Search and Rescue Helicopters – The Shannon Story
Article courtesy of CHC Ireland Ltd
As the Shannon Search and Rescue base celebrates 20 years of operations in 2009, we look back at how the service has grown from a courageous idea into a proud institution - that isn’t resting on its laurels…
For centuries, tragedies at sea just off the West Coast of Ireland were a sad reality that came with the territory of making a living on one of the wildest coastlines in the world. It took one tragedy too many, the determination of a few, and new technology available to the Coast Guard - in the shape of rugged helicopters - to begin the Irish Search and Rescue service that protects and serves the country today. That beginning dawned for Shannon in 1989 when the Air Corps inaugurated the service with Dauphin helicopters and, for the first time, Shannon had a dedicated SAR capability to rescue injured people out at sea and bring them to a place of safety.
The following year, the service was outsourced to a civilian contractor as part of a reorganisation in Defence, and the Irish Coast Guard was able to select helicopters that were better suited to the role. Daithi O Cearbhallain, an ex-Air Corps winchman - who flew on the very first mission out of Shannon and is now Chief Crewman for the Coast Guard Helicopter Service - explains that this was significant for 3 key reasons: “the Sikorsky S-61 is a big beast of an aircraft which means it can carry more fuel to go further out to sea, it can carry more casualties, and has lots of room for the Paramedics to work on those casualties”. Prior to that time, however, this wasn’t the case as “the cabin was very cramped to work in, you couldn’t stand up, and the best we could do for the survivor was apply first aid”. This meant that “scoop and run” was the method of rescue and the speed of the helicopter was the key factor in a good outcome for the survivor.
Over the next 15 years the service was expanded with three additional bases strategically located at Sligo, Waterford and Dublin providing 24 hour coverage over all of Ireland. Although no mission can ever be considered routine, some are dramatically tense. One such mission flew out of Shannon in February 2002 to rescue 10 fishermen who had run aground in stormy conditions just off Dingle. Captain Mark Kelly, who leads the Helicopter Service today was one of the pilots on that night: “When we got there, the Valencia Lifeboat was already on scene, but the fishing boat was too far up on the rocks for them to reach and was rolling really badly in the surf, with the 10 lads clinging for dear life to the top. We got in as close as we could – we were looking up at some local people literally kneeling and praying on the top of the cliff – winched Pete Leonard down and got them all on board safely and away to hospital”. Peter received the Michael Heffernan Silver Medal for Marine Gallantry and Mark and the other crewmembers - Derek Nequest, the skipper of the aircraft, and John Manning, the Winch Operator - all received the Marine Ministerial Letter of Appreciation for Meritorious Service - just one of over a dozen similar awards received by the Shannon base alone over the last 2 decades.
Throughout the development of the service, the Shannon helicopter has always been the busiest, and remains as much a reassuring presence for injured or sick people on the Aran Islands as for trawler crews in the grimmest conditions at sea. Last year alone, the Shannon rescue crews conducted a new record of 161 missions and this year they are on course to do even more, having flown 118 rescue missions at the time of press. The number of missions has continued to grow year on year as the capabilities of the helicopters and crews expand and develop. The pilots routinely practice approaches to vessels in near-blind conditions, using their skills and the helicopter’s specialist avionics to get into a good position from which the winchcrew can then talk them in the rest of the way. O Cearbhallain isn’t stopping there, however: “We’ve a great bunch of lads here who know how to keep making this great mission even better. We’re getting tremendous leadership from the Coast Guard to improve our Paramedics’ skills even further and they are very active in helping not just the winchcrew, but the pilots and engineers to focus in on future capabilities that will allow us to go out further, faster and safer than before to save the lives of people that, 20 years ago, simply wouldn’t have had a chance”. Thanks to the Irish Coast Guard Helicopters and their dedicated crews, a lot more people can get that chance.