The crash of Rescue 111: ‘The worst silence I ever heard in all my life’

The crash of Rescue 111: ‘The worst silence I ever heard in all my life’
an Air Corps helicopter struck dunes in Tramore, co Waterford during a search-and-rescue mission in 1999. All four crew died. This is their story

Site of the crash

It is a bright, chilly winter morning, and I am walking on the beach between the dunes that lie beyond Tramore’s promenade and the town’s wide, shallow bay.

Sea dunes move and shift over time, sculpted both by wind and erosion. These beautiful dunes at Tramore beach, loosely knitted together by spiky grasses, are different now from what they looked like in the early hours of Friday, July 2nd, 1999.

On that exceptionally foggy night, an Air Corps helicopter known as Rescue 111 came flying in over the beach, made unexpected impact with the edge of an unseen dune, and tumbled catastrophically out of the air. The four men aboard, who had been engaged on a search-and-rescue mission at sea, all died instantly on impact.

I am walking out to the dunes with Eddie Mulligan, who was in the Irish Navy in 1999, and was a close friend of Mick Baker, the co-pilot of Rescue 111. They had trained together in the Curragh; Mulligan was a pall-bearer at Baker’s funeral.

As we walk, he holds a small rolled-up flag tight in one hand. “I always visit the crash site once a year,” he says. “I bring a Tricolour with me to plant there, because the four of them were in the Defence Forces and they died in service for the Irish people.”

The crew of the Rescue 111 helicopter, from left, Sergeant Paddy Mooney, Corporal Niall Byrne, Captain Michael Baker and Captain Dave O’Flaherty. Photograph: Irish Air Corps

Without Mulligan’s local knowledge, I would not have found the site by myself. The memorial, now deep and secluded in a hollow of high dunes, is not visible from the beach, and involves some steep scrambling to access.

There is a simple wooden cross at the site, a metal plate attached with this engraving on it: “Erected in memory of the crew of Rescue 111 who died on this spot returning from a rescue mission 2 July 1999. Capt Dave O’Flaherty. Capt Mick Baker. Sgt Pat Mooney. Cpl Niall Byrne.”

O’Flaherty was 30; Baker 28; Mooney 34; Byrne 25.

This is the story of Rescue 111.

Inaugural flight

Thursday, July 1st, 1999, was a landmark day for the Irish Search and Rescue services. It was the inaugural day of 24-hour service in the southeast coast region, based at Waterford Airport and provided by the Air Corps. Prior to this, the Air Corps cover in the southwest region had operated only in daylight hours; a service that had begun the previous year.

Their new Dauphin DH248 helicopter, known as Rescue 111, left Baldonnel at 10.24am that day and arrived at Waterford Airport at 11.02am. There was a crew of seven: Dave O’Flaherty, the pilot; Mick Baker, co-pilot; Pat Mooney, winch operator; Niall Byrne, winchman; and a three-man technical crew.

For the crew, there was the buzz of being the first people to participate in the first day of a new service. RTÉ cameras were on site in Waterford to film footage for broadcast on the news that evening.

The helicopter took off at 12.41pm for a 35-minute publicity flight for RTÉ. After that, Rescue 111 carried out various training exercises during the afternoon, including one out over the sea, and a reconnaissance of the landing facilities at Waterford Regional Hospital.

The memorial sculpture dedicated to the four Air Corps members killed in the crash. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Áine Phelan with John and Denise Kelly from the Order of Malta at the memorial sculpture. Photograph: Patrick Browne

When all this had been done, the aircraft was washed down, refuelled, and towed into the hanger at Waterford Airport. At that time, the airport closed at 5pm Monday to Friday, as did its control tower. The airport manager later informed the investigation into the crash that the pilot of Rescue 111 was made aware that day that there would be no air traffic control, and no aerodrome flight information services officer personnel on call after those hours, or at the weekend, for night search-and-rescue operations. The out of hours service was to be provided by the air corps.

The pilot informed one of the three-man technician crew that day that the control tower and the airport lighting, including the runway, would be his responsibility for night operations. This technician had carried out similar duties previously at Carrickfinn Airport in Co Donegal.

The planned on-site crew accommodation at the airport had not yet been built, so the seven men were staying in three rented holiday houses at Dunmore East. The crew departed at 5.15pm, and made a grocery stop along the way to buy provisions for dinner.

Emergency call

At 8pm, a locally owned boat named the Realt Or left Dungarvan harbour for a fishing trip. The Realt Or was a 4.5-metre yellow fibreglass boat. There were four men and a young boy aboard. The boat had only two life-jackets for five people and no anchor. It did have a VHF marine radio, but no one on board knew how to use it.

While they were out at sea, the weather worsened and the crew became disoriented and lost in thick fog that had descended on the area since they had put to sea.

Unable to find their way back to harbour, the crew placed a call via mobile phone to the service we now known as the Irish Coast Guard (in 1999 it was known as the Irish Marine Emergency Services), asking for help.

At 10.02pm, the Dublin-based co-ordination and communications centre of the Coast Guard phoned the search-and-rescue team in Waterford. They were at their temporary accommodation in Dunmore East. Dave O’Flaherty, as captain, took the call.

In the report into the crash subsequently carried out by the Air Accident Investigation Unit, there are transcripts of several calls between Rescue 111 and the Coast Guard, between Rescue 111 and Waterford Airport Tower, and between Rescue 111 and the Helvick Lifeboat.

The Irish Air Corps perform a flyover of the Tramore memorial sculpture on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Photograph: Patrick Browne
The memorial sculpture dedicated to the four Air Corps members killed in the crash. Photograph: Patrick Browne

The helicopter was not equipped with either a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder. It was not required to carry either under Air Corps orders at that time, so no records exist of conversations between the crew once they were airborne.

“Dublin here. We have a job for your shiny new Dauphin,” the Coast Guard said.

O’Flaherty replied: “Very good. I had a feeling you’d call us out on our first night.”

“That’s the size of it, yeah. The information we have is this fellow is on a mobile phone, he doesn’t have VHF at all. Down off Dungarvan area and he’s lost … apparently there’s very, very bad visibility. We’re calling out the Helvick Inshore Lifeboat,” the Coast Guard said.

It is a 15- to 20-minute journey by road from Dunmore East to the base at Waterford Airport. While the crew of Rescue 111 were on their way there in a minibus, the Coast Guard successfully instructed the Realt Or’s skipper by mobile phone on how to tune his VHF radio. Then O’Flaherty received a second call from the Coastguard, at 10.09pm.

Coffins were taken along Tramore beach to the scene of the crash.Photograph: Chris Bacon/PA

“You can stand down. We have established comms [communications] with this guy. We’ve talked him into putting on the radio, he can read us and we can read him now, so you can stand down. We don’t require you.”

In the seconds that followed, the transcript of this conversation records an internal discussion at the Dublin base as to how to instruct the helicopter crew.

Person 1: “Will I stand him down?”

Person 2: “The helicopter? Well, if they want to go for a bit of practice, things like that, we don’t mind.”

Person 1: “Are we tasking him or are we not?”

Person 2: “Are they at the airport?”

When asked where they were, O’Flaherty told the Coast Guard they were “on the road out to the airport”.

The Coast Guard replied: “You might as well go then if you’re en route.”

And so, the helicopter crew continued their drive to the airport.

No reply

The RNLI base at Helvick Head is picturesque, with its sheltered harbour and sweeping view out over the bay. The Alice and Charles was the name of the inshore lifeboat they had back in 1999; a 7.5-metre boat that required a three-person crew. It did not have radar.

John Condon was one of the 20-strong volunteer crew who responded to the pager call that evening. “I was coming back home from reffing a GAA match and the pager went off, so I continued here,” he recalls, sitting in the main room at Helvick’s base. By the time Condon arrived, three other volunteers had already showed up to crew the boat, but he stayed on to wait for them to return, as was usual practice.

The lifeboat launched and left to search for the Realt Or. “It had lost all visibility of land. When fog comes down around you, you don’t move. You wait until it lifts again. If you don’t know where you’re going and you can’t see where you are going, then you stay put.”

The fog was down at Helvick too. Condon went outside to stand by the pier with some other crew members, to try to see what was happening at sea. The international maritime VHF channel for emergency and distress calls is Channel 16, and Condon and other crew members were listening in to it on their own hand-held radios. They could hear the various conversations going on between their lifeboat, the Coast Guard in Dublin, and Rescue 111.

A memorial at the site on Tramore beach where the Rescue 111 helicopter crashed. Photograph: Rosita Boland

At 10.29pm, Flaherty called the Coast Guard to inform them they were at Waterford Airport and about to launch. There had already been a conversation on arrival at the airport between Flaherty, Baker and the senior Air Corps technician, as to whether the helicopter needed more fuel: it was carrying 600kg, and the maximum for the Dauphin was 800kg. It was agreed 600 kg was a satisfactory load.

By then the Helvick Lifeboat was at the general scene in the bay but unable to locate the Realt Or due to the fog and the fact the lifeboat did not have radar. The Coast Guard told Flaherty the boat’s skipper was “heading into the weather to try and keep the boat stable because he’s got a young child on there who’s very seasick.”

They also told Flaherty that they were trying to contact the Ballycotton lifeboat, a much larger boat that did have radar. Rescue 111 took off from Waterford Airport during this conversation.

At 10.58pm, the Helvick Lifeboat told the Coast Guard they had located the Realt Or. Listening in to Channel 16 by the pier back at Helvick, John Condon could hear what was going on at sea, although he could still see nothing in the dense fog. The Coast Guard passed on the position of the two boats – near Carrickapaine Rock – to Rescue 111, and asked them to continue to the location and “maybe just monitor it for a bit”. All this time, the fog was getting worse.

Rescue 111 replied: “We’re going to route to that position. We’re going to maintain 500 feet overhead the target area. We’re still in a lot of cloud, a lot of fog here.”

‘We can’t get in. We’re doing an approach to Tramore Bay this time and if we can get down we’re going to land in the Bay Area somewhere’

At 11.19pm, Rescue 111 called the Coast Guard and said: “The local lifeboat has the casualties under tow. We’re going to be lodged here for about another 15 minutes.” The helicopter remained hovering overhead to provide light. As the Realt Or was a small craft, the lifeboat had to tow it slowly to Helvick.

At 11.24pm, Helvick Lifeboat informed Rescue 111 that they could see the helicopter just above them, and again at 11.42pm.

At 11.50pm, Rescue 111 asked Waterford Airport tower if they could see the lights of nearby Tramore. “Negative, we can just about see the runway, which is a distance of 300 metres from the tower.”

Three minutes later, Rescue 111 told the Coast Guard: “We’re looking for permission to route towards Waterford Airport… The conditions there are deteriorating; we’d like to get in before they close over.”

At 11.54pm, the Coast Guard replied: “Rescue 111, you can be released and thank you for your help.”

Helvick Lifeboat, which could also hear this conversation on the VHF radio, came in after the Coast Guard and said: “Thanks for your assistance, have a safe passage home now.”

The helicopter replied: “Safe passage yourself.”

The remains of the four airmen are blessed on their arrival at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, on July 3rd, 1999. Photograph: Joe St Leger

Having completed its mission, the helicopter made its first attempt to land at Waterford Airport at about 12.14 am. It overshot the runway due to poor visibility in the dense fog. The tower told the helicopter that they hadn’t seen them, despite their proximity. “Did you get the runway lights there okay?” they asked.

“Negative,” Rescue 111 replied. They began the process of making a second attempt at landing, but again overshot the runway.

“We couldn’t see you coming in again, but could hear you going away,” the Tower said, after this second attempt. They told the helicopter that if they needed to divert, the weather at Baldonnel was clear. By then the helicopter had been in the air for over two hours. It had taken off carrying three-quarters of its fuel load capacity, and now it was running short.

“Don’t have the juice,” replied Rescue 111 to the tower at 12.34 am.

At 12.35 am Rescue 111 told the Coast Guard: “We’ve had to overshoot Waterford Airport due to weather. We can’t get in. We’re doing an approach to Tramore Bay this time and if we can get down we’re going to land in the Bay Area somewhere.”

At 12.38 am, the Coast Guard called, “Rescue 111.” There was no response.

‘I always remember what I said, because at the time I never cursed, and I said, F**k off, you’re joking’

One minute later, at 12.39 am the Tower transcript records a “short noise on tape” from Rescue 111.

Back at Helvick Pier, John Condon and the other lifeboat crewmates listened to the repeated calls from the Coast Guard for Rescue 111 to come in; calls which remained unanswered. By then, the Helvick Lifeboat had come back safely to harbour with the Realt Or and its five rescued passengers.

“At first, when there was no reply, people were kind of looking at each other, saying it was funny the helicopter wasn’t calling them back,” Condon says. “These calls were coming from the Coast Guard every 30 seconds or so; continuous calls. The longer the calls went on and there was still no reply, a kind of realisation began to hit people here that something is after happening.

“I’ll never forget one of the launching authorities at the time, a fisherman all his life, he says to me: ‘That is the worst silence I ever heard in all my life.’”

‘Rescues aren’t supposed to crash’

In Tramore, husband and wife John and Denise Kelly were asleep. The Kellys were both then volunteers for the Order of Malta Ambulance; a three-crew operation.

The couple were woken by a phone call from gardaí. When Rescue 111 stopped responding to radio calls, both Waterford Airport Tower and the Coast Guard contacted Tramore gardaí at 12.55 am. They, in turn, called out the local Coast Guard search team, and after that, the emergency services.

“The guards called us, and their words were that the helicopter had crashed, and I always remember what I said, because at the time I never cursed, and I said, F**k off, you’re joking,” John Kelly recalls. “It was a new helicopter. The crew had only arrived that day.”

“It was the first call-out of the helicopter,” says Denise Kelly.

John Kelly phoned Áine Phelan, the third member of their crew. “I had just gone to bed. John told me the helicopter had gone down and crashed, and I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’”

“Rescues are not supposed to crash,” says John Kelly.

The ambulance was stationed beside Tramore’s Fire Station. The three of them met there, at the same time the fire brigade crew were mustering with their emergency vehicle. Noel Burns was the fire station officer. He had been woken by his pager, which reported that the helicopter had gone down in the vicinity of the dunes at Tramore beach.

Tramore Dunes. Photograph: iStock

“You could not see your hand in front of your face. I had never seen anything like that fog. It was unbelievable,” recalls Burns.

Both the ambulance and fire engine drove as far as they could before reaching the beach, and then prepared to continued on foot.

“We brought as much equipment as we could,” says John Kelly.

“I tried to think about what could happen if you jumped out of a helicopter. So we brought the burns kit with us. And the kit for spinal injuries,” says Phelan.

“It was the densest fog I have ever seen. Before or since,” says Denise Kelly.

They spread out en route, wearing their high-visibility jackets, holding torches and carrying their equipment as they climbed up and down dunes in the fog, searching for the wreckage. The Coast Guard shore rescue team had started their search at 1.30am. Gradually, word began to filter back via their VHF radios that the helicopter had been located by the Coast Guard search team – and that the news was terrible.

“They had established there were no survivors,” Burns says.

‘They asked us for body bags,’ says Phelan. ‘We carry one body bag in the ambulance, but one body bag is what we carry. We didn’t have four’

“We came up over the dunes,” says Phelan. “It was starting to get dawn, about 4.30am in the morning. We were at the top of the dune and we could see down in the hollow at what looked like a big bonfire of metal and scorched grass. The brighter it got, the more everyone stood there, just looking. It was total wreckage. It was the eeriest feeling I’ve ever had.”

“It was very silent,” says Denise Kelly. “We all knew there were four dead people there. There were no words really you could speak.”

By that time the Army was on the scene, grimly securing and protecting the site where four of colleagues lay dead.

“They asked us for body bags,” says Phelan. “We carry one body bag in the ambulance, but one body bag is what we carry. We didn’t have four.”

“Generally when we arrived on a scene after an ambulance call out, there was something we could do to make a difference, or to treat the patient,” Phelan says. “But in this scenario we could do absolutely nothing except not believe it.”

“We kept thinking, oh God, they were so close to Waterford Airport,” says Denise Kelly.

The youngest member

At 25, Niall Byrne was the youngest member of the crew. He had recently become engaged and was in the process of buying a house. At the time, he was still living in the family home in south Dublin. His parents, Vincent and Anna, still live in the same house and I went to talk to them there, along with their youngest child, Aoife, who was 15 at the time of her brother’s death.

Niall Byrne had been one of five siblings. As his family tell it, he was generous, thoughtful and a home bird, who loved their traditional roast Sunday lunch gatherings, and Christmases together. Even when he wasn’t home for Sunday lunch, he routinely rang the house at 3pm, when he knew everyone was there.

The month before he died, he bought his entire family unexpected gifts. He loved his job in the Army and was “on a high” to be part of the Rescue 111 team.

There is a photograph of him on prominent display in the living room, taken on the last day of his life, standing in uniform with his three fellow Air Corps colleagues in front of Rescue 111. “The four lads,” Aoife says. “That’s what we have always called them. The four lads.”

Everyone was in bed in the early hours of Friday, July 2nd, 1999, when the knock came at the door, sometime around 3.30am, when it was still dark. The whole house was roused. Vincent went down to answer the knock. It was a commandant from the Army, who showed him an ID card.

A family photograph of Niall Byrne, who was just 25 when he died

“He said that there was an issue with the helicopter. That it was missing. That they didn’t have any further information at that stage.”

The family gathered downstairs, to make tea and wait for news. They started calling people. Niall’s fiancee. His brother, who had moved out to his own place. His grandmother. They still did not know what had happened, except now the sea was being mentioned; Tramore Bay.

“We kept on saying, if the helicopter had ditched in the sea, he would be fine. He was so fit. He used to swim lengths before work. He’d run up and down Killiney hill every morning with the dog, and the dog would get so worn out he’d carry the dog as he ran,” Aoife says.

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