Published on July 3rd, 2016 | by Jim Lee0
Remembering ‘Rescue 111’
Main photo above by Frank Grealish.
At approximately 00:40 hrs. local time on Friday 2nd July 1999, an Air Corps Eurocopter AS365Fi Dauphin helicopter, ‘248’, callsign ‘Rescue 111’, crashed in dense fog at Tramore beach, in County Waterford, resulting in the deaths of its four-man crew, Captain Dave O’Flaherty, from Lucan in Dublin; Captain Michael Baker, from Wexford; Sergeant Paddy Mooney, from Meath; and Corporal Niall Byrne, from Dublin.
Their deaths had a profound effect on the country, the local community, the Air Corps they served and on ordinary people, who, like myself did not know the crew personally, they knew off, and respected the valuable job they did. I had a brief and almost incidental interaction, with Captain Dave O’Flaherty, who was involved for a period, in assisting with the marketing of Air Corps PR material, and while I never personally met him, I did speak to him on the phone on a number times, as I was, and still am an avid collector of all things Air Corps!
I remember waking up to the tragic news. Waking up late, I might add, as I had just returned from an exciting and enjoyable aviation tour of the United States, taking in a range of stunning locations including Alaska. After being immersed in aviation over the preceding weeks, it was hard to comprehend such a disaster.
When I left Ireland some weeks earlier, the whole country was looking forward to the expansion of 24 hour search and rescue cover, to the South East. An Air Corps Alouette III helicopter had been deployed the previous July to Waterford for daylight-only SAR. At that stage it had not been possible to deploy the night capable Dauphin helicopter, due to a shortage of experienced crews to maintain deployments, at both Waterford and Finner Camp in Donegal, which at that stage had a 24 hour operation. The Air Corps, had however, undertaken to commence the 24 hour service with a Dauphin on 1st July 1999 and ‘248’ had been deployed to Waterford Regional Airport, only that morning. It departed its base at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel at 09:24 arriving at Waterford Airport at 10:02. These times, taken from the official report, are in Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC), which was one hour earlier than local time at that stage.
It had turned out to be a busy day for the crew, with an official launch attended by a number of VIPs. The aircraft also performed an RTÉ publicity flight, as well as a training exercise over the sea, to the Southeast of Tramore. It was around 16:15 that the detachment of seven, the Detachment/Aircraft Commander (P1), the co-pilot (P2), the winch-operator and the winchman along with a three-man technical crew, departed the Airport to their Dunmore East accommodation. It is perhaps typical of the period that they were expected to operate there on a ‘self-catering’ basis. This was due to the fact that agreement on the provision of an accommodation block was not reached until May 1999, and Planning Permission was only then applied for on 21st June 1999, in spite of the long lead in time for the project.
More significantly there was no agreement reached on the Air Corps requirement for ATC services, by means of either qualified Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs), or qualified Aerodrome Flight Information Service Officers (AFISOs) and on that fateful night it fell to an Air Corps technician to perform that particular challenging duty. In addition, there was only limited fire cover. This was being provided by the Airport Manager and Fire Officer, who also provided a re-fuelling service as well as limited Crash Rescue cover. Neither the Airport Manager nor the Fire Officer were qualified ATCO/AFISOs, although the Airport Manager was formerly a qualified AFISO.
At that stage the normal detachment rotation involved a crew departing from Baldonnel on a Monday morning returning on Friday morning, effectively on SAR call (15 minutes by day, 45 by night) for 96 hours! In the case of this detachment, they were due to be on call until Monday 5th July.
At 21:02, the Marine Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) Dublin, contacted the SAR Waterford detachment, with initial details of its first mission. The total Flight Duty Period (FDP) of the crew at the time of launch decision was 14 hrs 30 mins.
This tasking involved a 15 foot yellow boat, which had become lost off Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, in very bad visibility. MRCC tasked the Helvick Inshore Lifeboat and the Dauphin crew at Waterford. The Lifeboat went to the scene, but was initially unable to find the casualty as the Lifeboat was not radar equipped. The Dauphin was therefore launched to assist in locating the casualty, with its on-board radar equipment. In the event, Helvick Lifeboat located the casualty and subsequently requested the helicopter to provide navigational assistance back to Helvick Pier, as the Lifeboat’s GPS navigation system was not functioning correctly.
During the mission, the crew were advised that the weather conditions at Waterford Airport were deteriorating and the Aircraft Commander decided to return to base. Such were the conditions that the crew carried out two unsuccessful Instrument Landing System (ILS) approaches to Runway (RWY) 21 at Waterford Airport and carried out a go-around after each one. The crew then advised Waterford Control Tower that they were then going to carry out a “coastal approach”. During a probable go-around from this approach, ‘Rescue 111’ impacted sand dunes, some 14 metres high, adjacent to Tramore Strand and was destroyed with no survivors. At the time of the accident the crew had been on duty for 16 hrs 40 mins.
At 23:35:25, in its last significant transmission, the crew advised MRCC “We’ve had to overshoot Waterford Airport due to weather, we can’t get in. We’re doing an approach to Tramore Bay this time and if we can get down, we’re going to land in the bay area somewhere”. MRCC acknowledged this and requested to be kept updated. This was acknowledged by the crew at 23:35:50 hrs, in what was to be the final message. Earlier at 23:34, on receiving information on better weather in Baldonnel, they replied; “Roger, don’t have the juice”, indicating that they had insufficient fuel remaining to allow for such a diversion.
There were some further attempts to contact the helicopter without success and at 23.55 both MRCC and the Waterford Airport Manager, reported the situation to the Gardai in Tramore, requesting a search of the beach. A Mayday relay for the missing helicopter was broadcast by MRCC on Rosslare Radio at 00.05 hrs and the local IMES coastal rescue teams were called out shortly after that.
When the personnel in the Control Tower realised that the aircraft was missing, they tuned one of the Control Tower’s VHF airband radios to the emergency frequency 121.5 MHz. However no SARBE (SAR beacon) or ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) transmissions were heard on the frequency by the Tower personnel. When the local ATC operator arrived at the Airport later to assist with the arrival of the IMES Sikorsky S61 helicopter, he adjusted the radio and was able to hear a faint ELT transmission. The ELT was also heard by overflying aircraft in the early hours of the morning of 2nd July.
At approximately 01.00, the wreckage of the helicopter was located by an IMES coastal search team in the sand dunes approximately 3 kilometres east of Tramore town.
Today, a monument commemorating the brave crew of ‘Rescue 111’ is a fundamental part of Tramore’s Promenade. Those visiting today will see that it has been adorned with flowers as the town remembers the bravest of brave men who were killed that evening. The current motto of the Defence Forces is to ‘Defend, Protect, Support’, which sums up nicely the current role of the Air Corps. That together with the motto of 3 Operations Wing, ‘Go Mairidís Beo; (“that others may live”) adequately describes the careers of these fine men. As we remember them, our sympathies go out to their families, friends and colleagues. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.