Rescue 116 crash: Pilots’ group raised concerns over IAA

‘Prime Time’ report raises questions over authority’s role in relation to terrain data

The Irish Airline Pilots’ Association (IALPA) says it has been raising “concerns” with successive Government transport ministers on the Irish Aviation Authority’s (IAA) effectiveness in fulfilling safety regulatory and “oversight” obligations.

On Thursday night, an RTÉ Prime Time report on the Irish Coast Guard Rescue 116 crash raised questions about the IAA's role in relation to terrain and obstacle data provided in databases for search and rescue helicopters.

Four Irish Coast Guard air crew – Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, Capt Mark Duffy, winch operator Paul Ormsby and winchman Ciarán Smith – died when their helicopter collided with Blackrock island off the north Mayo coast in the early hours of March 14th. The bodies of the two winch crew are still missing in spite of extensive searches.

The IAA told the programme that Blackrock island off north Mayo, which the helicopter collided with, does not constitute an obstacle under International Civil Organisation Standards as its height was under 90 metres. While the lighthouse was shown in databases, there was no indication that it was located on an island with a highest point of 282ft.


However, the IAA said in a statement to The Irish Times on Thursday night that it “rejects the issues raised by RTE’s Prime Time report” concerning “the IAA’s activities in this matter”.

In its statement, the IAA said that Blackrock lighthouse “was included in the visual aeronautical chart at its full height of 282 feet”.

“As this was a visual aeronautical chart, the highest point is the most relevant feature for flight navigation purposes”.

The IAA said that as there was an ongoing investigation into the crash, it was “not normal to comment or speculate” until this was complete.

The IAA also told the programme it had no record that it was advised that Blackrock island was not in the Irish Coast Guard’s enhanced ground-proximity warning system (EGPWS).

The programme obtained details of a series of emails between Sligo-based Irish Coast Guard pilots and a senior CHC manager referring to Blackrock Island and/or other omissions in the EGPWS in 2013.

The EGPWS, which is not be relied on for navigation, was the last link in a sequence of events documented by the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) as contributing to the collision. The co-ordinates for Blackrock island were not programmed into it.


Prime Time reported that Irish Coast Guard personnel were told at a meeting in April, six weeks after the Rescue 116 crash, that its management, CHC Ireland, was trying to establish if this information had been passed on to the company that supplied the database for their system.

Irish Coast Guard pilots based in Dublin had noted for some time that the EGPWS fitted to the new fleet of Sikorsky S-92 helicopters was alerting them to “phantom” obstacles on the east coast

The IAA also told Prime Time that it had only learned that Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast was inaccurately depicted on their official maps nine days after the Rescue 116 crash.

Last night’s programme reported the IAA issued a revised map last month which increased Skellig Michael to its true height of 712ft, from an original inaccurate height of 174ft. The Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) has recommended that CHC Ireland reviews all route guides used by its helicopters in light of the Rescue 116 crash.

Its preliminary report indicates a chain of events led to the crash, and the route guide used by the Rescue 116 crew appeared to have lacked vital information on the north Mayo coast.

The Dublin-based Sikorsky S-92,which was tasked to provide top cover to its Sligo counterpart for a medical evacuation, opted to refuel in Blacksod in north Mayo en route west.

The pilots were relying on a programmed navigational route for Blacksod, which should have assisted their approach, and which included Blackrock island as a waypoint.

IALPA said it could not comment on the crash as it is under investigation, but confirmed it has raised concerns about the IAA’s role in approving navigational information with successive Government Ministers.

The Department of Transport and the Coast Guard said they would not comment on matter which was the subject of an ongoing investigation.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times