Kevin Wright reports on Ireland's premier aviation event
Sunday 24 June saw the small seafront at Salthill, just outside Galway City in the Republic of Ireland host its 2007 airshow. Galway is perhaps better known as a tourist location for its horse racing, annual Oyster Festival and, of course, the odd pint of Guinness. In the continual effort to attract tourists to the area the now annual Salthill show is fast becoming a significant crowd puller - this year, even a day of typically showery Irish weather did little to spoil this unique event.
One of the great joys of Salthill is always its very relaxed and intimate atmosphere, accompanied by the spectacular backdrop of Galway Bay. Salthill 2007 was also special in that it was a year of many firsts - participation by a Royal Air Force Typhoon, a pair of USAF A-10s and most spectacular of all, as far as the public were concerned, the first ever visit to Ireland by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team, embarking on its brief European tour.
Ground displays by the Irish Defence Forces and civilian services were positioned on the seafront esplanade - however, being a seafront show, the possibilities for static displays are somewhat limited and require a somewhat unusual approach to the situation. Just a few metres opposite the main crowd centre-line is a small grassed park area, which serves for the rest of the year as a play area for local children. On show day it doubles as the location for the small static park and as the arrival and departure area for transiting rotary wing aircraft. Smaller fixed-wing aircraft operate out of nearby Galway airport, with the heavy metal flying from Shannon, itself only about ten minutes flying time from Salthill.
This year a RAF Merlin, from 28 Squadron, and a Royal Navy Sea King ASaC7, from 849 Naval Air Squadron, were the main static aircraft. They were supplemented by an assortment of Irish Air Corps helicopters arriving and departing throughout the day. Each time a helicopter arrived or departed a team of Civil Defence volunteers would create a small perimeter around the landing or departure area with an ever-eager public pushing the boundary. It was very refreshing to be able to stand in the downwash of these helicopters, rather than being held at great distances from them!
Nearing the end of its flying career, but still looking immaculate, was Alouette III serial 214, one of only three still operational with the Irish Air Corps' 302 Squadron at Casement Aerodrome (Baldonnel) near Dublin. The Alouette dropped the three-man Irish Army parachute display team onto the park in the morning but abandoned the afternoon drop due to the many heavy showers. Later in the day much more modern equipment - an Air Corps Eurocopter, and a very new AW139, also from 301 Squadron, put in static appearances after their respective flying routines.
The main flying display was opened by an Aer Arann ATR 72, operating from nearby Galway Airport, with a series of very low fly-bys in the now miserable weather. Other civilian participants were the 'Blades' display team with a very impressive performance during one of the fairer breaks in the weather. Also EI-GCE, one of the locally familiar CHC Ireland, Shannon-based, S-61Ns, performed a typically professional role demonstration with the helicopter sporting new look Garda Costa na hEireann (Irish Coast Guard) titles.
The show provides a major opportunity for the Irish Air Corps to demonstrate its capabilities and equipment, but this year IAC fixed-wing participation took a lower profile with the major US contribution to the show. As a result, displays by the aircraft of the Ministerial Air Transport Service and the Air Corps own PC-9 display team were, unusually, absent. Even so, one of the Air Corps' CN235 MPAs performed a display of its low flying capabilities in the pouring rain, demonstrating fully its ability to operate at low level in the maritime environment.
As the British provided the static displays, the RAF also contributed significantly to the flying performances. As already mentioned among the 'firsts' at Salthill was a 29(R) Squadron Typhoon, performing what is fast becoming a characteristic display combining tight turns and liberal applications of the afterburner, lighting up the grey sky. It also woke up anyone who had become a little too relaxed by the Guinness in a routine ideally suited to this year's low cloud. Additionally a 72(R) Squadron Tucano performed, taking advantage of a sunny break in the weather.
Then onto the Americans - first was a pair of 52nd FW A-10s, flying from Shannon airport, followed by a USAFE C-21 - another Salthill premiere. The highlight of the show was undoubtedly the first ever visit to Ireland by the USAF Thunderbirds, the team on the initial leg of its 2007 European tour. Waiting for a specific gap in the weather they put on an excellent performance, including some over-flying of the crowd - something long since vanished from most European airshows.
Unfortunately the end of the show was marred slightly when the 28 Squadron Merlin lost an emergency hatch as it climbed away from the static park. Three spectators sustained minor injuries as they scrambled to move away from the descending door.
ZJ187/W had been on static display at the show all day and had been clambered over by hundreds of curious onlookers - old and young alike. When the time came for its departure the area was cleared and the Merlin started up. As the Thunderbirds completed their display and left the area the Merlin lifted away vertically and transitioned towards the seafront. As it passed about 150 feet the emergency hatch, part of the main starboard cabin door, fell away to the beach below. Three days later the Irish Air Accident Investigation Unit issued a preliminary report which stated that: 'The Investigation believes that a member(s) of the public had tampered with the emergency egress door handle, while the helicopter was being viewed at the static display park. None of the RAF flight crewmembers observed the position of the emergency egress door handle during the pre-flight inspection. Shortly after becoming airborne the unlocked door detached and fell to earth. The Investigation considers that this occurrence was not a pre-meditated malicious deed, but rather an act of mischief'. Most importantly of all, if the unique nature of this fabulous event is not to be eroded, the Merlin door incident must not be allowed to spoil the way future shows are presented.