Adjournment Debate. - Castlebar (Mayo) Helicopter Fuelling Facilities.

As this is my first appearance here since the new Minister took office I want to congratulate him and wish him well as Minister for Defence.

On Wednesday, 30 October, a fishing boat, theHeather Berry, based in Renvyle, County Galway, got into difficulties off Old Head during a very bad storm while on it way to fishing grounds in Clew Bay and sent out calls for help. A helicopter based at Shannon arrived on the scene and airlifted two crew members. In the meantime another fishing boat from Westport, the Sun Dancer, came to the rescue of the Heather Berry but it, too, got into difficulties. Because the helicopter had to go back to refuel it was not in a position to continue the rescue operation. Fortunately, a trawler, the Honey Bee, from Achill, came to the rescue and took the Sun Dancer in tow and saved the lives of three crew members. I wish to pay tribute to both crews who set out in atrocious weather conditions with no regard for their own safety. Were it not for the bravery of the two seamen and their crews coming to the rescue in that storm, the three crew members of the Sun Dancer would probably have lost their lives.

I ask the Minister to examine the present position regarding the fuelling of helicopters in Castlebar military barracks. It has an ideal landing facility with floodlighting and there are personnel on duty at all times. I suggest that a modern fuelling depot should be provided at this location given that a number of islands off the Mayo coast require a constant helicopter service. Indeed, at this time of year many people from all over the world who arrive at piers and harbours along the coast, to bury their dead or visit relatives living on the islands, are unable to get to them and have to return to the United States, Australia and so on without having made the trip.

If fuelling facilities were available at the military barracks in Castlebar or a helicopter provided there, it would eliminate the cost of travelling to Baldonnel, Shannon or Donegal to refuel. I ask the Minister to examine the possibility of locating a helicopter at the military barracks in Castlebar to provide a rescue service over a long coast line, from Donegal to Cork, to airlift patients to hospitals and to protect our fisheries.

I thank my colleague for his good wishes.

Fuelling facilities for helicopters involved in search and rescue, air ambulance and island relief missions are available at Castlebar military barracks. The supply of aviation fuel has been maintained there for a number of years and has been availed of during the years by Air Corp Dauphin and Alouette helicopters involved in search and rescue, air ambulance and island relief operations. This facility will continue to be used as required.

In addition to the facilities at Castlebar, refuelling facilities are also available at several other locations along the west coast, including at the civil airports at Carrickfin, Sligo, Knock, Carnmore and Shannon Airport. Facilities are also available at military locations in Tralee, Cahirciveen, Finner Camp, and at the Commissioners of Irish Lights sites in Castletownbere, Blacksod Bay, Rossaveel and Fanad Head. Work is in progress on behalf of the Department of the Marine on the upgrading of the Commissioners of Irish Lights helipad at Blacksod Bay. This work is expected to be completed by the end of December 1991. The upgrading will permit day and night refuelling of medium range search and rescue helicopters. The availability of this site on the extreme west of the country maximises the range of SAR helicopters. Airports are generally used for refuelling purposes but in emergencies locations such as Castlebar military barracks can also be used.

The Government have effected significant improvements during the past few years in the provision of SAR services on the west coast. Following a review of the structure and operations of the air sea rescue services, the Government accepted a series of recommendations that from 4 September 1989 a Dauphin helicopter be located at Shannon on a 24 hour response basis throughout the year; that in a separate upgrading the air facility at Finner Camp, County Donegal, be increasingly used for SAR helicopter operations, that Air Corp search and rescue services be augmented by the reintroduction in September 1989 of the Alouette III helicopter for daylight search and rescue missions, and also that the helicopter refuelling sites owned by the Commissioners of Irish Lights at Fanad Head, County Donegal, Blacksod Bay, County Mayo, and Castletownbere, County Cork, be upgraded for 24 hour refuelling of search and rescue helicopters.

Other recommendations approved by the Government were the provision, on contract, of a medium range helicopter service, the relocation from Shannon to Finner Camp, County Donegal, of the Dauphin helicopter service provided by the Air Corps on a 24 hour response basis throughout the year once the contract helicopter service had been put in place at Shannon, and also the deployment of a Dauphin helicopter at Cork as soon as practicable, primarily for operations with theLE Eithne but to be located at Cork when not embarked on the ship.

The Government also approved the acceptance of a tender from Irish helicopters Limited for the provision for an SAR helicopter at Shannon, a Sikorsky S61N, capable of rescuing up to 15 survivors within 200 nautical miles. This service began operations on 15 July 1991. On 16 July, the Air Corps SAR facility at Shannon relocated to Finner Camp and has been operational from that location since. Arrangements are being put in place to deploy a Dauphin helicopter to Cork for operations with theLE Eithne. This will also be available for search and rescue operations.

Since 1987 to date the Air Corp carried out 552 search and rescue missions saving 264 lives. In addition, the Air Corps carried out 671 air ambulance missions and 12 island relief operations. I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to all Air Corps personnel involved in these operations for their professionalism and dedication.

With regard to the incident to which Deputy O'Toole referred, I am not aware of the exact details but I will be very glad to look into the matter and discuss it with him very shortly. I emphasise, however, in regard to the question of refuelling facilities at Castlebar, these facilities have and will continue to be available there.