Published on November 13th, 2016 | by Jim Lee


PC-9 attrition replacement purchase confirmed

As reported exclusively here  by Flying in Ireland, the Air Corps is to receive an attrition replacement for Pilatus PC-9M, ‘265’, which was written off, following a fatal crash at Crumlin East, Cornamona, Connemara, Co. Galway, just over seven years ago, on 12th October 2009.

In written reply to Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan (Dublin Central), the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Paul Kehoe, confirmed that a decision was made recently to replace ‘265’, which will bring the fleet back up to eight aircraft and will assist in a required increase in pilot training in the Air Corps.  The contract for supply of original eight PC-9M trainers was signed with Pilatus of Switzerland on 16th January 2003, following a tender competition involving Embraer’s Super Tucano and Raytheon’s Texan T-6. The value of that contract, including ground based training systems with a fixed base simulator, and a complete Integrated Logistic Support package, was €60 million, inclusive of VAT.

The replacement PC-9M aircraft is scheduled for delivery next year from Pilatus Aircraft in Switzerland, at a cost of €5 million plus VAT. As previously reported, as the PC-9M is no longer in production, an ex Fuerza Aerea Mexicana (FAM) example ‘2601’, (c/n 669), has been sourced and will be refurbished and repainted prior to delivery. Mexico was the last customer for the PC-9M, which received two in September 2006. While Pilatus received a contract in August 2015, to deliver nine PC-9Ms to the Royal Jordanian Air Force, that order was changed in April 2016 to eight PC-21s. It is likely that the new aircraft will be assigned the Air Corps serial ‘268,’ which was reserved for such an acquisition.


Former Fuerza Aerea Mexicana (FAM) PC-9M ‘2601’, (c/n 669) will join the Air Corps and will most likely take up the serial ‘268’

New aircraft required to assist in an increase in pilot training

Since we published our original item, there has been much talk on social media, regarding the need for an additional PC-9 trainer. The present fleet of PC-9Ms have already flown around 16,000 hours, since the first aircraft was delivered to the Air Corps in April 2004. They are not expected to fall due for replacement until 2025, perhaps even later.

In addition there is an increasing requirement to train additional Air Corps cadets. Following the commissioning of the nine members of the 32nd Air Corps Cadet Class on 29th July, there are currently three cadet classes, the 33rd and the 34th both with eight cadets and 35th class, who recently joined the Irish Defence Forces and commenced their military training on 26th September, with their Army and Irish Naval Service colleagues, in the Military College, in the Defence Forces Training Centre. The 12 Air Corps cadets of the 35th class, selected following the 2016 competition, are part of the highest cadet intake in the history of the State, comprising an additional 68 Army, two equitation school and 15 Naval Service cadetships making a total of 97.


Air Corps cadets Front Row, 33rd Class, Middle 34th Class and back 35th Class

Training of the 34th Class is well underway and having successfully passed six of the 14 Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) exams, they are completing their ground school syllabus – a crucial theoretical foundation required to be completed, before they can commence their flying training. The 33rd Class is obviously further advanced, having reached the decisive milestone of ‘Wings Course Flight 020, better known as the first ‘solo flight’, which was the result of much preparation, including military training, theoretical study, simulator sessions and 20 hours of flying training.


Air Corps cadets under instruction

With this large number of cadets, the workload of the Flying Training School (FTS), is already high before taking into account the requirements of staff continuity training, flying instructor courses, air tests, display visits, ceremonial flypasts and exercises with other branches of the Defence Forces. This could entail an increase of up to a 35% in flying hours plus 20% more, if these larger classes are to reach their full requirement of 170 hours (plus simulator hours).

At present the FTS require to have four aircraft available at a minimum each day to meet present commitments, and with one aircraft in deep maintenance at any one time, and a requirement for other scheduled maintenance, unscheduled maintenance and snagging, the limited availability provided by a seven aircraft fleet, would have provided challenges going into the future. That’s why the additional aircraft is both a necessary and prudent investment.

While the move represents clear thinking and an opportune investment, the Air Corps is still in a cycle of declining airframe and personnel numbers. Between 2006 and 2016, the strength of the Air Corps including cadets and recruits, apprentices etc. in training, fell from 865 to 718, or by almost 17%, while in September 2006, the Air Corps (excluding GASU) had 9 helicopters and 18 fixed wing aircraft, a total of 27, compared to 23 today.


What chance of the development of a more capable combat/intercept capability for the Air Corps?

The stated principal aim of the Government over the lifetime of the White Paper, published in August 2015, is to ensure that the Air Corps can continue to undertake the required military operations and to deliver a broad range of air supports to other Government Departments and agencies in line with Memoranda of Understanding and Service Level Agreements. Accordingly, the future equipment priorities for the Air Corps are set out in the White Paper. This recognises that there are several new and or enhanced priority platforms to be procured for the Air Corps.

Minister of State Kehoe has stated that his priority, as Minister with Special Responsibility for Defence, is “to ensure that the operational capability of the Defence Forces, including the availability of specialised equipment for the Air Corps, is maintained to the greatest extent possible so as to enable the Defence Forces to carry out their roles as assigned by Government as set out on the White Paper on Defence”.

These future capability requirements for the Air Corps are being considered as part of the rigorous capability development and equipment planning priorities process currently underway, which will define ongoing and future equipment priorities, having regard to the evolving security environment and available funding.

The key and immediate priority is obviously the replacement of the Cessna fleet, with three larger aircraft suitably equipped for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) tasks. In this regard, the Minister of State has confirmed that “preparatory work for the tender competition has begun within the Defence organisation, and it is expected that the competition will be initiated by the end of this year”.


It appears the Pilatus PC-12 is the frontrunner in the competition to replace the Cessna fleet.

Interestingly, and given our stated ‘hunch’ that the Pilatus PC-12 is the frontrunner for selection as Cessna replacement, the visit of the company’s PC-12/45, HB-FXM, to Baldonnel on the 8th/9th November, could be seen as significant. The aircraft arrived as the PCH547 at 16:33 on 8th and departed the following morning using the same callsign at 09:15. In a recent comment, Pilatus have said that the 1,365 PC-12s sold to date, reached a cumulative total of five million flight hours in 2015. The company is also on track to deliver 90 new PC-12 NG aircraft in 2016 – an over 20% increase over 2015 sales. This sales level will earn the PC-12 NG the honour of being the top-selling model of turbine-powered business aircraft in the world for the year.

In the longer term, what are the chances of upgrading or replacing the current fleet of PC-9s with jet aircraft, post 2025?

Noting that the PC 9’s were obtained as trainer aircraft, and while they are capable of being armed, they have only a limited defensive capability, Minister Kehoe said that “these limitations were noted in the White Paper on Defence and the development of a more capable combat/intercept capability is to be considered in due course, as part of the White Paper review process”.

Should this be seen as a ‘maybe’ for jet aircraft? The Department of Defence quite rightly has always maintained that Air Defence capability requires “an integrated use of aircraft, radar and air and ground base weapons systems”. The Defence Forces have always had a limited ground to air capacity. The PC-9Ms while enhancing the airborne elements of our air defence capability, being armed with twin 0.5” calibre gun pods and two 2.75” rocket launchers, only provide a very limited air to air and air to ground defence capability. The Department, and indeed various Ministers, have consistently said that while “aspirations to broaden the range of available air based capability are understandable,” they have to be balanced against what the Department has described as “real world constraints”. Given the enormous cost involved, few small countries possess the ability to provide a comprehensive air-based defence capability. Their belief is that the choice must lie “between maintaining the essentially token force to address all dimensions of national defence or seeking to perform a selected range of tasks to a professional standard”. The latter option is what has been chosen as Ireland’s Defence policy.

The assessment of the threat to Ireland is consistently described as extremely low, and this together with the problems small countries face in intercepting rogue aircraft, particularly given the size of the country and the short distance between Ireland and its main neighbour, means that in practical terms, Government policy accepts that we cannot deal with such threats “without assistance from neighbouring countries or, in our case, the European Union”.

Even then, practical questions surround this issue, the answers to none of which would have assisted us with previous airborne terrorist atrocities. They include the determination of what is a rogue aircraft, whether those on board an aircraft could gain control, where it would be brought down, and how fast and to where it was travelling. These are difficult security questions and even with suitable aircraft in a state of readiness, with pilots available for a particular type of attack, the opportunity to deal with a threat would be extremely limited.

Finally there are the “real world constraints” of Defence expenditure. In 2015 this amounted to €898 million, which is only 0.35% of GDP. The expenditure for 2015 was comprised of some €671 million in Defence expenditure (Vote 36 – Defence) and €227 million in Army Pensions (Vote 35), mainly for retirement benefits to over 12,100 military pensioners and their dependants. On the Defence Vote, some €459 million was expended on the pay and allowances of Defence Forces personnel, civilian employees and civil servants of the Department.

Air Corps view from the cockpit of a PC-9 during live firing at the Gormanstown range

With regard to non-pay current expenditure, some €123 million was spent on essential and ongoing Defence Forces standing and operational costs such as utilities, fuel, catering, maintenance, information technology and training. That leaves just €89 million for capital investment on essential infrastructure and equipment. The broad areas of capital expenditure in 2015 included the replacement of naval vessels in the Naval Service flotilla; ongoing investment in Defence Forces built infrastructure and the purchase of new and replacement Information and Communication Technology hardware.  The Defence Vote also included expenditure relating to the Reserve Defence Force, Civil Defence and a grant to the Irish Red Cross Society.

So in short, given the practical and cost issues involved and the level of finance available, it is unlikely that we will see jet fighter (or indeed jet trainer) aircraft, anytime soon. Indeed it will be a major achievement if a radar surveillance capability for the Air Corps, envisaged as a priority in the White Paper, even if additional funding became available, was realised.

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About the Author

Jim has had a life-long interest in military matters and aviation. Initially, he fused both of these interests together with a passion for military aviation, initially as a photographer. He has travelled extensively over the years and has been the guest of many European air forces, plus the air forces of the United States, Russia and others throughout the world. His first introduction to journalism coincided with an interest in the civil aviation industry was when he initially wrote for and later edited, ‘Aviation Ireland’, the club magazine of the Aviation Society of Ireland. Jim was a contributor to Flying in Ireland since its inception over 10 years ago and is now a key contributor to this site. He has also contributed items for a number of other aviation magazines and has produced a number of detailed contributions to Government policy documents, most recently the Irish Government’s White Paper on Defence. He is also deeply involved in the local community and voluntary sector and has worked both in local government and central government.

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