Air Corps role in Covid and Ukraine crises recognised

Nine new pilots receive their wings at Casement Aerodrome event to mark centenary

There are few countries where the airforce is older than the navy. The fact that Ireland is one of them is largely down to Michael Collins, who saw aviation as crucial to the independence of the State.

This fact was recalled several times on Wednesday as the Irish Air Corps celebrated its 100th anniversary at Casement Aerodrome in Dublin.

Exactly a century ago Comdt Gen William J McSweeney, a former RAF pilot, was appointed by the provisional government as the first director of military aviation and the head of the then Irish Air Service, which had one aircraft which was purchased to evacuate Collins from London should the treaty talks fail.

Despite its small size, the Air Corps has been involved in several aviation firsts, including the first east-west crossing of the Atlantic on board the Bremen, which departed from Casement in 1928.

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More recently, it has provided what Minister for Defence Simon Coveney called a "quiet but very efficient" service to the State, particularly during Covid-19 when it transported thousands of test swabs to testing facilities abroad.

Recruitment and retention

Mr Coveney made the comments surrounded by decommissioned planes of the Air Corps, an organisation severely impacted in recent years by a recruitment and retention crisis.

However, there are some tentative signs of a turnaround. The ceremony saw nine pilots receiving their wings from the current director of military aviation Brig Gen Rory O’Connor. But, according to military representative associations, far more are required.

The Air Corps has also been involved in Ireland's humanitarian response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It ferried the Irish parents of children born to Ukrainian surrogate mothers to eastern Europe and brought a Ukrainian baby to Ireland for neo-natal care.

The event culminated in a flypast by 16 aircraft, led by a helicopter towing the Tricolour. The fact that the majority of the Air Corps’ aircraft were involved in the flypast illustrated the small size of the service.

Jet fighter aircraft

It is an organisation in a state of flux, the Minister said. The recent Commission on the Defence Forces report made a raft of recommendations for its development including a significant increase in its current strength, the establishment of an airforce reserve and the purchase of a long-range transport aircraft.

It has also proposed purchasing jet fighter aircraft which would enable Ireland to police its own skies, a task currently effectively outsourced to the RAF.

Whether these proposals will be considered realistic by Government remains to be seen. Mr Coveney has promised to deliver recommendations to Cabinet by June.

One recommendation likely to be accepted is a rebranding as the Irish Air Force, to give it parity with the Army.

“It’s a lot cheaper than buying fighter jets,” remarked one officer. “So it might actually happen.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times