The search continues for three missing Irish Coast Guard crew members after it confirmed that one of its most senior pilots, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick (45), died when a Dublin-based helicopter crashed off the Mayo coast on Tuesday morning.
Capt Fitzpatrick was one of four crew on board the helicopter which went down near Blacksod, Co Mayo on Tuesday. The three crew still missing have been named as Mark Duffy , Ciarán Smith and Paul Ormsby.
Capt Fitzpatrick was taken from the sea by the RNLI Achill lifeboat and transferred to one of the two Irish Coast Guard helicopters involved in the search for the missing aircraft. She was pronounced dead in hospital.
The air search for the missing crew members will be scaled back overnight but the sea search will continue.
Mr Smith is a former Corporal and winchman with the Air Corps. He is from Oldtown in north Co Dublin and has worked on rescue teams for over 15 years. Mr Smith's wife Martina and three young children are believed to have travelled to the site of the search in Blacksod.
Helicopter pilot Mark Duffy (late 40s) is a native of Dundalk. Mr Duffy later moved to the nearby seaside village of Blackrock where he shares a home with his wife Hermione and two children. He began flying rescue missions for the Dublin-based crew in 2002. He previously worked with the California Coast Guard in San Francisco for seven years after doing his training in the US.
Speaking to RTÉ News Gerard O’Flynn, the search and rescue operations manager with the Irish Coast Guard, said the aerial search would resume at 7am on Wednesday.
“We would hope to continue the surface search through the night,” he said. “The naval ship LE Roisin has been out all day and a second ship will be here shortly. We would hope to continue that aspect of the search, but the aerial side of it will be scaled down overnight until first night.”
Mr O’Flynn also paid tribute to a number of fishermen who were assisting in the search. “It’s important to acknowledge the contribution of the fishing industry,” he said. “There were six boats out searching today and they were there since early morning.”
Capt Fitzpatrick’s sister Niamh Fitzpatrick said her family was “devastated” at the loss of her “brave sister”.“ Please pray for recovery of 3 remaining crew,” she tweeted.
Irish Coast Guard search and rescue operations manager Gerard O’Flynn said he wished to extend his sincere sympathies on behalf of the organisation to Ms Fitzpatrick’s family and her flying colleagues.
“Dara is one of the most senior pilots with CHC, she has been with the company close on 20 years,”Mr O’Flynn said, speaking at Blacksod lighthouse, Co Mayo.
“Outside of her work as a pilot, she did an enormous amount of work in water safety and was always available to do school visits and just highlight basic water safety,”he said.
“So for all of us involved in the Coast Guard and particularly for her family and for everybody it does come as a complete shock,and we want to extend our sincere sympathy to all her family and to her flying colleagues in CHC, and sympathy to everyone who knew her.”
Mr O’Flynn said the wreckage was being recovered. This was being carried out in conjunction with the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) which had been on scene all morning, he said.
“It’s a search operation - obviously with the passage of time, the chances of recovery of somebody alive decreases, but we are treating it as a search operation and we don’t give up hope,”he said.
He said it was a very difficult time and a terrible shock for everyone involved in search and rescue and all the emergency services. He said that the Irish CoastGuard had just lost one of its most senior rescue personnel, Daithí O Cearbhalláin, whose funeral took place at the weekend.
Asked if he had any idea of the cause of the crash, Mr O’Flynn said: “absolutely not, this is entirely a matter for the AAIU” and he could not speculate as this information was not available to him.
"This by any standards has been a very extensive search,"he said, outling the units involved - two Irish Coast Guard helicopters, the RNLI Achill and Ballyglass lifeboats, the Naval Service patrol ship LE Roisin. A number of fishing vessels are "doing Trojan work out there", he said.
“Conditions are reasonable, earlier this morning I said it was choppier and more difficult, but conditions are quite reasonable now,”he said. He said the Garda diving unit was on scene and Naval Service divers were also en route, and were assessing the situation. The search area is in the general area of the Blackrock light.
In August 2013, Capt Fitpatrick and colleague Capt Carmel Kirby made Irish aviation history by flying the first all-female mission for the service.
The Shannon-based search and rescue Helicopter R115 flew its first missions with a female pilot and co-pilot, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick and Capt Carmel Kirby.
Capt Fitzpatrick was then the chief pilot for rescue 117 at the Waterford base and was on transfer to Shannon to build up flying hours on the new SikorskyS92.
The Dublin-based helicopter went missing off the Mayo coast shortly after 1am on Tuesday.
Irish Coast Guard acting director Eugene Clonan told Newstalk Breakfast the helicopter in question had flown from Dublin to join a rescue helicopter from Sligo which was responding to a distress call from a UK registered fishing vessel about 250km off the coast.
The vessel had called the Malin Head rescue co-ordination centre at about 9.40pm on Monday to say one of the crew members had been injured.
The Sligo helicopter was sent to do the pick up of the injured crew while the Dublin crew was there to follow as a backup and keep communications as a safety measure.
At 12.45am the coast guard last heard from Rescue 116 (the Dublin helicopter) to say it was making its approach to Blacksod to refuel before heading out into the Atlantic to carry out its role as the “chase” helicopter.
The Coast Guard called a mayday after the helicopter, which was being tracked, disappeared from the screen.
Mr Clonan said sea conditions were rough at the time and visibility was not good. However the conditions off the west coast when the helicopters set out were considered “fine for flying”.
He said that crew were wearing immersion suits, life jackets and had individual communication equipment.
The Sligo-based rescue helicopter R118 completed the medical evacuation of an injured fisherman 250km west of Blacksod, and is now involved in the search, along with the Shannon helicopter, an Air Corps Casa fishery protection aircraft and the RNLI Achill and Ballyglass lifeboats.
Juergen Whyte, chief aeronautical officer with the Air Accident Investigation Unit, said two investigators were sent out to the Blacksod Bay Area after the unite received an alert from air traffic control that an aircraft had gone missing. The investigators remained on site on Tuesday morning.
Mr Whyte said the AAIU’s main priority following the search and rescue was to recover the flight recorders contained on the aircraft.
One of these recorders records voice while the other records the parameters of the aircraft including the power of the engine, speed and height.
“That’s a crucial element of our work over the next few days,” said Mr Whyte. “To locate the source of the wreckage and within that wreckage area we are looking for the recorders.”
If recovered, the recorders can then be used to analyse the movement of the flight and recreate a digital flight to help investigators determine what happened in the final moments of the flight.
Speaking on Newstalk, Mr Clonan said it is “extremely important to find the black box.
He said that water in the area is between 30 and 50 metres deep, they are searching through debris and fuel.
A spokesman from the Department of Transport confirmed that the crew would have been issued with GPS locators in their lifejackets.