Lost lives highlight the dangers faced by emergency service crews
The loss of life in the Blacksod tragedy highlights the dangers faced by emergency service crews who put their lives on the line for others every day of their working lives.
The Irish Coast Guard helicopter crash comes just seven months after the service suffered its first fatality, when volunteer Caitriona Lucas (41) died during a search for a missing man off the Co Clare coast.
Heroic Caitriona lost her life at sea during the search when the small boat she was using was capsized in bad weather.
The mother of two, originally from Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, was killed while trying to locate a man who went missing over a weekend last September.
Ms Lucas (41) was part of a three-person crew with the Doolin Coast Guard in a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) who were searching for missing teacher David McMahon in Kilkee Bay, when the boat capsized. Her two colleagues were both rescued some time later.
Caitriona, who worked as a librarian, had served with the Coast Guard since January 2006, alongside her husband Bernard Lucas, and lived in nearby Liscannor.
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"Caitriona was always putting others first," one friend told the Irish Independent. "She was such a dedicated member of the Doolin Coast Guard team, she was at the heart of it all."
After her tragic death, Mr Lucas said he returned to the Coast Guard within weeks. "It's what we did… it's what we do, It's what Caitriona did and loved, I suppose I get comfort from it," he said.
This week's helicopter tragedy recalls the loss of a four-man crew of an Irish Air Corps Dauphin helicopter in Tramore, Co Waterford, which crashed into dunes in thick fog at night while returning to Waterford Airport after a rescue mission in July 1997.
Those who died were Captain Dave O'Flaherty (30), from Lucan, Co Dublin, Captain Mick Baker (28), Wexford, winch operator Sgt Paddy Mooney (34) from Meath and winchman Corporal Niall Byrne (24), from Dublin.
The Dauphin, unlike the Alouette 111 earlier used for limited search and rescue missions by the Air Corps, had night flying capability.
Since that tragedy, the main search and rescue role has been taken over by a private company using a fleet of five specially equipped US built Sikorsky S-92A helicopters.
The Air Corps has replaced its Dauphins and Alouettes with Italian built Agusta Westland AW 139 twin-engined choppers and its pilots are trained to fly at night using night vision goggles as well as relying on the aircraft's systems.
They frequently fly night time air ambulance missions, bringing patients to hospitals in Dublin or for transfer to the UK.
The S-92A's arrival for the Irish Coast Guard meant a quantum leap forwards in technology, replacing older S-61N helicopters.
It is equipped with a comprehensive suite of equipment specially tailored for its role flying over some of the roughest seas in the world.
Its longer range and higher cruising speeds meant the Coast Guard's S-92A helicopters have been used to fly organ transplant patients to the UK when no fixed wing aircraft are available.
All the crews from pilots to winchmen, have undergone extensive training in simulator and real world situations to enable them to fly hundreds of miles out into the Atlantic to rescue sailors or to hover feet from a mountaintop to help injured climbers. The helicopters are designed to operate in severe weather conditions and are fitted with an array of anti-icing devices.
The scale of the challenge facing the crews was highlighted just last week in an Air Accident Investigation report into the circumstances surrounding the death of Aoife Winterlich (14).
She was swept into the sea then fell 45 feet after reaching the door of a Coast Guard helicopter during a rescue operation.
The report found that the winchman who opted to lift her and a second teen out of the water simultaneously made a "sound decision".
Thankfully, fatal helicopter crashes in Ireland are still relatively rare, given the numbers of helicopters which mushroomed by more than 100pc during the boom of the Celtic Tiger years.
- Read more: Black box to unlock mystery of how flight ended in tragedy
- Read more: Three missing crew members from Rescue 116 named as tributes pour in for mum-of-one Captain Dara Fitzpatrick
Just last Sunday, a helicopter pilot and his son were injured when their craft crashed near Carlingford, Co Louth.
On December 12, 1996, three people were killed when their Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed near Omeath, Co Louth.
On July 9, 2005, a pilot and passenger died when their Robinson R44 chopper crashed near Derrybrien, Co Galway.
And a pilot died when his Agusta A109E came down near Lagore, Dunshaughlin, Co Meath on March 3, 2008.
Two died when a Schweizer Model 269 crashed near Kilshanchoe, Co Kildare on April 1, 2009. But the worst loss of life of Irish people in a helicopter crash came in the 1994 crash on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland when a Royal Air Force Chinook hit a mountain on June 2, killing four crew and 25 passengers.
Many of the dead were intelligence officers from the RUC and British Army on their way to a conference.
The Blacksod Bay tragedy will likely lead to a review of air sea rescue operations in Ireland and the role played by first responders, including the Irish Coast Guard and the Irish Air Corps.
Rescue 116 was providing "top cover" for a Sligo based S-92A when the accident happened in Blacksod.
Air Corps Casa fixed-wing aircraft can also perform the same role, but just two are in service and maritime patrol is their main role.
A Defence White Paper suggests the Air Corps need bigger aircraft from 2019, with better transport capability.
A newer larger version of the Casa, the C-295, could spend 11 hours on station, compared to six to eight for the current aircraft, with some experts saying more aircraft are also needed.