Defence Forces mark 50 years of helicopter rescues
Over 2,300 search and rescue operations and 4,000 air ambulance missions completed
Air Corps’ pilots from 1963 who flew the first Irish helicopters from France to Dublin, landing in Casement Aerodrome on the 26th November 1963. Photograph: Irish Air Corps Facebook page
The most decorated wing of the Defence Forces has marked five decades of active service with a now and then review of operations.
More than 2,300 search and rescue operations and 4,000 air ambulance missions have been carried out since the first helicopter touched down at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, 50 years ago today.
A French trawler floundering off the west coast of Ireland sparked the country’s first sea and rescue mission on December 23rd, 1966.
Fast forwarding five decades, elite Army Rangers marked the anniversary with a dramatic display of fast roping 30ft from an AW139 over the Curragh Camp in darkness.
The men and women of No 3 Operations Wing have saved countless lives over the years and are said to be a testament to the Air Corps’ motto, “Forfaire agus Tairiseact” (Watchful and Loyal).
Commanding officer, Lt Col Sean Clancy, said the unit’s heroism has been repeated continuously over the years.
“This unit is the most decorated unit in the Defence Forces,” said Lt Col Clancy.
“In a period of 50 years, 22 distinguished service medals have been awarded.
“There have been eight marine medals awards to individuals and we have been recognised by the French, American and UK populations for our services to citizens of those countries.”
A search and rescue pilot for most of his career, Lt Col Clancy was awarded a Department of Marine Meritorious Medal for his role in a dangerous rescue mission in March 2002.
He revealed that lives being lost at sea, and snow storms in the winters of 1962 and 1963, sparked the political decision to buy two Alouette III helicopters, which were flown from France to Baldonnel.
Within three weeks a crew on board an Alouette III helicopter were called out to a stricken vessel off Slyne Head, Co Galway. Stranded in bad weather, the trawler was eventually located and towed back to port.
The first air ambulance was flown in February 1964.
For almost 45 years the reliable fleet, which expanded to eight Alouette IIIs, was used to transport troops, for Border control, reaching the islands off the west coast, and as air ambulances - which were so tight for space, the patient’s head often rested between the pilot and crewman.
Other aircraft bought over the decades included the Gazelle, Dauphin, Puma and EC135s, until the arrival of six 6.5 tonne AW139s that support the Defence Forces by transporting troops, carrying 2.2 tonnes of heavy equipment, and dignitaries. Members also fly two Garda Air Support EC 135s.
The fleet craft can be quickly transformed in to air ambulances - with an incubator for newborns - or cleared for search and rescue operations over land or sea.
High-profile operations in recent years include tackling the gorse fires in Donegal by dropping millions of litres of water from “bambi buckets”, and reaching communities and livestock in Northern Ireland trapped in heavy snow.
Lt Col Clancy commended the technical advances in recent years, in particular being able to operate at night with night vision goggles on national and international air ambulance transfers.
But he described the Alouette III - an analogue single engine, single pilot helicopter - as a workhorse and one of the best helicopters ever built.
He said each crews has several stories from over the years, some funny, sad, and some tragic.
“We all have those kinds of events that mark our lives,” he added.
“I spent 16 tears flying search and rescue myself; there were many many journeys I took with different people over that time.”
He paid tribute to fallen colleagues who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and those who survived some of the most difficult rescues ever seen, in particular four men on two Alouettes who completed a difficult night rescue on Muckish Mountain in Co Donegal in August 1977 by one shining a light down on the other.
“We have a motto here, ‘That Others May Live’,” Lt Col Clancy added.
“It’s that motto that these people have exemplified and lived through their actions.”