Quarter of Air Corps jobs vacant as FF to ramp up pressure on Govt
A quarter of roles in the Air Corps are vacant and its aircraft have only been able to provide 'top cover' support for rescue missions on just over half the times they have been requested, it has been revealed.
It comes as Fianna Fail is set to ramp up pressure on the Government to increase overall numbers in the Defence Forces and do more to retain personnel.
The staffing figures for the Air Corps emerged amid questions over the allocation of resources to the service after the tragic loss of Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116.
Air Corps support had been requested for the ill-fated mission but a fixed-wing aircraft could not be provided to offer top cover. There was a lack of experienced personnel available at the time the request came in.
Figures released to Fianna Fail TD Lisa Chambers show that there are 211 vacancies in the Air Corps, out of an "establishment figure" - or preferred force strength - of 887, and a vacancy rate of 23pc. There are currently 27 cadets, with seven undergoing flight training.
Responding to a question on Air Corps strength, Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe said the improved economy has led to a demand for pilots elsewhere, acknowledging this has been a "significant challenge".
The Government is committed to maintaining the Permanent Defence Force at 9,500 personnel and plans to take on 860 recruits this year. Mr Kehoe said this will include up to 12 Air Corps cadets and 25 apprentice technicians.
A total of 68 recruits are currently in training for various roles. A working group is examining how pilots can be retained in the service.
Ms Chambers last night said Air Corps staffing shortages are "a cause for serious concern" and claimed the Government had allowed numbers to reach "crisis point".
Separate figures released to Sinn Fein TD Aengus O Snodaigh show that top cover support requests for rescue missions were declined on ten occasions between 2015 and to date in 2017. That is a refusal rate of 45pc.
Among the reasons given were aircraft maintenance and that no crews were available.
Fianna Fail is in the process of drafting a Bill calling for Permanent Defence Forces numbers to be increased to 10,500. The party is also seeking new initiatives to help the Defence Forces retain personnel.
A spokesperson for Mr Kehoe said there has been "ongoing and increasing" recruitment taking place in the Defence Forces in recent years and that its €922m budget for 2017 is an increase of €16m.
"There are a number of initiatives in place to address recruitment and retention," the spokesperson said.
It is understood that work on the Fianna Fail Bill began months ago and it is not a direct response to Air Corps staffing issues highlighted by the Coast Guard tragedy.