Aer Chór na hÉireann (Irish Air Corps)
A few months ago I was offered the opportunity to join an organized base-visit to Casement Aerodrome at Baldonnel, the home of the Aer Chór na hÉireann, the Irish Air Corps (IAC). With the material gathered during this visit and a few pictures from my personal archive I will try to give you an overview of the current air assets of this relatively unknown and relatively rarely seen (on mainland Europe at least) air force.
One of the roles of the IAC, as with many other air forces, is Air Defense. For this role, in 2004, 8 Pilatus PC-9M’s were delivered. These aircraft have six under-wing hard points and can be armed with either two Belgian-made FN HMP250 gun pods, each carrying a M3P .50 machine gun or with the FN LAU-7 rocket pods, each carrying seven FFARs (Folding-Fin Aerial Rocket). The fleet of PC-9M’s is off course also used in the pilot training role and are operated by the Flying Training School, part of the Air Corps College. In 2009 one of the PC-9M’s, serial 265 (seen here while landing at Beauvechain, Belgium in 2009), was lost in a fatal accident, but in 2017 a replacement aircraft, serial number 269, was delivered to the unit, the serial '268' was not used for an unknown reason.
A very important role for the IAC is maritime surveillance, which includes fisheries protection and the monitoring of illegal maritime trafficking. For this the IAC uses two CASA CN-235M-100 patrol aircraft (serials 252 & 253). Unfortunately both aircraft were absent during our visit, but luckily they are regular visitors to the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford where I saw them in previous years. The aircraft are operated by 101 Squadron, 'The maritime squadron', part of 1 Operations Wing and plan indicate that they are due for replacement with a more capable maritime patrol aircraft. No 1 Operations Wing is also responsible for 102 and 104 Sqn, the other two fixed-wing aircraft squadrons. 102 Squadron, 'Ministerial Air Transport Squadron', operates a single Gates Learjet 45 (serial 258), that was delivered in 2012, and is responsible for VIP transport. 104 Squadron, 'Army Co-Operation Squadron', operates the Reims-Cessna FR-172, of which 8 H-models and 1 K-model were delivered in 1972. During our visit three were seen operationally (203, 208 and 210), another one (206) was preserved in the base museum and a fifth airframe (205) was in a hangar next to the museum, so its status is a bit unclear. The Cessna's prime role is surveillance on behalf of the Irish Army and Utility transport. Their years in the IAC are numbered as in December 2017 a contract was signed with Pilatus for the delivery of three Pilatus PC-12’s, who will replace the Cessna's. The first PC-12 was already noted in June 2018, but is currently undergoing installation of its ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) package, so delivery of the first aircraft is expected to take place in 2019.
The second Wing at Casement Aerodrome is 3 Operations Wing, which is responsible for the two helicopter squadrons of the Irish Air Corps. 301 Squadron currently operates six AgustaWestland AW-‘139s delivered between 2006 and 2008, when they replaced the venerable Aérospatiale SA-365F Dauphin. The AW-139’s are used for various roles ranging from air ambulance, monitoring of inshore fishing activities, VIP transport, troop transport, general utility and army support, for this last role it can be equipped with the FN MAG 58M heavy machine gun. The second helicopter squadron, 302 Squadron, is equipped with two Eurocopter EC-135P2’s, also mainly used in the army support role. During our visit only one of the EC-135P2’s was present. The IAC operates two additional EC-135’s, 256 & 272, that are operated by the Garda Air Support Unit (GASA), the Irish Police. One of these was present during our visit (as was their Britten-Norman BN2T-4S Islander), but unfortunately we were not allow to photograph these out of security reasons !
This completed our visit to the operational part of the Irish Air Corps, but Casement Aerodrome also houses a very nice base museum covering their history and off course we were also allowed to pay it a visit. During our visit we got an extensive explanation about its origins and the various aircraft used in the past.
Oldest aircraft in the museum is an Avro 631 Cadet, serial C7. This biplane trainer was delivered in 1934 and was also used in the coastal patrol role. It eventually ended up in New Zealand where it was recovered by the Irish for preservation in the museum. A second Avro-product is the Avro Nineteen, in fact the civil version of the Avro Anson. The aircraft in the museum entered service in 1946. Due to its proximity, the United Kingdom was a favorite aircraft supplier of IAC-aircraft, as the collection also holds a De Havilland DHC1 Chipmunk T20 and a Percival Provost T51. Final aircraft in this range is a De Havilland DH104 Dove 6. The museum's Dove is not an original IAC aircraft, but will be restored in the near future, probably to represent one of the IAC examples.
The first jet to enter service with the Irish Air Corps was the De Havilland DH115 Vampire. In total six were delivered from 1956 onwards and remained in service until 1976 when they were replaced by six second-hand Fouga CM170-2 Magisters. Interestingly some of the Fouga’s were initially earmarked for delivery to the AviKat, the Aviation Katangaise, the air force of Katanga, a region that tried to break away from the Congo in the early sixties. During our visit four of the six Fouga’s were noted at Baldonnel, a fifth (serial 217) is currently preserved at Zeltweg in Austria, this example used to be an ex-Austrian Air Force example, and the sixth (serial 220) is nowadays used as an instructional airframe at Carlow (Ireland). Also of interest was the presence of a former French Fouga, serial 79/3-KE, that was delivered to Ireland for use as an instructional airframe (it even was allocated an Irish serial, '221', which it never wore), still wearing its original French colors. Final aircraft I want to mention in the museum section is the Siai-Marchetti SF-260W, of which 12 were delivered. Only one was preserved in Ireland, as the remaining 7 survivors were very popular on the United States second-hand market where they all are in airworthy condition.
The future of the Irish Air Corps will be quite challenging as several of the current types are due for replacement. The Cessna FR-172’s will be replaced by the PC-12’s; they plan to replace the CN-235M’s with a more capable maritime patrol aircraft and apparently around 2025 a scheduled replacement for the PC-9M is needed, but until now no firm orders have been placed.
Finally I want to thank the Irish Air Corps Air Staff for their very kind reception at Casement Aerodrome and of course Grant Robinson from the Oxford Aviation Group for allowing me to join their tour, much appreciated !
Text & Photography : Laurent Heyligen