Limerick Post reporter Alan Jacques took to the skies with the crew of the Shannon-based Irish Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter R115.
IT’S midmorning and I am standing in a field somewhere in The Burren.
I am located on the western Atlantic coast amid 250 kilometres of dramatic limestone landscape.
There’s a gale blowing in my direction and I have a wild windswept ‘Wuthering Heights’ look about me as I struggle to remain perpendicular.
It’s like an ‘Apocalypse Now’ dream sequence from a lost episode of ‘Father Ted’.
I am standing there looking out across at the Aran Islands humming Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ like my life depends on it.
“DADADADA-DAAAAAA, DADADA-DAAAA, DADADADA-DAAAAAAA!” I hum to myself manically in true Dougal McGuire-like fashion.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Shannon-based Irish Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter R115 is hovering overhead preparing to airlift this excited reporter.
Coastguard winchman Brendan Meehan is fearlessly hanging out the side of the aircraft, as I watch the four-man crew demonstrate before me their ability to manoeuvre this huge aircraft skilfully and safely through another ‘cliff training’ exercise. Brendan is about to be hoisted down out of the sky into the field where he left me standing minutes earlier.
The whirring blade rotors have created a forceful downdraft that has me swaying like the front row at an Ed Sheeran concert, but Brendan takes it all in his stride as he skilfully manoeuvres down the outboard hoist as part of this straightforward rescue exercise.
Once on terra firma, the paramedic quickly makes his way to where I’ve been watching this spectacle unfold and leads me safely up the rear ramp of R115.
The training exercise, organised so our photographer can get some dramatic images, is plain sailing for the Coast Guard crew. They are well versed in plucking people from hostile environments, where poor visibility and unforgiving weather can be major factors.
Still, drill or no drill, the crew is thoroughly disciplined and maintains a professional and alert composure throughout. I am in very safe hands.
While most of us navigate humdrum terrain comprised of filing cabinets, water coolers and photocopiers as part of our 9 to 5, for these real life action heroes rough seas, treacherous mountains peaks and jagged cliff tops is their normal working environment.
And as buzzing from the experience as I might be, it’s a job these highly trained and skilled rescuers take very seriously indeed.
The Limerick Post joins the Irish Coast Guard’s (IRCG) helicopter crew of 115 in the dying hours of a 24-hour shift. Thankfully, it has so far passed without incident, even though this rescue base is extremely busy, having already been hundreds of miles off the South West coast, in the mountains of Kerry, and responded to many HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) missions this week alone.
But to keep their skills honed and senses razor sharp, they must continually train, and have already partaken 12 hours earlier in nighttime manoeuvres out at sea.
I sense the crew’s highly charged state of alertness. They have the training, skill and expertise for whatever the day might throw at them.
115 and its crews can be in the air within 15 minutes from initial notification during daylight hours and 45 minutes at night. The aircraft is controlled and coordinated by staff at the ICG station at Valentia Island. It is one of four Coast Guard helicopters around our coastline and they are classically unique in Europe in that they provide both 24hour Search and Rescue (SAR) and HEMS missions.
It responds to emergencies at sea, inland waterways, offshore islands and mountains.
“I hope you have bus money to get back if we have to put you down somewhere in a hurry,” chief crewman Eamonn O Broin remarks, alert to the possibility of an emergency callout.
Our pilot and captain today exudes a similarly cool and dashing persona to that of the daring wingmen in the hit ‘80s movie ‘Top Gun’. He takes some ribbing over his name, which is right up there with Maverick, Viper and Iceman from the same film, but the experienced pilot takes it all in his stride and is totally focused on the job in hand.
“We take each situation as it comes,” Nick Chick tells me coolly with a shrug of the shoulders on our flight back to base at Shannon Airport.
“Calls that come in involving children are always the toughest,” this experienced pilot explains.
The aircraft is equally impressive. The Sikorsky S-92 helicopter has much improved SAR technology and medical equipment to its predecessor the S-61. Not only is it faster and more powerful it also has a longer range and improved cruising speeds.
The state-of-the-art twin-engine aircraft is equipped for every eventuality and is designed to operate in severe weather conditions. This bird can cover a range of 265 nautical miles and reach speeds of 152 knots.
It has enhanced rescue mission technology including infra-red and low light cameras, a Nightsun searchlight, a satellite communications system featuring a Flight Following tracking facility, and high-speed dual hoists.
This highly impressive flying machine gives the Coast Guard the capability for faster on-scene times, faster patient recovery times, greater year round capability and the ability to position themselves direct to the scene of a major incident.
The paramedic crew also has a wide range of life-maintaining medical equipment on board to treat casualties.
The aircraft is constantly supervised and maintained by two experienced mechanical/avionic engineers who make-up part of any duty crew.
I would normally have a tendency to break out in a cold sweat on bumpy airplane rides, but during my time airborne on the S-92 helicopter I never felt safer. Even when it takes a sudden jerky right turn and I find myself staring down from hundreds of feet above the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, I still manage to keep all thoughts of pending doom at bay. It is the crew’s professionalism and constant vigilance that has me at such ease.
The whirring of the Coast Guard helicopter has, sadly, become an all too familiar sound over the River Shannon in recent years. Its humming rotors are not indicative of good news but we can take some solace in the knowledge that these brave souls are out there doing whatever it takes to bring our loved ones home.