another team successfully flew the Atlantic, it was dismantled.

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Tornado over Ennis

Surfer Alan Coyne photographed this tornado over Ennis on Monday.

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