Published on January 10th, 2016 | by Jim Lee0
Air Corps flew over 21,000 movements and amassed over 8,850 flying hours in 2015
End of year statistics released by the Defence Forces show that 2015 was a busy year for the Air Corps, with Casement Aerodrome, the Air Corps main operational base, handling over 21,000 aircraft movements and the Air Corps’ fleet amassing over 8,850 flying hours. The Air Corps currently operates 17 fixed wing aircraft and 10 rotary wing aircraft, along with two simulators; a PC-9M and a multi-crew trainer.
The key headline operational mission figures include:-
- 277 Maritime Patrols,
- 68 Air Ambulances on both helicopter & fixed wing assets,
- Almost 400 Emergency Aeromedical Support (EAS) service missions completed, including a mission on Christmas day,
- 32 Wildlife Surveys.
We will look at the Air Ambulance and EAS mission profile in further detail later, but in addition to this very important aid to the civil power role, the Air Corps have carried out a number of high profile missions in 2016 including the visit of Prince Charles, which saw them deployed in multiple roles. Two Agusta Westland AW139 helicopters were tasked with providing security and transport for members of the joint delegation of Irish and UK officials, while PC-9s were deployed in an Air Policing role, under the control of Air Corps Air Traffic Control staff, enforcing an aviation exclusion zone.
2015 saw the completion of Operation Baseline, an Ordnance Survey project to accurately map Ireland’s coastline. The borders of coastal nations do not end at the water’s edge, but extend into offshore areas, where national law still applies. The extent of these territorial seas is defined in law as the line from which this extent is measured. This line is known as a baseline and it is from this that rights to fishing, exploration and exploitation of natural resources are determined. The Air Corps supported this mission by providing access for Ordnance Survey personnel to the most extreme points of our coastline, and by winching teams on to tiny promontories, so that they could obtain their geological data, to construct this national Baseline.
In March, a CASA CN235 Maritime Patrol aircraft, while carrying out a routine patrol, provided a scientific research platform for physicists from Trinity College Dublin, to study the total solar eclipse. The aircraft gave scientists an opportunity to use specialist cameras, free from obstructions and atmospheric pollutants, to record the event. The data gathered contributed to a global scientific study of the event.
In April, an AW139 deployed to Killarney National Park to combat a wildfire. The aircraft was fitted with a ‘bambi bucket’ capable of carrying over 1,000 litres of water, in support of the local fire service.
Occasionally, the Air Corps is tasked with providing support for the Irish Aviation Authority and the Air Accident Investigation Unit. This year the Air Corps was tasked on two occasions. In May, there was a light aircraft crash in a mountainous area of South Carlow. A Cessna T.182T Turbo Skylane, N247P, crashed on a steep rocky slope on the western side of a ridge on the Blackstairs Mountains, on the Carlow-Wexford border on the afternoon of 25th May. Both the pilot and his passenger were killed in the incident.
The Air Corps was tasked initially with providing helicopter transport for the investigation teams. Once preliminary investigations were carried out, the Air Corps was requested to recover the aircraft from the mountain, so further analysis could be carried out at the AAIU wreckage facility at Gormanston, Co. Meath, This involved a large logistical operation with over 30 Air Corps personnel conducting a complex helicopter external load lift of the crashed aircraft off the mountain.
In November, following a crash of an Airbus A321-200, registration EI-ETJ, of Russian airline Metrojet (formerly Kogalym Avia, Kolavia), in the Sinai Peninsula, the Air Corps provided transport for the IAA/AAIU teams from Dublin to Egypt.
In December, following Storm Desmond, the Air Corps were tasked to support the OPW in surveying the damage from flooding in the midlands region. The Air Corps remain on standby to provide further flood relief assistance. More recently the Air Corps have been supporting their colleagues in the other services in assisting in dealing with current flooding across the country.
On 31st December, they assisted farmers in Galway by lifting almost 8 tonnes of fodder to livestock, that have been isolated by the recent floods. The AW139 is fitted with a cargo hook that allows us to carry up to 2.2 tonnes externally. The loads are prepared by a specialist team of landing point commanders and a fuel truck was also dispatched to aid the mission. Another AW139 helicopter was used to assist with flood relief operations along the Shannon, by transporting a team to survey the extent of the floods.
Many Air Corps missions involve flying over large expanses of water, whether it is a CASA patrolling hundreds of miles off the West coast, or an AW139 traveling to the UK on an aeromedical mission. This long exposure over the water brings with it a risk of having to ditch the aircraft, should it suffer a significant failure. Air Corps crews regularly train for this type of scenario in the National Maritime College of Ireland. There, they are put through our paces by instructors from the Irish Naval Service, in a setting that can imitate the high seas with environmental effects including waves, wind, lightning and pitch-black darkness. One of the drills practiced is escaping from an aircraft that has been submerged and inverted. The Air Corps have made a brief video of its Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) which can be see here.
Less dangerous, but equally challenging, are official ceremonial events for various occasions. During the year, the Air Corps took part in over 30 of these. One of the highlights was the visit of the United Nations Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki Moon to Baldonnel. Another was the annual Air Corps GOC’s parade in Casement Aerodrome on 27th November, when Brigadier General Paul Fry inspected those under his command. The ceremony in the traditionally held outdoors, was held in No. 5 Hangar due to the inclement weather.
The Air Corps is playing its part in the Flags for Schools Initiative, delivering the National Flag to over 200 schools in the Dublin region, as well as a number of Island schools.
Air Ambulance and EAS missions
Following a Government decision last July, the EAS Service was established on a permanent basis. This very valuable service provided by the Air Corps and the National Ambulance Service, ensures that seriously ill or injured people in more remote areas, have timely access to appropriate high quality clinical care. The service is targeted mainly at western counties, where the road network may not allow for timely transport to hospital. Helicopter-based transport for those patients allows for greatly reduced transit times, particularly for time-critical transfers, such as STEMI heart attacks, stroke or major trauma.
The service reached the significant milestone by completing its 1,000th mission in June. The EAS has now completed over 1,250 missions and approximately one third of the missions to date have been in response to STEMI heart attacks, allowing patients to be treated in a specialist setting within 90 minutes of diagnosis.
In this year’s Defence budget (of some €680 million), there is an increased provision arising from a Government decision to provide additional funding for the Defence Vote, towards the reimbursement of Air Corps costs incurred in the provision of the EAS service, which was previously funded through the Health Vote.
The Government decision on the EAS Service was based on the Air Corps providing a dedicated helicopter operating out of Custume Barracks Athlone, (callsign ‘Rescue 112’), with reserve support being provided by the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG). The Government’s decision also provided that the Air Corps’ involvement in the service shall not exceed current levels in terms of the number of helicopters, The Department of Health is currently developing a Service Level Agreement with the Department of Defence, to set out the scope of support to be provided by the Air Corps. It has also said that it intended to keep the operation under review, to ensure a sustainable, long term service arrangement.
The Air Corps are justifiably proud to be part of a system providing for better patient outcomes, but they rarely get a chance to meet these patients again to hear about their recovery. However at the end of November, they hosted a visit to Baldonnel of a special young man and his family, who they transported to Newcastle for life saving treatment, in the Great North Children’s Hospital in May 2014. Young Conor was born on Christmas Day 2013 with a rare immune disorder called SCID and his family returned to Baldonnel to tell personnel there, how well he has been doing since and to have another look at the Learjet which provided his vital transport.
The year ended with a Casa completing an air ambulance, transporting a seriously ill child to Newcastle for treatment while the EAS crew put the aircraft to bed for the final time in 2015 having completed almost 400 missions in the year.
Ministerial Air Transport Service (MATS) missions
In accordance with the roles assigned by Government, the Air Corps is committed to providing a Ministerial Air Transport Service (MATS) to assist and members of the Government and the President in fulfilling their official engagements, at home and abroad. Up until July 2014 two aircraft were available for this role, but following major issues revealed during its annual maintenance inspection, the Gulfstream IV (‘251’) was sold in December 2014. Now the MATS is now being provided solely by the Learjet 45 aircraft (‘258’), which entered service in 2004.
In 2014, the Learjet flew 34 missions involving 156.42 hours. A further 26 missions involving 116.66 hours were flown by the Gulfstream IV. In 2015 (up to 16th December), the Learjet flew 60 missions involving 148.7 hours.* In line with a commitment given by the Government, statistical information relating to the Ministerial Air Transport Service is now published on the Department of Defence website. see here for details for 2015.
Supporting military operations
Important though the aid to the civil power missions are, the key role of the Air Corps as the air component of the Permanent Defence Forces, is to support the operations of their colleagues in the Army and Naval Service. The Air Corps regularly hone their skills in troop deployment, night flying ops, air to ground gunnery, load carrying, parachuting and operations with Naval vessels at sea including winching.
In November, the Air Corps took part in Exercise ‘Dark Nights’, a conventional Battalion level exercise, using both fixed wing and rotary equipment. The exercise, which took place in the Defence Forces Training Centre, County Kildare and Kilworth Training Area, County Cork, was the biggest exercise of its kind to be organised in recent years. 1,300 personnel were deployed over a two week period and in addition to the Air Corps, the exercise included assets and capabilities, normally found at Brigade level including; armoured cavalry reconnaissance assets, artillery assets (both indirect fire assets and Surveillance and Target Acquisition capabilities), combat engineers and communications assets.
While the role of the Air Corps under the Defence Act is to contribute to the security of the State by providing for the Military Air Defence of its airspace, at present the Air Corps’ existing Pilatus PC9 aircraft provide only a very limited air to air and air to ground capacity. Neither is the Air Corps tasked or equipped to monitor and communicate with aircraft overflying Irish airspace. However, on a routine basis the Air Corps monitors and communicates with foreign military aircraft where such aircraft are flying in the airspace in the vicinity of Baldonnel, where air traffic control is provided by the Defence Forces.
The Government’s recently published White Paper on Defence (2015), states that should additional funding beyond that required to maintain existing Air Corps’ capabilities become available; the development of a radar surveillance capability will be a priority. Funding for this is not provided in the current resource envelope and any future decisions in this regard will be in the context of the ongoing security environment and any associated developments. Whilst the development of a more capable air combat intercept capability will be considered over the lifetime of the White Paper, at this stage there are no plans in this regard.
A modern professional service
Today, just over 750 men and women serve in the Air Corps, each making a unique and significant contribution to fulfilling the roles, both primary and secondary as assigned by government. It is this group of airmen and airwomen that are responsible for the 1,000s of missions carried out by the Air Corps each year in support of the State.
They are pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers, refuellers, chefs, logisticians, administrators, flight attendants, signallers, medics, winchmen, SAROs (Sensor Airborne Radar Operator), photographers, armourers, SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) instructors, and educators.
It is fair to say that the Air Corps is a busy, vibrant air service, as skilled, capable and dedicated as any major air power; it is fully capable of completing the missions set for it in accordance with government policy, now and into the future, but most importantly they remain committed to the Air Corps’ motto “Forfhaire agus Tairiseacht/Vigilance and Loyalty.”
*In 2014, the basis for the calculation of MATS hours was amended slightly. Up to then the hours reported were standardised times for each route, whereas for 2015, the actual time passengers are on board is what is being reported.