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'Paul Ormsby saved countless lives for nearly 30 years...it was an honour to know him'


Paul Ormsby saved lives. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

Paul Ormsby saved lives. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Paul Ormsby saved lives. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

It was a shock to all of us I'm sure when we heard a Coast Guard helicopter had disappeared whilst en route to a rescue off the west coast near Blacksod Bay.

But for me it was a double shock when eventually all the names of the crew were made public. Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith comprised the winch crew of the ill-fated Coast Guard flight R1116.

Both men were former members of the Defence Forces, the Air Corps to be precise. The two pilots were Dara Fitzpatrick and Mark Duffy.

On hearing the name Ormsby, I was transported back some 25-plus years to a cramped little dispersal hut in Baldonnel military aerodrome with a bunch of other soldiers wearing orange jumpsuits a size too small for us.

As he was then, Airman Paul Ormsby was already a fully fledged member of the Air Corp's Search and Rescue (SAR) Heli Squadron. Back then it was the State's only air-sea search and rescue asset.

A small bunch of us were there from different parts of the country to undergo open-water skills and survival training under the supervision of skilled instructors like Mr Ormsby.

We had already met Sgt Ben Heron, who put the fear of God into us and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for plucking someone from certain death off a cliff edge while he swung from a cable of an Alouette helicopter during a raging storm.

Mr Ormsby charmed us and put us at our ease. He was the more junior instructor then and less formal.

We were getting ready to be flown out to Dún Laoghaire harbour to be dunked into the water and subjected to a number of drills to assess our ability to handle ourselves in cold, deep and rough water.

We all took great hope from this dapper, intensely fit airman. He was compact in his green flight suit with his half-wing SAR crewman's qualification badge and looked the part. He also talked to us about fitness and how we would need to maintain it.

No one doubted him when he talked of the demands a career in Air Corps SAR held.

The winch crew are the lesser known heroes in SAR...referred to by themselves in black humour as 'The Dope on a Rope'. People are well aware of what SAR pilots do...the winch crew often get forgotten.

Sometimes the winchman has to detach himself from the safety of his cable harness as he may have gotten caught in the rigging of the pitching ship…or may have to swim a distance to get hands on the person to be rescued.

It's a difficult job nearly always performed under stressful circumstances.

Mr Ormsby carried out this work effectively saving countless lives for nearly 30 years.

It was an honour to have met him and learned under him.

Declan Power is security and defence analyst and former member of the Defence Forces

Irish Independent