The Irish Air Corps

Aer Chór na hÉireann

The Cottesmore Aviation Group visited the Irish Air Corps on 10th October 2007; these excellent hosts are located within easy reach of Dublin at Casement Aerodrome, the home of the Air Corp’s fixed wing and helicopters fleets.  

The origin of the Air Corps goes back to the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks of 1921, when a Martinsyde biplane was purchased and put on 24 hour standby at Croydon airport in order to allow Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins to escape back to Ireland if the talks failed. In the event it was not needed for this mission, and it thus became the first Irish military aircraft, arriving in June 1922.

By the end of 1922 the Air Corps was comprised of ten aircraft (including six First World War vintage Bristol F.2B fighters) and about 400 personnel. The Air Corps School of Aeronautics was founded in 1924, taking care of the basic training of new pilots.

The beginning of the 1930s saw the forming of an Army Co-operation Squadron, using the Vickers Vespa, later replaced by the Avro Anson. In 1937 No.1 Reconnaissance and Medium Bombing Squadron was founded at Baldonnel, but was disbanded by 1944; this task (and that of coastal patrol) taken over by the General Purpose Sqn. During the 1930s funds were not plentiful, but in 1938 four Gloster Gladiators were delivered, with a further eight ordered but embargoed by the outbreak of the Second World War, referred to in neutral Ireland as "The Emergency".

The Army Co-operation Sqn became No 1 Fighter Sqn in January 1939. During "The Emergency" there is no record of Air Corps fighters engaging any belligerent aircraft, however, 163 such aircraft forced landed in Ireland thus allowing the Air Corps to acquire types such as the Hudson, Battle and the Hurricane. Post war, Seafires entered service along with a small number of two seat Spitfire T.9 trainers; the jet age wasn’t far away for the Air Corps and June 1956 saw the arrival of the first of six Vampire T.55s.

In 1963 the Air Corps took delivery of its first helicopters, the Alouette III, a type only recently retired in favour of the modern AW139. During their time in service the Alouette IIIs assisted 3300 people in the Search and Rescue/Air Ambulance role.

Further expansion followed in the 1970s with the acquisition of the Air Corp’s first business jet, a BAe 125-700. A number of CM-170 Magisters, purchased secondhand from France, arrived in the middle of the decade. Although primarily used for training and by the Light Strike Sqn, the 'Silver Swallows' display team also made use of the new jet. The CM-170 was withdrawn in 1998 and not replaced, leaving the Air Corps without any jet fighter aircraft. 

As part of its obligations to the European Union, Ireland is responsible for patrolling 132,000 square miles (342,000 km²) of sea. In order to do this, the Air Corps purchased three Super King Airs, later replaced by a pair of CN-235-100MPA maritime patrol aircraft. Following Ireland's assumption of the EU Presidency, the Corps leased a Grumman Gulfstream III, which in 1990 became the first Irish military aircraft to circumnavigate the world whilst transporting a government minister. The aircraft visited Ottawa, Anchorage, Sapporo, Brunei, Kuching, Bombay, Dubai and Rome before returning home. In more recent times, a Grumman Gulfstream IV has been acquired, in addition to a Learjet 45.

As previously mentioned, the Air Corps are currently going through a major fleet upgrade programme that has seen many of the Corp’s older aircraft replaced by modern, state of the art military aircraft. On 18th March 2004 eight Pilatus PC-9M trainers were officially accepted by the Air Corps, and as the 20th century came to a close it became obvious that the helicopter fleet was nearing the end of its useful life. The Gazelles were fast approaching 20 years of service, the Alouette IIIs almost 40 years of service and the four remaining Dauphins would require expensive major overhauls and upgrades if they were to remain in service.

The Alouette IIIs were retired in a formal ceremony on 21st September 2007 at Baldonnel airfield, the event marked by a flypast of 195, 196, 211, 212, 213 & 214 as 'Rainbow Section' - 195 and 202 have since been handed over the Air Corps Museum.

In the light utility competition, the Eurocopter EC135 was the successful type, its primary role would be that of pilot and crew training with secondary roles of air ambulance and VIP transport. The type entered service in October 2005, allocated serials 270, 271 and 272. 

The Agusta Bell AW139 was declared the most suitable helicopter for the utility helicopter role, with its two-tonne payload and its ability to airlift a 105mm howitzer. Along with two pilots, the AB139 can carry eight fully laden troops and two crewmen equipped with door mounted machine guns, should these be required. To date the Air Corps have received four AW139s; serialled 274, 275, 276 and 277. 

During 2006 the Air Corps signed a contract with EADS CASA to upgrade the two CN-235-100MPAs to the FITS Persuader standard. This will increase the aircraft's capability as they will be fitted with enhanced radars, forward looking infra red equipment and a new electronic and avionics suite. The upgrade work was expected to commence during 2007.

All photographs courtesy of Graeme Hewitt

The Cottesmore Aviation Group extends its gratitude to Comdt Eamonn Murphy and Corporal Mick Whelan for their kind assistance and hospitality.


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