Forces unit marks 50 years' service

26 November 2013 14:32

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Forces unit marks 50 years' service

More than 2,300 search and rescue operations and 4,000 air ambulance missions have been carried out since the first helicopter touched down at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, 50 years ago today.

A French trawler floundering off the west coast of Ireland sparked the country's first sea and rescue mission on December 23 1966.

Fast forwarding five decades, elite Army Rangers marked the anniversary with a dramatic display of fast roping 30ft from an AW139 over the Curragh Camp in darkness.

The men and women of No 3 Operations Wing have saved countless lives over the years and are said to be a testament to the Air Corps' motto Forfaire agus Tairiseact (Watchful and Loyal).

Commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sean Clancy, said the unit's heroism has been repeated continuously over the years.

"This unit is the most decorated unit in the Defence Forces," said Lt Col Clancy.

"In a period of 50 years, 22 distinguished service medals have been awarded.

"There have been eight marine medals awards to individuals and we have been recognised by the French, American and UK populations for our services to citizens of those countries."

A search and rescue pilot for most of his career, Lt Col Clancy was awarded a Department of Marine Meritorious Medal for his role in a dangerous rescue mission in March 2002.

He revealed that lives being lost at sea, and snow storms in the winters of 1962 and 1963, sparked the political decision to buy two Alouette III helicopters, which were flown from France to Baldonnel.

Within three weeks a crew on board an Alouette III helicopter were called out to a stricken vessel off Slyne Head, Co Galway. Stranded in bad weather, the trawler was eventually located and towed back to port.

For almost 45 years the reliable fleet, which expanded to eight Alouette IIIs, was used to transport troops, for border control, reaching the islands off the west coast, and as air ambulances - so tight for space the patient's head often rested between the pilot and crewman.

Other aircraft bought over the decades included the Gazelle, Dauphin, Puma and EC135s until the arrival of six 6.5 tonne AW139s that support the Defence Forces by transporting troops, carrying 2.2 tonnes of heavy equipment, and dignitaries. Members also fly two Garda Air Support EC 135s.

The fleet can also be quickly transformed in to an air ambulance - with an incubator for newborns - or cleared for search and rescue operations over land or sea.

High profile operations in recent years include tackling the gorse fires in Donegal by dropping millions of litres of water from 'bambi buckets', and reaching communities and livestock in Northern Ireland trapped in heavy snow.

But he described the Alouette III - an analogue single engine, single pilot helicopter - as a workhorse and one of the best helicopters ever built.

He said each crews has several stories from over the years, some funny, sad, and some tragic.

"I spent 16 tears flying search and rescue myself; there were many many journeys I took with different people over that time."

He paid tribute to fallen colleagues who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and those who survived some of the most difficult rescues ever seen, in particular four men on two Alouettes who completed a difficult night rescue on Muckish Mountain in Co Donegal in August 1977 by one shining a light down on the other.

"It's that motto that these people have exemplified and lived through their actions."


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