2007: A Pioneering Fleet of Helicopters is Retired from Service with the Irish Air Corps

September 21, 2007

The multi-purpose, single-engine helicopter Alouette III was formally retired from service with the Irish Air Corps. Over the course of more than four decades, a total of eight of these helicopters had been used by the Irish Air Corps for various high-priority tasks.

The Irish Air Corps, which traces its origins to the 1920s, is the aviation component of the Defence Forces of Ireland. Along with providing military support to the Irish Army and Irish Naval Service of the Defence Forces, the Irish Air Corps routinely assists with search-and-rescue missions; the timely retrieval and conveyance of patients in need of emergency medical care; the patrol and protection of fisheries along the coast; air support for Ireland’s national police service (An Garda Síochána); and secure transportation for the country’s high-level public officials. The Alouette III was the first type of helicopter to become part of the Irish Air Corps’ overall fleet of aircraft.

The Alouette III was developed by Sud Aviation, a French state-owned aircraft manufacturer that was founded in 1957 and merged in 1970 with the companies Nord Aviation and Société  d’études et de realization d’engins balistiques (SÉREB)  to form the aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale. (“Alouette” is the French word for “lark” and it is widely known as the title of a popular children’s song that originated in France.)

Sud Aviation built the Alouette III as a larger version of the company’s pioneering Alouette II, which the world’s first production turbine-powered helicopter. The Alouette III had extra space on board to accommodate more seats and – in case of medical emergencies – stretchers. Other innovations that helped set the Alouette III apart from its predecessor included a more powerful engine and increased external visibility for the pilot. The first flight of the original prototype of the Alouette III took place February 28, 1959. The pilot for that flight was renowned French aviator Jean Boulet.

The Alouette III went on to become a highly sought-after helicopter across the globe. The catalyst for the Irish government’s own strong interest in this aircraft was the severe winter of 1962-63. This winter, which became known as “The Big Freeze,” was one of the worst to impact the Emerald Isle in nearly two centuries.

The challenges that the Irish Air Corps encountered while dealing with those harsh weather conditions underscored the vital need for helicopters. This military branch struggled mightily with its fixed-wing aircraft to deliver food and other supplies to communities in Ireland that were cut off from the outside world as a result of all the heavy snow and ice. The unusually low visibility and powerful wintry winds, however, made the transport of those resources via planes a lot easier said than done. The Irish Air Corps faced similar difficulties trying to evacuate individuals in urgent need of medical attention.   

In the aftermath of that nationwide crisis, two Alouette III helicopters were acquired by the Irish Air Corps to help with possible future humanitarian relief efforts and other situations in which it would be more advantageous to deploy rotorcraft rather than planes. A third Alouette III was ordered by the Irish Air Corps in 1964. Five more of these helicopters were acquired by the Irish Air Corps between 1972 and 1974. By the time this fleet of helicopters was retired from service in Ireland in 2007, it had collectively flown more than 77,000 hours altogether and completed a total of 1,717 search-and-rescue missions and 2,882 medical transport flights. These Alouette IIIs proved to be pivotal in saving hundreds of lives.

The ceremony marking the retirement of the Alouette III from the Irish Air Corps was held at Casement Aerodrome, which serves as the headquarters for that military branch and is located in the Dublin-area townland of Baldonnel. Those attending the farewell ceremony for these celebrated helicopters included crew members who helped maintain and operate that aircraft throughout the years; and rescue workers who had flown on board the Alouette IIIs to take part in lifesaving missions across Ireland. Brian McMahon, a retired brigadier general of the Irish Air Corps, was also on hand for this ceremony. In 1963, he was the pilot who flew the first of those helicopters to be used in Ireland.

The above photo features an Alouette III that is on display in the Air Corps Museum at Casement Aerodrome.

Photo Credit: Simon Boddy (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

For more information on the Irish Air Corps’ use of the Alouette III, please check out https://www.ulsteraviationsociety.org/alouette-iii

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