TOURISM Minister Martin Cullen was at the centre of a mid-air drama yesterday after the door blew off the Air Corps helicopter he was travelling in.
An inquiry was under way last night after the incident, which happened 500ft over Killarney National Park.
The helicopter was forced into an emergency landing after the dramatic incident but there were no injuries to the three crew members and two passengers on board at the time.
The AW 139 utility helicopter Mr Cullen was using is one of a batch of six delivered to the Air Corps at a cost of €75m, and was only handed over by the manufacturers last July.
Yesterday it was being used to ferry Mr Cullen and one of his officials around.
Manned by three crew members, it carried the former transport minister from his native Waterford to Killarney yesterday morning for the Irish Hotels' Federation conference. It had been due to bring him back to Dublin afterwards but, just three minutes after take- off, the door fell off.
"At 3.30pm an Air Corps AW 139 helicopter carrying Tourism Minister Martin Cullen plus one of his officials made a precautionary landing at the helicopter pad at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club," a Defence Forces spokesman said.
"This followed the loss -- at a height of 500ft -- of the port main door of the helicopter approximately three minutes after take off from Killarney racecourse."
It is understood that the two passengers were sitting on the port side of the helicopter, and several onlookers reported that the minister appeared quite shaken when he disembarked.
However, another AW139 was diverted from Cork to bring him to Dublin later last night.
Both Defence Minister Willie O'Dea and Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Dermot Earley, were being briefed on both the incident and the air safety investigation, while the first helicopter remained grounded.
Mr Cullen paid tribute to the crew, Captain Lee Brennan, Lieutenant Oisín McGrath and Airman Patrick Mahon.
He said: "At all stages the situation was under control, and it is a testament to their utter professionalism as airmen."
A short time earlier, the tourism minister had told journalists at the IHF meeting in Killarney that he plans to travel business or first class when he goes away for St Patrick's Day, despite the downturn.
"I'll be travelling internationally and Ryanair don't fly where I'll be going to," he said. Mr Cullen stressed the benefit of St Patrick's Day trips, saying they offered "an opportunity that is the envy of everyone" all over the world. Mr Cullen's travels also made the headlines last month when it emerged that he and three officials ran up a staggering €67,000 bill during a three-week trip to Beijing for the Olympic Games last summer.