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Air Corps 'not equipped' to provide rescue services

A national search-and-rescue helicopter service could not be carried out by the Irish Air Corps because it would cost tens of millions of euro for new aircraft, training and bases, a memo to Government has revealed.

There would be no cost savings if the service was carried out by the Air Corps, the memo released under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act said, pointing out that the Department of Defence withdrew from providing a limited service in 2003.

Last year, Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey signed a controversial 10-year, €500m contract with a civilian operator to provide the service, more then twice the cost of the existing civilianised service.

According to Fine Gael's Fergus O'Dowd, who obtained the information under FoI, the new service will cost €150m more than the old contract over the 10 years.

There was some criticism as to why the Air Corps had not been asked to provide the service, or why its aircrew and aircraft was not used as part of search-and-rescue operations.

But a memo to Mr Dempsey, written by Chris Reynolds, director of the Irish Coast Guard, pointed out:

• The Air Corps did not have aircraft able to reach out into the Atlantic from Coast Guard bases in Sligo and Limerick.

• For the Air Corps to service the two bases, three to four new medium-load helicopters would be needed, costing up to €60m.

• If existing Air Corps AW 139 helicopters were used at the two other bases in Dublin and Waterford, they would need two per base.

• At €3,000 per flying hour, the four aircraft would need to be converted for their new role at a total cost of €8m, with six months' downtime for each aircraft.

• Basing helicopters at Waterford would cost €500,000 a year.

• Converting pilots and crew for maritime search and rescue would cost up to €380,000 per pilot for converting to aircraft type and role, and €56,000 for a crewman.

The memo also warned that crews that were trained could be lost to industry, with all the training and experience costs having been borne by the State.

It said that pilots and air crew in the military change roles and aircraft types many times in a career, needing a greater level of manpower and refresher training.

Civilian crews had one role with no changes. The net effect was that the Air Corps cost for additional crew, additional headquarters administration costs, allowances and other current cost increases would not result in savings.

The memo also pointed out that the new AW 139 helicopters used by the Air Corps were also being used by the UK coast guard for search-and-rescue work off the south coast of Britain and had "not earned a good reputation".

"They can only rescue a very small number of people and are poorly adapted for the work.

"The UK has decided [that it] will remove the AW 139s from its fleet in the next contract and go for a full-sized helicopter fleet, all of the same make.

"A point on the small size of the AW 139 is that it will be a very poor rescue craft in a mass-rescue situation off Dublin, Cork or Rosslare," the memo read.

It also said that the State would have to hold the risk of an accident or total write-off of a helicopter and would have to replace it rapidly to ensure continuity.

The memo pointed out that maritime search and rescue was dangerous work -- with the Air Corps suffering a tragic loss of a helicopter and crew in Waterford, the US coast guard suffered a similar loss in 2009, and the Irish Coast Guard had on occasion suffered serious damage to its machines.

The memo conceded that it was difficult to assess what the cost of the new contract would be, but that it was likely to be 40 per cent greater then current expenditure.

Sunday Independent