Cross Border Air Ambulance Mission

Published in Personal History, Troubles

In November 1973, it fell to me and my crew to respond to an Air Ambulance request to fly a patient by helicopter from Tullamore General Hospital to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, which was at that time the only hospital on this island that could provide the specialist treatment that this badly injured patient required.

I was reminded of this mission in May 2009, during a memorable ceremony at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, for the handing over of a gleaming Air Corps Alouette III helicopter, Number 202, to the new Ulster Aviation Museum at Long Kesh. Over tea and scones, Northern Ireland visitors swapped reminiscences of cross border Alouette operations during the “Troubles” with Irish Air Corps personnel who’d flown or maintained these great French helicopters in their long years of service with the Air Corps.

When I was detailed to fly that Air Ambulance operation back in 1973, I had never before flown into Belfast or anywhere else in Northern Ireland for that matter. So, I asked my senior Squadron colleagues as to the whereabouts of the Royal Vic ? After some discussion it was agreed that it was the “big red brick building” at the end of the M1 Motorway ! These directions seemed straightforward enough to me. We collected the patient and Doctor at Tullamore Hospital and flew to the outskirts of Belfast and followed the M1, as briefed. At the end of the motorway, sure enough, I spotted a “big red brick building” with ambulances outside the front door. I concluded, not unreasonably at the time, that this was indeed the Royal Vic. On landing on a rear pitch, however, I noticed that there was no reception party, by which I mean no stretcher party, no medical staff nor, importantly, the expected military security!! Curious, I walked over to the back entrance of the hospital where I was greeted by a puzzled military policeman on the gate. Puzzled that is by my Air Corps flying suit !. On asking if this was the Royal Victoria Hospital, he replied, “no sir, this is the Musgrave Park Hospital, the Royal Vic is further up the road on the left”!! I hid my embarrassment and asked the MP to advise the Royal Vic of our arrival and to dispatch an ambulance as there was no more time to be lost. While walking back to the helicopter, the Belfast to Dublin CIE train was passing on the raised embankment near the grassy area where we landed. The driver must have been astonished to see our Alouette helicopter, with the Tricolour painted clearly on the tail boom, sitting in a field in the heartland of Belfast. Remember, this was in 1973! To show his delight he hooted the train’s horn and began waving like mad in our direction, he continued hooting until he was out of sight… but not quickly enough for me as I did not want to draw any further attention drawn to the already embarrassing situation into which I had landed. Thankfully, the Royal Vic ambulance and medical team arrived quickly and our patient was handed over to their care.

Not surprisingly, we declined an invitation to tea in the Musgrave Park and hightailed it out of Belfast and back to our base in Baldonnel. Here, I reported my unintended change of landing plan to my Squadron Commander who, in his wisdom simply said “put it down to experience”. Thus ended that particular Air Ambulance mission, or so I thought.

Some time later, there was a response through ‘official channels’ from Northern Ireland, which suggested that landing the Air Corps helicopter in the Musgrave Park Hospital instead of the Royal Vic was a good move, to protect the Alouette III and its crew from any ‘unwanted attention’. The authorities were so concerned about unwanted attention on the day that they’d concentrated heavy military security at the Royal Vic to cover our presence. They thought that ours was a smart ruse and complimented the Irish authorities for thinking of it. When this message eventually percolated down to Helicopter Squadron level in BaldonnelI I found it hard to keep a straight face, after all who was I to correct this official version of events? The old sean-fhocal sprang to mind “all’s well that ends well”, as indeed it did on this memorable occasion.

Commandant Frank Russell, Ret’d, Irish Air Corps, 1966 – 1988. Frank is a Graduate of the Command and Staff School, The Military College and is an ex Inspector of Air Accidents. 







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