Obituary: Brigadier-General 'Jerry' O'Connor
A high-flyer in the Air Corps who oversaw its expansion and modernisation
Jerry O'Connor, who has died aged 95, was the first Air Corps officer to become a Brigadier-General.
During his time as OC, the Air Corps went through significant changes. He oversaw the modernisation of the fleet to include the introduction of Cessnas, Sia Marchettis, Fouga Magisters, Gazelles and Kingairs. The Corps' role was also expanded to include fishery protection and the Ministerial Air Transport Service.
Jeremiah Brendan O'Connor was born on December 31, 1920, to Jeremiah Hugh 'Hugh the Mild' and Mary O'Connor in Drumlusk, Kenmare, Co Kerry. He was educated at Direendaragh National School and St Michael's, Listowel.
Football was his enduring passion. He played for Blackwater, Templenoe and Kenmare. He was also with St Michael's and Listowel Seniors and was selected for the Kerry Minors in 1938 but couldn't play due to injury.
He joined the Air Corps in May 1940. Commissioned in February 1941, he got his wings that July. He was posted to Rineanna (in Shannon) in 1942, flying Hurricanes.
He continued his sporting career, playing with the successful Air Corps team of the 1940s in the Dublin League and Championship. While serving in Shannon, he lined out for Clare against Kerry in Tralee in the Munster Championship and later played in Dublin, representing the Clan na nGael Club.
He was also the Air Corps discus and shot champion and he played rugby with Bective Rangers in 1947. Rising through the ranks of the Air Corps, he went to Gormanstown in 1945 as captain. Subsequently, he became Flight Commander there in 1948. He was a crack shot, excelling in air-to-ground marksmanship. He returned to Baldonnel and was appointed Chief Ground Instructor in 1956. After promotion to Commandant, he served two years with his family in the United Nations Observation Corps (1965-67) in Israel and Syria. Returning to Ireland, he became OC of the Flying and Technical Wing. Having served as Executive Officer of Air Corps, he was promoted in 1974 to OC, and was the first Air Corps officer to attain the rank of Brigadier-General. He retired in 1980 after 40 years of service.
He received many honours during his life, the most recent one being in June 2014, when he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Irish Aviation Industry.
Other honours included the Emergency Service Medal, United Nations Medal, Medaille de l'Aeronautique - France, Order of the Al Marito della Rebuplica Italiana, rank of Commendatore - Italy.
However, the honour of which he was most proud was the decision by the Air Corps to dedicate the new Flight Simulator Building in Baldonnel in his memory. The Flight Simulator has the added distinction of bearing Jerry's lifelong nickname, "Puchán".
The incident for which he will be long remembered is the Vampire jet ejection episode in 1961, when he ordered Cadet Ronnie McPartland to eject from the aircraft while in an uncontrolled spin over Cavan. Jerry ended up regaining control and safely returning to Baldonnel. This remains the only recorded incident in Ireland of a successful ejection and recovery.
Jerry was considered a natural-born leader. His Air Corps colleagues, and those who served under him, reported him to be straight and direct, with little time for political correctness. He had a keen eye for spotting talent and as a mentor was responsible for promoting many successful careers. He was generous to a fault, with multiple stories surfacing of Jerry quietly helping people in need. He was always considerate of others and ensured that all his men were treated fairly. He was particularly proud of the Air Corps' participation in the recent 1916 celebrations.
In 1948, he married Bridget (Dotie) Brady, who died in April 1989 after a long illness.
In retirement, his garden became an intensive horticultural centre supplying the entire neighbourhood. He was a long-time member of Newlands Golf Club and in particular of the "Dawn Patrol" - a group of friends who were on the course and back to the 19th in three hours.
Jerry, who died on April 13, is survived by his three children.