features Watchful and loyal: The Irish Air Corps

Starting out as a dedicated SAR unit, the Irish Air Corps Helicopter Wing has grown into air medical and air support roles to protect and serve surrounding communities, all while facing Ireland’s ever-changing weather.
Avatar By Lukasz Gancarz | June 11, 2020

Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 39 seconds.

Ireland is well known for its mild climate and evergreen fields, but the weather can change in an instant. It is so common to experience all four seasons within a single day that an oft-repeated refrain goes, “If you can fly in Ireland, you can fly anywhere.”

It was the gnarly winter of 1963-64, remembered woefully as the “Big Freeze,” that proved the saying correct and demonstrated both the need for and utility of rotorcraft in the Irish Air Corps. It hadn’t gotten as cold in the last 200 years with ponds, lakes and rivers freezing solid. Towns and villages were cut off and supplies ran low. People in need of urgent medical care were put in a life-threatening situation with no means of transportation. Families were stranded in their own homes with local emergency services battling through the snow to gain any access to those in need. Ireland’s Defense Forces deployed troops to provide rations and evacuate those worst affected countrywide.

An Irish Air Corps EC135 during a press demonstration session at Casement Aerodome in Dublin, Ireland. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

Irish Air Corps crews did their best to drop food where possible, but it was rarely enough. High winds and low visibility were jeopardizing all relief efforts. It became painfully obvious that the state needed its own, dedicated rotary division. The decision was made to form the Helicopter Wing of the Air Corps, which would focus mainly on search-and-rescue (SAR) operations. After long consideration, the Irish government placed an order for three Aérospatiale Alouette III helicopters. The first two were delivered in 1963 and the third in 1964.

The Alouette III is a light, multirole, single-engine helicopter developed by the French Sud Aviation, which had seen service across the globe. A total of eight Alouette IIIs saw service in Ireland between 1963 and 2007, initially with the Irish Air Ambulance Service. Irish Air Corps helicopters were regularly deployed on SAR missions, troop transport and explosive ordnance disposal operations.

The rising number of tasks and an outstanding success rate of helicopter SAR operations was an indication that a new type of aircraft was needed to meet public demand. The Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma was leased from its manufacturer to fill in the role of a heavy-duty workhorse. It was only in 1982 when the Aérospatiale SA 365 Dauphin II (now the Airbus AS365 Dauphin) was chosen to fill the SAR role. The Aérospatiale SA342L Gazelle was purchased to work as a training aircraft for the pilots who wanted to move on to the Dauphin. It was the first aircraft with a full glass cockpit introduced to Ireland’s fleet; however, it soon became clear that the Dauphin was not well suited for SAR operations, especially in bad weather.

An AW139 hovers while the crewman searches for a safe landing spot on a soft soil. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

Another leap forward was marked by introduction of the crew resource management (CRM) system, known well in civil aviation. It was designed to include all staff working both on the ground and in the air. This project was, and still is managed by Lt. Col. Phillip Bonner, who until recently was the commanding officer of No. 3 Operations Wing. The main idea was to give everyone in and working with the Air Corps, from flight attendants, engineers and flight crews all the way to janitorial staff, responsibility for the safety and performance of its operations.

With new training standards in place, CRM was introduced to the Garda Air Support Unit (GASU). The Air Corps provided pilots and a Eurocopter (now Airbus) AS355N Twin Squirrel for Ireland’s National Police Service (An Garda Síochana) beginning in September 1997.

In January 2008, a Eurocopter EC135 T2 was purchased. From 2005 to 2008, both aircraft contributed to over 1,300 arrests and located 14 missing persons during SAR details. The Irish Air Corps was providing pilots, while the national police provided two more crew positions: the mission commander seated in the back of the aircraft and a second crew member sitting beside the pilot. (Again, all crew members are fully CRM trained and they can assist the single pilot in a variety of tasks, such as verifying checklist items or assistance during an emergency operation.)

For now Irish HEMS operates only during the daytime; however, the helicopter used for this role remains in an operational readiness 24/7. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

The AS355N was replaced in 2007 by a second EC135 T2+. After nearly 20 years of cooperation, both the Air Corps and An Garda Síochána have developed a perfectly balanced service to the public, operating on a 24-hour basis. While being attached to the No. 3 Wing, each pilot is working under orders from their commanding officer. In GASU, the pilot in command (PIC) makes the final call on whether the mission tasked by the dispatcher is flyable or not. And CRM shines when there could be significant pressure involved in the decision-making process — especially with high-risk arrests, or the pursuit of armed criminals.

The EC135 had proven itself to be such an effective tool for all-weather operations that two more aircraft were fielded by the Irish Air Corps in 2004. Soon after, a search commenced for a complete SAR and helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) capable platform, which can also fill some traditionally military roles. The AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) AW139 was chosen to replace a veteran fleet of Dauphins. The AW139 was meant to be a true Swiss army knife, capable of undertaking a full spectrum of missions including HEMS, firefighting, troop insertion and patient transport. Floor sections of the aircraft can be modified for carriage of not only a specialized stretcher base but an advanced neonatal unit.

All crews are undergoing NVG training sessions to remain current for all night time operations. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

Additionally, all of the AW139 pilots had extensive EC135 experience. With a very intense training regime, the Air Corps prepares each pilot for their future roles. The training program is tailored to prepare the cadets to operate on multiple aircraft types in all weather conditions.

The first step in becoming a fully qualified pilot with the Irish Air Corps is passing a seven-month period of basic military training. Next comes fixed-wing ground school, during which CRM is imprinted into the recruits’ minds after which crews are familiarized with the Pilatus PC-9M. There the Cadets accrue 130-150 flight hours and approximately 20-50 simulator hours. Upon completion of flight training they then proceed to their advanced flight training on the Pilatus PC-12, CASA CN235 or EC135.

After passing the yearlong Helicopter Conversion Course, pilots are trained on the EC135 to perform air ambulance missions. Pilots then proceed to the AW139 and complete a period as co-pilots on the aircraft, which includes time on EAS. They are then dispatched to GASU. After three to five years spent with GASU, pilots are sent back to No. 3 Helicopter Wing where they continue to operate and train on the AW139 as needed.

During Irish EAS operations, every crew member is responsible for safety, including paramedics. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

Probably the most vital task of the No. 3 Helicopter Wing is the provision of emergency medical services. In 2011, a 12-month pilot project was launched to test possible advantages of having a helicopter with a full crew on standby to provide daytime HEMS flying under visual flight rules. CRM was a defining element of the program, which Bonner helped launch. One of the unique challenges at the beginning of joint operations was integrating two very different operational cultures.

Pilots and aircrew were using jargon unfamiliar to medical personnel, while paramedics were using medical terminology previously unheard by the aviators. Again, CRM training was modified to educate military staff on medical phraseology, including having one of the Air Corps crew members trained as a medical technician able to assist with casualty care. The same approach went toward the medical staff, who were introduced to the Air Corps procedures and operations, making them permanent members of the HEMS team. EAS flights were initially performed with an EC135 before the larger, more capable AW139 was brought online.

The service significantly reduced transit times for the patients and in 2013 became permanent. Another big step forward was to include the dispatcher’s offices, which are located over 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from Athlone, by installing a set of cameras in the HEMS briefing room. This allowed the dispatcher to see and hear the pre- and post-action briefings, fully incorporating them into the advanced CRM system in place.

Confined area operations are a vital part of the Air Corps training syllabus. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

A standard day for a HEMS crew starts with an operations briefing carried out by the commanding officer (CO). This includes a weather summary prepared by the first officer and a technical report by the engineers. While the first officer reviews the pre-designated landing sites and reports from previous duties, the CO carries out a thorough pre-flight inspection of the aircraft, after which the helicopter is set up for a quick start-up. Training flights are planned as required for the day, depending on weather conditions. Once a call comes in from the dispatch center, it is considered by the advanced paramedic. If it qualifies for a HEMS response, a mission is initiated, and the commander starts up the helicopter. At the same time, the first officer checks the location of an incident and assigns a pre-designated landing site or creates a new one if needed.

With location and route planned, the remainder of the crew boards the helicopter for an immediate departure. When airborne, the paramedic receives constant operational updates from the dispatch center. In many cases an ambulance team will be on the scene first and can confirm if HEMS response is needed. Upon arrival, the crew surveys the landing site, looking for any obstacles which could put the aircraft in danger. Several tight turns are made while every crew member checks the landing zone.

With transition into hover and imminent landing, the Air Corps crewman becomes eyes and ears for the pilots. They will verbally confirm the aircraft’s distance from the ground, possible debris and finally, contact with the ground.

Advanced paramedic David Irvin receives information electronically about a casualty while Cpl Dermot Corcoran checks the route for obstacles and alternative approaches. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

Immediately upon touchdown both a paramedic and an Air Corps medical technician will meet up with the ambulance team on the ground to assess the casualty. Within minutes of landing, usually with the aircraft awaiting with engines idling, the medical crew returns to the helicopter, which then takes off and heads for the nearest, most appropriate hospital.

Sometimes, when more specialized assistance is needed — such as for neonatal care — the Air Corps’ fixed-wing aircraft will fuel up to help. With the component’s CASA CN-235 ready at Casement Aerodrome, a young patient can be immediately transferred and transported to an advanced care unit in the United Kingdom. And with full cooperation from all emergency services involved, the Athlone-based HEMS unit has proven itself to be a major addition to the Irish public. Today, No. 3 Helicopter Wing provides three major services: Garda Air Support, emergency medical services and air mobility.

Ireland’s Oglaigh na hEireann (Irish Defense Forces) have actively taken part in global peacekeeping efforts since 1958 — from Central America to Africa and Asia and when called upon by partner nations and allies.

In preparation for landing, the crewmembers become the eyes and ears of the flight deck, especially when flying over populated areas. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

Apart from its local aid to the general public, No. 3 Wing in 2018 was deployed to Northern Ireland to assist with putting out brush fires. Two AW139s, each equipped with a 1,200-liter (317-US gallon) Bambi Bucket, worked directly over the affected areas while an EC135 was used as an observation platform. While the Irish Air Corps has been used in cross-border operations before, this was the first time the helicopters were used to directly tackle fires.

The Irish Air Corps’ Helicopter Wing continues to develop and adjust its innovative training and staff retention programs, which makes this small force one of the most modern institutions of its kind in the world. While a pilot and staff shortage continues to be a global issue, in Ireland training is being adapted to attract not only new recruits and engineers, but most importantly to ensure that staff remain in service until retirement. As new training programs and technologies are continuously modernizing helicopter operations, the Irish Air Corps constantly adapts to remain one step ahead of global aviation trends. Since its founding, no less than 14 Distinguished Service Medals have been awarded to the members of the Helicopter Wing, who proudly adopted the international SAR motto: “That Others Might Live”; which in Irish translates to: “Go Mairidis Beo.”

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