• Morgan Fagg

Help at the end of the line. Rescue 117

Updated: Mar 15, 2019

Published in the Athlone Topic

LIKE a scene from a movie, the dramatic rescue of a stricken pilot ten miles off the coast of Wexford was played out on the Nine O’Clock news on Monday, August 11th 2009. Coming to the aid of the distressed pilot just as his light aircraft was sinking beneath the waves was Athlone native, Keith Devaney.

The Search and Rescue Winchman who was lowered 50 feet to the sinking airplane in the sea below began his SAR role as a 14-year-old diver with Athlone Sub Aqua Club where he learned to snorkel and dive in the River Shannon and also assisted the club with body searches in the late 90’s.

Getting a taste for diving with Athlone Sub Aqua, Keith Devaney went straight into the army in 1997 upon completing the Leaving Cert. The Athlone Community College graduate then went onto study to be a Search and Rescue winchman with the Irish Air Corps in 2000 after spending time with Athlone’s sixth infantry battalion and serving twice overseas in the Lebanon.

The 31-year-old Winchman originally from Willow Park qualified from Baldonnel in 2001 and was offered a position at one of the country’s four coastguard helicopter bases. Based at Waterford Regional Airport since May 2005, Keith and his co-workers operate 24-hour shifts patrolling the Southern shores in the Coastguard’s massive Sikorsky S61. The giant Sikorsky helicopter is called upon two-three times a week, coming to the aid of swimmers, rock climbers, canoeists, kite surfers, boats and trawlermen.

On August 11th 2009, the scene of one of these impressive rescues was caught on camera. A light airplane lost control off Tuskar Rock which is ten miles off the coast of Wexford. In 1968 an Aer Lingus Viscount was not so fortunate when it crashed nearby and 61 people lost their lives.

Luckily the pilot, John O’Shaughnessy miraculously managed to ditch the airplane safely in the water and free himself from the wreckage where he clung to the sinking fuselage. Witnessing the plane go down, a team of rowers in a boat called the British Orchid radioed in the position of the crashed two-seater airplane. The four rowers who were training for a race around England continued to get closer to the crash site and stayed in constant communication with rescue efforts.

Helicopter EI-SAR, call sign ‘Rescue 117’ was due to carry out a training exercise with the Irish naval vessel the LE Orla but the busy coastguard helicopter pulled off of the scheduled training to check on swimmers who had gotten into difficulty.

Rescue 117 returned to the naval vessel to complete the training simulation that would see them rescue two crew members off the LE Orla by stretcher and then return them to the ship afterwards.

Finished with the training exercise in Cork and low on fuel the Sikorsky S61 was returning to base when they received the Mayday call on the emergency maritime frequency, Channel 16, shortly before 5 PM.

Rescue 117 refuelled in six minutes and set out for Tuskar Rock. The helicopter rushed to the scene of the crash and information was relayed to the crew that a casualty was visible on the wing of the plane. Keith had by now located the plane on the helicopter’s Forward-Looking Infer-red Camera from twenty miles away and with the plane located, Keith was lowered to the swells below and by 5.20PM the pilot was being winched to safety.

Despite a strong breeze, conditions at sea were mild when the Athlone man descended 50 feet to the plane below. Touching down on the stricken airplane, Keith was unable to stand on the airplane’s wing as the fuselage was barely breaking the surface.

The stricken pilot was quickly recovered and brought to Waterford Regional Hospital where he was treated for shock and suspected hypothermia.

As footage of the pilot being winched to safety from the sinking plane was being shown on RTE’s Nine O’Clock News, the Sikorsky crew, Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Ronan Flanagan, winch operator Nevile Murphy and SAR winchman Keith Devaney were not yet halfway through their 24 hour hectic day and had returned to the scene to supervise the towing and recovering of the downed Avid Speedway plane.

Speaking about the rescue, Mr Devaney said that “It makes you appreciate the job, even more, when you get such a positive result.” Without the quick reaction of the British rowers and the efforts of his co-workers, Keith believes that pilot John O’Shaughnessy would have been in serious trouble within an hour. See this story in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjqH_UPSY4E

HELP AT THE END OF THE LINE: Keith Devaney seen in action performing a rescue with the Waterford based Coastguard Sikorsky S61 helicopter.

ALL GO: Keith working inside the helicopter mans the Forward-Looking Infer-red Camera systems.

While this story had a happy ending, Rescue work of any kind can be dangerous and we must remember Captain Dara Fitzpatrick mentioned above who lost her life along with the entire crew of Rescue 116 when their helicopter collided with unmarked terrain off the Mayo Coast.

Video of Captain Fitzpatrick RIP discussing her role: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btjZ8MhmhuU

Photographs courtesy of Keith Devaney

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