NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE.
Baldonnel – home of the Irish Air Corps
Baldonnel-Casement airfield is situated very close to the Irish capital Dublin, and is now home to the Irish Air Corps (IAC) or Aer-Chor Nah Eireann in Gaelic.
The beginning of Irish military aviation actually began in another country as in 1922 a Martinsyde Type A mkIII was purchased to allow General Michael Collins to escape from London after the treaty talks with Great Britain had failed. By June of that year the Air Service Headquarters had been established at Baldonnel with thirteen aircraft and fourteen pilots and though the pace of change was slow at first, in 1926 the Cadet Scheme began to select future pilots and this process is still in use.
Irish aviation hit the world stage in 1928 with the first flying crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in an East to West direction. Commandant James Fitzmaurice was a crew member on a Junkers W33 named ‘Bremen’ which landed at Greenly Island after an epic 37 hour flight.
In the 1930’s the Irish Air Corps purchased more modern training types as well as four Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters but Irish aviation really hit the headlines in 1936 and the IAC in particular. The IAC introduced the Boy Apprentice Scheme, which insured a supply of technical staff for aircraft maintenance duties, and though updated, the apprentice scheme is still used at Baldonnel. On May 27th Aer Lingus, the Irish National Airline, began operations from Baldonnel, the first flight being to Bristol in England, and Aer Lingus stayed at Baldonnel for 4 years before moving to Dublin Airport.
Being a neutral country the IAC had a quiet World War II but the fleet of Gloster Gladiators and Hawker Hurricanes did shoot down quite a few barrage balloons that had broken free from their moorings in the UK and drifted over the Irish Sea. The technical personnel of the IAC also had to dispose and make safe some 163 aircraft from foreign forces that had landed on Irish soil.
After the war the IAC replaced the Hurricanes in the combat role with Supermarine Seafire’s and some two-seat Supermarine Spitfire’s. Between 1946 and 1962 the IAC used Avro Anson light transports and communication aircraft and training aircraft were updated in the mid 1950’s with the Percival Provost. Transport was the role of the De Havilland Dove that came into service at this time. The jet age arrived in Ireland with another De Havilland product, the Vampire T.55 in the training role.
The winter of 1962/63 and the harsh weather moved the Irish Government to equip the IAC with helicopters for Search and Rescue (SAR) as well as other roles to assist the civil authorities. The helicopter chosen was the very popular Sud Aviation Alouette III from France. In all eight were purchased and they served the IAC well, being in operation for 44 years up until September 21st 2007. It’s worth mentioning that in these helicopters the crews earned a total of fourteen Distinguished Service Medals (DSM) doing their duty to the worldwide SAR motto ‘ That Others Might Live’, or in Gaelic – Go Mairidis Beo’
As well as the Alouette III’s the IAC operated a single Aerospaitiale Puma( Leased in 1981 for one year) and Sikorsky S.61A. Two Sud Aviation SA-342L Gazelle helicopters were used for training from 1978.
Following Ireland’s accession into the European Economic Community (EEC) a British Aerospace 125-700 business jet was purchased as a Ministerial transport. In 1975 the IAC took delivery of the Fouga CM-170R Magister which was to be used for several roles including training, the Light Strike Squadron and also the Silver Swallows aerobatic display team. This was the last jet combat aircraft used by the IAC as they were not directly replaced in 1998 when they were withdrawn from service.
Ten SIAI-Marchetti SF.260WE Warriors started being delivered in 1977 and were also used for training and light strike though four were written off in crashes. Operating closely with the Irish Navy patrol vessel LE Eithne were the five SA 365Fi Dauphin II purchased in 1986 though only two were modified with crashproof fuel tanks and Harpoon arrester gear to operate from the ship, all five operated in the SAR role.
Being part of the EEC gave Ireland responsibility of 132,000 square miles (342,000km) of sea to patrol. This was the role of two of the three Beechcraft 200 Super King Air’s, the other one being used for transport.
Which neatly brings us up to the modern IAC as it is now.
Irish Air Corps today
Today the IAC is split into two different Wings, Number 1 Wing operating fixed wing aircraft (which encompasses the Air Corps College operating the Flying Training School’s Pilatus PC-9M’s)
and Number 3 Wing operating rotary winged aircraft.
How important the IAC is to the Ireland and its people bares in the reading of the statistics of aerial activity for 2013 when the IAC flew over 10.000 hours (6,500 missions) which included;
• 527 Emergency Aeromedical Service Callouts
• 314 Cash In Transit Escorts
• 277 Maritime patrols
• 103 Air Ambulances
• 74 missions in protections if Irelands natural resources and habitats
• 24 SAR Top Cover Missions
The IAC also supports the Army, providing military air transport, and also has a limited Air Defence capability policing VIP visits. The IAC maintains an Air-Sea SAR role to assist the Coastguard and are the only qualified pilots in Ireland to operate Night Vision Goggles (NVG). Other roles for the helicopter force includes Fire Fighting, Cargo Slinging and Snow Relief to name but three.
The fixed wing aircraft of the IAC are responsible for one of Europe’s largest maritime dominions , covering over 220 million acres, to protect Irish and European interests in the North Atlantic and Irish Sea. Added to this the IAC maintains a 24 hour a day, seven days a week standby for inter-hospital ambulances, SAR, Army Support and Ministerial Transport and other requirements that they could be called upon.
No 1 Operations Wing
Lieutenant Colonel ( Lt Col) Rory O’Connor is Officer Commanding, No 1 Operations Wing, which encompasses all the fixed wing component of the IAC, and he is also an active pilot on the Gulfstream IV. He joined as an apprentice aircraft technician 23 years ago and began his flying training in 1988 before becoming an instructor in 1990 progressing to a Senior Instructor role.
Lt Col O’Connor’s career progress is slightly different from normal as he began his career as a aircraft technician but this gives him a unique insight into the workings of a full Operations Wing understanding the aspect of parameters that occur within all ranks and trades.
He spent a year as Base Commander at Gormanston, when this base was still used by No 1 operations Wing before its move to Baldonnel. As Officer Commanding Training between 2001-05 he introduced the Pilatus PC-9M into service before heading to Chad for 6 months as the only IAC serviceman represented on the United Nations (UN) mission there, a role he is particularly proud of.
After the UN mission he came back to Baldonnel to be second in command at No 1 operations Wing before promotion in 2011 to become the Wing Commander.
Lt Col O’Connor took a lead role in the PC-9 project, which was to replace the CM-170 and SF.260 that had been out of service for a while. Three aircraft were evaluated – the Beechcraft T-6 Texan, Embraer Super Tucano and the Pilatus PC-9. Pilatus won the contract through having a better value for money package with great industry support which is still on-going with a full time Pilatus employee at Baldonnel. Added to the package was a PC-9 simulator which is utilised to a high degree.
The eight PC-9’s were delivered in February to March 2004, with IAC pilots and ground crews initially training in Switzerland. The PC-9M version chosen for the IAC gives flexibility. The IAC is unusual in that they use the aircraft as a primary trainer, a new cadet could begin flying on the aircraft with zero hours flight experience. The PC-9’s were also the first aircraft in the IAC to have ejection seats since the Vampire.
The PC-9M has an offensive capability with six under wing hard points and can carry two FN HMP250 gun pods carrying one M3P machine gun with 250 rounds and FN LAU-7 Rocket pods which carry seven folding-pin 70 mm aerial rockets.
Seven aircraft remain in service with the IAC after the fatal crash on the 12th October 2009 near Cannemona in County Galway.
Maritime patrol is very important to the IAC due to Ireland being an island nation on the edge of the European continent which relies on the sea for its trade and industry which are important to its economy. With 50% funding from the European Union (EU) the IAC purchased two CASA CN 235-100 Persuader Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) which were delivered in 1994. Working in conjunction with the Irish Naval Service, the CN-235’s are heavily utilised, operating seven days a week . The Irish Economic Zone itself covers 132,000 square miles (16% total of all European Sea Fisheries) and 101 Squadron, who operate the CASA’s, are one of the busiest units in Europe. With the exception of the Cessna FR-172H’s, the CN-235’s are the oldest aircraft in the fleet and with such heavy utilisation will need a third aircraft to give the two aircraft currently in service a chance to extend their service lives which currently have ten years remaining. The CN 235 also has roles as diverse as military transport, air ambulance, rescue top cover and parachuting operations. The new aircraft does not necessarily mean another purchase of a CASA product however, and all options will be thoroughly investigated.
Other fixed wing aircraft belonging to No 1 Operations Wing are five,(of the eight delivered in 1972), Cessna FR-172H Rockets, which are used for Liaison and Army Co-operation with 104 Squadron and the Ministerial Air Transport (MATS) operates a Learjet 45 and Gulfstream IV.
No 3 Operations Wing
Four different squadrons make up No 3 Operations Wings – 301 Tactical Helicopter Squadron with six Agusta-Westland AW-139’s, 302 Training and ISTAR Helicopter Squadron with two Eurocopter EC135P2’s, 303 Deployment and Technical Support Squadron which carries out the maintenance for all the helicopters and 304 Policing and Security squadron, which employs two EC-135T2’s and the single Britten Norman BN-2T Defender in conjunction with the Garda Siochana to operate the Gardai’s airborne assets. Other roles are carried out by Wing Headquarters, the Unit Orderly Room and logistical staff.
The Agusta-Westland AW-139’s has four different roles – Army Support, Air Ambulance, Military Transport and General Utility, it carries two pilots and up to eight fully armed troops with the capability to carry 14 personnel if required. The AW-139s entered service in 2006, and were a quantum leap over the Alouette III’s they replaced, with fully integrated digital avionic and cockpit display systems which includes an autopilot, a dual flight management system with GPS (Global Positioning System) and radio navigation.
For air support the AW-139 can carry two FN Herstal M58 machine guns on the forward windows and this does not affect the troop carrying capability, and this weapon can also be used with NVG’s. For the Air Ambulance mission the Lifeport stretcher system can be installed in the cabin, this provides a fully independent electrical, oxygen, vacuum and air source to medical personnel on board the aircraft for patient transfer.
The fantastic performance of the AW-139 allows the IAC to use it for roles as diverse as Special Forces insertion/extraction, Presidential VIP transport (with twelve seat)s and a mass-casualty litter system with six NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) stretchers in a secure frame. the helicopter also has a cargo hook which carry 2.2 tonnes and regularly lifts the Army’s 105 mm Artillery Guns in its Army support role. The aircraft came to the Irish public’s awareness in May 2011 when three AW-139’s used the fire fighting ‘Bambi Buckets’ dropping millions of litres of water on fires raging in Donegal supported by a command and control Eurocopter EC-135.
The two Eurocopter EC135P2+’s are operated by 302 Squadron and directly replaced the two Gazelle’s previously operated. Though the primary role of the unit is rotary wing training it can also be used for Army support, air ambulance, VIP transport, military transport and general utility.
The helicopter was one of the first to be certified with full-authority digital engine controls (FADEC) and the P2+ is the latest production version with the 498kW (667shp) PW206B2 engines.
An interesting capability with the EC135 is the Neo-Natal role within the Air Corps Emergency Medical Service for which Ann Bowden, the National Neo Natal Transport Program coordinator stated the ‘Strong collaboration into the future in the service of the newest and often sickest of our citizens’.
Lieutenant Colonel Ronan Verling
The Senior Staff Officer (SSO) Air Operations is Lt Col Ronan Verling, who has many Commandants, Captains and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) under his command to fulfil his responsibilities. Lt Col Verling has served the IAC for 25 years and has always been a fixed wing pilot, learning to fly the SF260 and CM170 before becoming an instructor for two years. He is current at the time of our visit on the CR172 and CASA CN-235.
When asked about the chance to fly with other European nations aircraft he explained there are currently no exchange programmes but this has been discussed and that the IAC maintain good links with other countries, particularly the United Kingdom but this is dialect based with interactions.
With the retirement of the Nimrod Lt Col Verling was asked what effect, if any, this had with the IAC. He said, ” We do not directly assist with MPA/ASW, though we frequently called upon to supply top cover for northern areas like North West Scotland and there has been an increase in SAR work” The IAC also works with the UK fishery protection teams helping keep the European Fish Stocks within quotas.
During these patrols the CN235’s also record and observe, take part in drug interdiction, customs and exercise as well as the aforementioned fishery protection with a 200 mile exclusion zone.
Lt Col Verling also explained the IAC role with the UN, with IAC personnel supporting peace keeping missions in the Lebanon when aviation experience is required for the Army troops in theatre.
So what of the future for the Irish Air Corps? As with elsewhere in Europe the economic turndown means, just like other Air Forces in Europe, the IAC is constrained by money to operate the current fleet within budget, but the IAC continues to assess its needs and look at the market of what would be suitable, but there is no pressing need.
In the short to medium term the Cessna’ s are now getting old, being in service 42 years and this will need looking at, and also the CASA’s are reaching the 20 year milestone, but it will hinge on the next White Paper that sorts if the requirements of the IAC need expanding and will be based on advice.
Lt Col Verling summed up pretty well why the IAC is more based on helping the civilian authorities than an overt military role, the country enjoys a good relationship with its nearest neighbours and geographically its best defence is where Ireland is located, ” The Vikings may have came, but the Romans never got here!”
Thanks to Captain Brendan O’Dowd and Airman Keith Rogers for their assistance in this article.
The images are below are courtesy of the IAC.