A Concise History of the Irish Air Corps
Irish military aviation began in 1922 when a single-engined biplane, a Martinsyde Type A mark II was bought to permit Gen Michael Collins to escape from London should the Treaty talks with Britain fail. By June 1922 the Air Service HQ had been established at Baldonnel and 14 pilots flew a total of 13 aircraft. The strength of personnel and aircraft grew slowly at first and by 1926 the Cadet Scheme had been introduced to select future pilots, a process which is in use today.
The 1928 conquest of the Atlantic from East to West put Baldonnel on the world stage because an Air Corps Officer, Comdt James Fitzmaurice, was a crewmember and because the flight departed from Baldonnel Aerodrome. After an epic 37 flying hours the Junkers W33 “Bremen” touched down on Greenly Island to complete the first successful crossing by air from Europe to North America.
The ’30s was a relatively quiet decade in which more modern training types were purchased in small numbers and four examples of the ultimate biplane fighter, the Gloster Gladiator entered service. The year 1936 was noteworthy for two important innovations. The first concerned developments in military technical training when the Boy Apprentice Scheme was introduced, ensuring a steady supply of technical staff for aircraft maintenance duties. In a much modified form, the apprentice scheme is still in vogue at Baldonnel.
The second innovation occurred on May 27, 1936, when the newly formed national airline, Aer Lingus, commenced its operations from Baldonnel to Bristol. It moved to Dublin Airport four years later and from which it still operates today.
As the decade closed, war clouds gathered over Europe and the Air Corps had seen modest increase in its personnel numbers and in the quantity and quality of its equipment. While the DH Dragon was the first twin-engined type, the Avro Anson was the first monoplane aircraft in service with retractable undercarriage. Flying and technical crews were trained and a detachment was despatched to Rineanna, now known as Shannon Airport, with these aircraft to carry out coastal patrol duties.
During the Second World War no actual engagements with foreign air forces were recorded but the Air Corps’ fighter fleet of Hurricanes and Gladiators did shoot many dozens of barrage balloons that had broken free from their moorings in various parts of the UK and drifted into Irish airspace. In addition, the Air Corps technical staffs were responsible for the disposal of the 163 foreign aircraft that force landed on Irish soil, by making safe the weapons and explosives and in many cases salvaging complete airframes.
The shortage of pilots was addressed by the training of Sergeant Pilots in 1943 and many of the thirty-one went on to have careers of distinction in commercial aviation later.
In the late ’40s the Hurricanes were replaced by the famous Spitfire, in its de-navalised Seafire model, and were at once very popular with the crews. This prompted the purchase of the two seat trainer version, the Spitfire T9, which served between 1951 and 1961, as an interim advanced trainer pending the purchase of new aircraft. Also in the ’fifties, two long serving trainers entered service, the Chipmunk and Provost, while four Doves replaced the elderly Ansons which had belonged to the General Purpose Flight.
Expansion of the ground facilities was progressed so that by 1956 long concrete runways and taxiways had been installed in time for Ireland to enter the jet age on 30 July of that year. Three Vampire jet trainers arrived from Hatfield near London and were to provide Fighter Squadron with its teeth for about two decades until replaced by the Fouga Magister jets in 1975.
The harsh winter of 1962/3 was the catalyst leading to the acquisition of helicopters by the Air Corps, initially for search and rescue purposes, and later for other roles, including troop transport, reconnaissance, air ambulance, island relief and so forth. A total of eight Alouette IIIs were operated right up to 21 Sep 2007, when they were retired after an impressive period in service of 44 years. No less than fourteen Distinguished Service Medals were awarded to aircrew members who had risked their lives in pursuit of the ideals of the international Search And Rescue Motto ( which was adapted as the Squadron Motto) “That Others Might Live / Go Mairidis Beo”.
The troubles in Northern Ireland saw the introduction of a small fleet of Cessna 172 aircraft, principally for patrolling, reconnaissance and escorting missions in all parts of the country. These were based at Casement Aerodrome, but moved to Gormanston Aerodrome in County Meath in 1974. Following the closing of Gormanston Aerodrome for air operations in 2002, the Cessna’s returned to Casement Aerodrome and remain in service to this day, operating a wide range of missions which now include parachute training, target towing and wildlife surveys.
The accession of the country to the European Economic Community in 1973 had two impacts: the Ministerial Air Transport Service was initiated, using a single HS125 jet, and sustained maritime patrolling of our sea areas became a daily occurrence using two Beech Super King Air 200 aircraft. The former was ultimately replaced in the ’90s by the Gulfstream 4, supplemented by a Learjet 45XR to supplement European Presidency duties in 2004. The King Air’s were replaced for maritime work by two of the more capable CASA CN235 aircraft of Spanish origin in the nearly ‘Nineties’. These aircraft have in turn recently completed a mid-life upgrade to the mission equipment and are well placed to continue in service. The CASA mission profile also has grown to include air ambulance, a role easily catered for by use of the types rear loading ramp which allows stretchers to be wheeled straight onto the aircraft.
A new tasking for the Air Corps involved the establishment of the Garda Air Support Unit in the late ’90s, and has developed to the point whereby the two helicopters and a single fixed-wing Defender are flown by Air Corps pilots from Baldonnel on missions tasked by the Gardaí.
Meanwhile facilities are being upgraded regularly, recent improvements including resurfaced runways, re-cladded hangars, a modern fire station, refurbished accommodation blocks and the commissioning of an Instrument Landing System.
The 21st century brought closure to the Air Corps’ involvement in search and rescue, as this role was exclusively devolved to the Irish Coastguard. All other taskings for helicopter wing remain as before and the new rotary-winged fleet comprises six AW139s and a pair of the smaller EC135s, following the retirement of the Alouette and Gazelles. The new helicopter fleet is fully night capable and includes the capability to lift the 105mm howitzer in the combat support role. Each helicopter carries a modern MEDEVAC suite of equipment to ensure the rapid evacuation of injured personnel to hospital.
Since its inception The Air Corps has, directly or through its personnel:-
- Established the Civil Aviation Department known now as the Irish Aviation Authority
- Pioneered flight across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West
- Established Shannon Airport
- Established civil ATC in Foynes Flying Boat Station and then post-War moved it to Shannon Airport
- Introduced the first jet aircraft to the State in 1956 when the Vampire jets were delivered, several years before the first commercial operation of jet aircraft by the national airline.
- In 1963 introduced the first helicopters into service in the State and within one year provided a daytime Search and Rescue service and within a further year established an inter-hospital air ambulance service, the first of its kind in Europe. All of these developments were achieved without loosing a single helicopter or crew. This service has developed an international capability into Europe in recent years with the CASA and Learjet being utilised for longer range missions. The service has the potential to operate Trans-Atlantic if required.
- Introduced the first ‘glass’ cockpit into service in the State in the Dauphin helicopter fleet ahead of this technology equipping the national airline.
It is fair to say that the Air Corps is a busy, vibrant air service, as skilled, capable and dedicated as any major air power; it is fully capable of completing the missions set for it by government policy now and into the future.