Rescue 116: Timeline of a tragedy

How four Coast Guard crew lost their lives off the Mayo coast and what happened since

The scene of the search last year for missing the Coast Guard helicopter crew at Blacksod, Co. Mayo. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The scene of the search last year for missing the Coast Guard helicopter crew at Blacksod, Co. Mayo. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


The Dublin-based Irish Coast Guard crew of Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, Capt Mark Duffy and winch crew Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith was tasked to provide “top cover” to the Sligo-based Rescue 118 helicopter on a medical evacuation mission off the west coast on the night of March 13th, 2017.

21.39, March 13th, 2017: Malin Head Coast Guard, Donegal, received a call from the skipper of a fishing vessel who had a crewman with an injured hand on board, 141 nautical miles west of Eagle island, Co Mayo. Sligo-based Rescue 118 helicopter tasked for medical evacuation after consultation at 21.55 between fishing vessel and contracted medical advisory service in Cork. Air Corps asked to provide “top cover” or communications support for Rescue 118.

21.54 Malin requests “top cover” for Rescue 118 from Dublin’s Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC), after Air Corps confirms it has no availability until 0800 hours the following morning. MRCC Dublin calls Irish Coast Guard Dublin base at 22.10 and it accepts the request.

22.03 Rescue 116 airborne from Dublin Airport. The helicopter initially routed towards Sligo, but after completing in-flight fuel and time calculations the crew opted for Blacksod lighthouse to refuel, and the commander selected a programmed “Blacksod South” approach route, which would include Blackrock lighthouse, 13 km to the west, as a “waypoint”.

The helicopter descended to 200ft radio altitude and was travelling at 80 knot when it reached Blackrock. Some 26 seconds prior to impact, a radio altimeter issued an “altitude” warning. The helicopter was close to an outcrop of two rocks, Carrickduff and Carrickad, 0.65 nautical miles west of Blackrock.

Some 13 seconds prior to impact, one of the winch crew identified an island on camera and warned the commander to “come right”. As the commander confirmed a 20 degree heading change, the crew interjected “come right now, come right, COME RIGHT”.

The AAIU preliminary report states “in the final seconds, the helicopter pitched up rapidly, impacted with terrain at the western end of Blackrock and departed from controlled flight”.

00.46, March 14th: The last radar return from R116 recorded by Shannon air traffic control. The first indication the helicopter was missing was at 1.06 hours when the helicopter didn’t answer radio calls to their call sign. At 1.08, Blackrock lighthouse advised they had no contact with helicopter.

01.13: “Mayday” on marine radio channel 16 broadcast by Malin and major search initiated.

02.16: Rescue 118 advise a casualty and debris had been sighted in the water south-east of Blackrock. RNLI Achill lifeboat recovers Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, cardio pulmonary rescuscitation (CPR) administered, and she is pronounced dead at Mayo General Hospital, Castlebar.

March 15th: signal from helicopter’s flight recorder detected in 50m of water off south-west of Blackrock island by local vessel, using Marine Institute equipment.

March 16th: AAIU inquiry team recover “significant debris” from helicopter on Blackrock island.

March 22nd: Helicopter wreckage identified by Marine Institute Holland 1 remotely operated vehicle in 40 metres of water off Blackrock island.

March 24th: Naval Service divers recover body of Capt Mark Duffy and flight data recorder from helicopter wreckage. Families of Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith informed no sign of winch crew bodies in wreckage. Search continues.

April 1st: AAIU rules out mechanical fault as cause of crash.

April 2nd: Helicopter wreckage raised from seabed by west Cork salvage company and brought to Galway by Irish Lights ship Granuaile

April 8th: Over 110 fishing vessels, RNLI lifeboats and Irish Coast Guard search over 8,500 square kilometres of sea from Blacksod to Donegal for the two missing winch crew.

April 13th: AAIU preliminary report identifies anomalies in flight navigational information and software, and flaw in installation of locator beacons on crew lifejackets. A separate ground proximity warning system did not have Blackrock island on its database. Operator CHC Ireland recommended to review route guides issued for CHC Ireland, and RFD Beaufort recommended to review installation provisions and instructions for locator beacons on Mk 44 lifejackets.

July 23rd, 2017: Extensive search by Garda Water Unit and Irish Underwater Council search and recovery divers stood down after further dives in and around Blackrock island.

Late September, 2017: Lifejacket and helmet belonging to winchman Ciarán Smith found on Mullet peninsula shoreline.

March 14th, 2018: First anniversary of crash marked at Blacksod, Co Mayo.

March 16th,2018: AAIU interim statement issued. AAIU final report and separate joint Garda and Health and Safety Authority investigations continue.