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New Wings for the Irish Air Corps

Kevin Wright looks at the IAC in the Twenty-first Century. Pictures by the author and courtesy Irish Air Corps

Headquartered at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, on the outskirts of Dublin, the Aer Chór Na hÉireann (Irish Air Corps) was once regarded as a small air arm with an old inventory. No longer - the IAC may still be relatively small, but now over two thirds of its current twenty-four aircraft inventory is less than four years old. Modernisation has been possible due to Ireland's exceptionally high economic growth in the past decade, allowing significant extra funds to be allocated to the Defence Forces in recent years. The recent purchases have included PC-9Ms, Eurocopter EC-135 P2s, Augusta Westland AW-139s and a Learjet. Baldonnel houses two Operational Wings, two Support Wings, a Communications and Information Squadron, the Air Corps College and parents the Garda Air Support Unit.

Fixed-wing fixtures
Now the oldest aircraft in the Air Corps fleet are the Cessna FR-172s of 104 Squadron.
They have been used for many years as communications aircraft, to cover the
movement of explosives, large bank cash transfers and some prisoner transports. It is
also a holding unit for newly graduated pilots.

Flying Training School

Ordered in January 2003, at a cost of sixty-million Euros, the IAC purchased eight PC-9M aircraft, a simulator, associated equipment and a support package. The PC-9s effectively replaced two types in Air Corps service, the Fouga Magister (which had already been retired by 1999), leaving the small SF-260 fleet to soldier on until the new trainer's introduction in 2004. The PC-9Ms are assigned to the Flying Training School and entered service with few teething problems, with the fleet recently passing 6,000 flying hours mark.

As Captain Derek Furniss, the School's Chief Flying Instructor told us, "The PC-9 is relatively easy to handle and performs well." The aircraft is a powerful one for ab-initio pilots; "The PC-9 flies like a jet. Its speed and rate of climb can take students by surprise initially. You sometimes have to tell them to ease off on the power to give themselves a bit more time to think." However, this has not adversely affected students' success rates. As the CFI explained; "The drop-out rates among students have remained fairly constant at around the thirty percent level between old and new types." One difference is that with the PC-9 "a student's inability to complete their training sometimes does not become apparent until a later stage in the course than it did in a more basic aircraft like the SF-260." The PC-9 has also seen the re-introduction of ejection seats to the Air Corps. Commandant Jim Gavin, Commander of the Flying Training School, told us that "The PC-9 is the first aircraft with an ejection seat that the Air Corps has operated since the Vampire went out of service in the mid-seventies."

The Flying Training School is at the heart of Air Corps flying operations. All Air Corps pilots have to pass through the School before moving onto operational units. It currently has a team of eight instructors and to date two classes have graduated on the PC-9. Captain Furniss, continued: "After completing nine months basic military training at the Curragh, Cadets commence their flying training at Baldonnel. Here students are put through an ATPL package as part of their military flying training." Use of the simulator is integral throughout the course, especially in the early stages, such that "the first solo flight is now not such a big milestone as perhaps it was in the past." During the 150 hour plus flying training syllabus, instrument flying receives considerable emphasis because of Ireland's notoriously changeable weather.

Having successfully completed the Elementary Handling test, students progress to the Basic Handling phase of flying training. This includes student 'fly-aways' to other airfields in Ireland, more solo and instrument flying, general handling and ultimately an 'Applied Phase'. The final stage requires students to demonstrate their proficiency in all areas, as well as night and formation flying, flight planning, advanced navigation and weapons before finally receiving their wings. During the final phase of training students also travel to Flight Safety International, Paris for forty hours on a Beechcraft King Air 200 simulator. Training includes: twin engine operations, instrument flying and Line Orientated Flying Training (LOFT) exercises. On their return to Baldonnel students complete ten hours flying in the Air Corps' own King Air 200.

As in many other Air Arms, the CFI told us "Numbers of graduating pilots can vary significantly, though probably averaging around three to six a year at present. 2007 saw three pilots graduate and 2008 is likely to see a slightly higher number." Following graduation new pilots are posted to a 'holding unit' (104 Squadron) flying Cessna 172s. This change, which is a bit of a culture shock after the glass cockpit of the PC-9, is however generally welcomed by the newly qualified pilots. It is an opportunity to consolidate their experience prior to assignment onto helicopter training, maritime patrol, the Ministerial Air Transport Service or back to the PC-9 for instructor pilot training.

Green helicopter force

The other strand to Air Corps modernisation has been a new helicopter fleet. The purchase of two EC-135 P2s and six AW-139 helicopters and associated support is costing the Air Corps some 86 Million Euros. These types have replaced the Dauphin, which was withdrawn in 2005 and the Alouette III, finally retired in September 2007. The EC-135P2s are used in training and utility roles with 302 Squadron, whilst the AW-139s of 301 Squadron fly a mix of Army cooperation, VIP and medical tasks. Both types are proving highly reliable, are being heavily used and proving popular with their crews.

Rotary wings

From his office overlooking the Baldonnel flightline, Lt. Colonel John Kirke, retiring Commander of 3 Operations Wing - the Air Corps helicopter force - said "During 2007 we have surpassed our flying targets of 1,600 hours for the EC-135, 1,300 hours for the AW-139 and 300 hours with the retiring Alouettes. The EC-135s are used to train crews for the helicopter force. Conversion is an eighty-eight hour flying programme plus ground training and takes around four to five months. The introduction of the new helicopters has seen us run two courses of four pilots in the last two years with another planned for 2008." The EC-135s are proving very reliable, each delivering over eight hundred hours of flying a year, much more than was possible with the old helicopter force. Maintenance time is much reduced compared to the Alouettes.

The EC-135s also perform a Helicopter Air Ambulance role, transferring patients between hospitals under a Service Level Agreement with Ireland's Department for Health and Children. Lieutenant Alan Bray, one of the first pilots to fully train on the PC-9 and now flying the EC-135 explained: "We mostly fly the EC-135 in a five-seat VIP fit, but it can be reconfigured for the medical role very rapidly with an AAT Austria Quick Fit Concept kit." Having completed his fixed-wing flying training in 2006, during 2008 Lt Bray will transfer to 301 Squadron and convert to the AW-139. Asked about his time flying the EC-135 with the Air Corps so far, the smiling response was "Where else could a 22-year old get to fly a four-million Euro helicopter!"

Much of 3 Wing's work is in support of Army activity - over eight hundred hours during 2007. The Air Corps has responsibility to assist the Irish Army Ranger Wing and the Army Brigades. In this task the new AW-139 is proving a versatile platform - the first pair arrived in November 2006, with two more in 2007 and the final pair set for delivery in the third-quarter of 2008. It flies in VIP, nine to twelve seat troop transport fits and air ambulance configurations. Training on the AW-139 has been hectic; 301 Squadron currently fields some seven crews, though "We intend to have twelve operational crews by 2009," said Lt Colonel Kirke.

Retirement of the Alouette III

At Baldonnel on 21 September 2007 the Irish Air Corps formally retired its remaining Alouette IIIs. The type had been in service since 1963, when the first of eight helicopters was delivered. During the subsequent forty-four years, the fleet amassed over 77,000 flying hours. As well as routine military missions, the aircraft undertook some 1,717 Search and Rescue Missions, saving 542 lives and flew a further 2,882 Air Ambulance flights. Among some five hundred invited guests at Baldonnel for the final flight was the pilot of the first Irish Alouette III, retired Brigadier General Brian McMahon. The withdrawal celebrations saw the helicopters undertake a six-ship formation overflight of Dublin before returning to the airfield.

The remaining Allouettes have since been decommissioned, rotors removed and placed in hangar storage at Baldonnel, awaiting disposal by tender during 2008. The oldest of the Alouettes, 195, is currently being kept in 'rotors running' condition for the Air Corps Museum.

As the military launch customer for the AW-139, the IAC has been involved in considerable trials and development work with the manufacturer. For three days in January 2007 at the Glen of Imaal, Air Corps and Augusta Westland fitted, tested and cleared for service the 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Guns, mounted in the forward window ports of the helicopter, firing over 7,000 rounds in the process. Suitability for FLIR systems and military tactical radios has also been tested on the AW-139s in conjunction with Augusta Westland. In maintenance terms the AW-139 is also performing well, although Lt Col Kirke did admit that "Some components are wearing out a little more quickly than expected." The support package purchased for both helicopter types means that the Air Corps does not hold large stocks of spare parts as it used to in the past - instead the manufacturer places small quantities of items that require regular replacement at Baldonnel, with major parts and long life items shipped in from the UK as required. A similar 'Fleet Management Plan' is in place with Pratt & Whitney Canada for the helicopters' engines.

The Army Ranger Wing, Ireland's Special Forces element, is keen to exploit the new helicopter's potential. Lt Col Kirke explained: "The AW-139 is an evolving capability, the Army knows that. Ultimately the Rangers want to be able to undertake their full range of tasks at night, but it will take time to achieve." Additional capabilities are being slowly rolled out; "Although the helicopter is Night Vision compatible, we are still in the process of acquiring NVGs and taking advice on how best to use them operationally." FLIR equipment has been tested on the aircraft and procurement of this is at an advanced stage. Certification for use of the AW-139 as a four-point fast-roping platform is nearing completion and there are moves to evaluate the AW-139's potential "as a sniping platform and for low-level static line jumping." The helicopter's medical role will be enabled by purchase of a Lifeport Air Ambulance Kit, offering greater capacity and flexibility than the EC-135's. A Bambi fire-fighting bucket system was also delivered in late 2007.

A modern air arm

The delivery of new helicopters has enabled a rapid modernisation of the rotary-wing force and permitted some slight realignment in tasking. The number of humanitarian, medical and daytime SAR flights generally declined as the Alouette force neared retirement. As the new helicopters were introduced, they have been eased more completely into the core task of Army support, which has taken a little adjustment. The creation of this modern, well-equipped helicopter force is stimulating discussion, particularly outside the Air Corps, about its possible use to support UN or EU operations - a politically sensitive issue in Ireland. Such discussions have a long way to run and will at least have to await publication of the 2010 Defence White Paper. Even if a political agreement were reached on overseas deployment, Air Corps assets are likely to be restricted to non-combat roles. Even so, such a tasking would require considerable investment to enable the development of a robust deployment capability.

The Air Corps has always been a professional force - however, the recent investment in new equipment is providing it with opportunities and capabilities it could once only have imagined. This combination of professionalism and new equipment is reflected in an air of purposefulness that pervades Baldonnel as the Air Corps goes about its daily business.

Thanks to Commandant Eamonn Murphy IAC and Airman Pat Reilly, 105 Squadron IAC, for their generous assistance and support.

Postscript: This article was published in May 2008. Sadly Captain Derek Furniss was killed on 12 October 2009 when the PC-9M in which he was instructing Cadet David Jevens crashed near Crumlin. Cadet Jevens also died in the incident.


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