Patrick Allen reports on British helicopter operations in Northern Ireland.
IT IS 25 YEARS since the Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland. In those early days, the British Army maintained a garrison of some 2,500 soldiers, while the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was less than 3,000 strong. The RAF helicopter presence comprised a detached flight of Wessex HC.2s from 72 Squadron and the Army Air Corps provided an air troop of six Sioux AH.1 helicopters based at Aldergrove.
As the unrest intensified, the RUC needed more support and it was decided to deploy the army to assist with police and counter-terrorist operations and to help restore public order.
Today, RUC force levels have been strengthened and military levels have increased to include 17,800 regular soldiers, 1,100 RAF and 240 Royal Navy personnel. Helicopter numbers have also increased in direct proportion and today, RAF, AAC, and RN helicopters are operating throughout the Province in support of the Security Forces (SF). There are frequent combined helicopter operations involving all three services.
In large areas of the Province, normal RUC police work goes on with the minimum of army support, however, greater military back-up is necessary in areas of high terrorist activity, such as West Belfast and the border regions around South Armagh and Fermanagh. Today, helicopters are vital to the mobility of the SF, particularly in high-risk areas where travelling by road is too hazardous. They also provide an airborne surveillance (eye-in-the-sky) capability, as well as undertaking normal support helicopter roles; inserting and extracting patrols, resupplying SF bases, and observation posts (OPs) along the border etc. Foot patrols and Eagle Vehicle Check Points (VCPs) inserted by helicopter give the SF tremendous flexibility, which is particularly valuable in rural areas where it helps to deter terrorist activities, cut off escape routes, and reassure the civilian population,
RAF, AAC, and RN helicopters are based at RAF Aldergrove and deploy throughout the Province to forward operating bases (FOBs) in direct support of the army and RUC. These deployments can range from one day to four days and include 24-hour operations. RUC and army liaison is extremely close and although soldiers in NI do not come directly under police command, their tasking reflects police requirements.
Army command is exercised through three brigade headquarters: 3 Infantry Brigade at Portadown, 8 Infantry Brigade in Londonderry, and 39 Infantry Brigade in Lisburn — which is also the home of Headquarters, Northern Ireland. Each brigade is broken down into battalion Tactical Areas Of Operations (TAORs) and each is allocated a certain amount of helicopter hours per month. Daily tasking is collated and assessed by a brigade/ battalion tasking cell, called Buzzard operations.
Helicopters forward deployed within a brigade or battalion area are tasked daily by Buzzard. A typical FOB would comprise a Gazelle for surveillance/liaison duties, plus a Wessex, Puma, or Sea King to provide 24-hour helicopter support for the local brigade/battalion area. For larger operations additional aircraft are provided from RAF Aldergrove or re-deployed from other brigade areas. As well as providing routine tasking, helicopters can be immediately made available to assist during an incident or provide additional lift for a local Airborne Reaction Force (ARF). Normal taskings cover the insertion/extraction of patrols re-supplying SF bases, supporting ground patrols, and providing an airborne command/control or surveillance capability. They also move troops and their families and provide a 24-hour CASEVAC capability — a Priority-One mission within the Province.
Helicopters are particularly important in supporting operations along the border and in the high-risk areas of South Armagh and Fermanagh. All movements into and out of South Armagh are by helicopter and the centre of operations is in Bessbrook Mills. On the high ground around South Armagh there are a number of permanent observation/patrol posts known as Romeo and Golf sites (large and small towers overlooking the border with the Irish Republic). All movement to and from these sites is by helicopter, including the resupply of stores and personnel. Helicopters are also used to insert and extract patrols throughout the area and provide Eagle VCPs to help interdict the movement of terrorists and weapons throughout the area and to cut off escape routes into the Republic.
The local ARF can be quickly deployed to cordon-off and dominate an area around an incident — preventing the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) from using its Shoot and Scoot tactics relying on the nearby Republic as a sanctuary. Like other brigade/battalion areas, Bessbrook has a Buzzard Cell, which is responsible for the daily tasking of its helicopters. Described as one of the busiest heliports in Europe, Bessbrook can accommodate large numbers of helicopters, with 5 Regiment AAC Lynx AH.7s and RAF 230 Squadron Puma HC.1s permanently available. Chinooks and Sea Kings are also tasked when required.
Helicopter operations in South Armagh and Fermanagh have not gone unnoticed by the IRA, which since the late 1980s has been targeting helicopters in these regions. These attacks have ranged from opportune long-range ‘sniper’ shots from across the border, to large-scale ‘helicopter traps’ and ambush-type operations involving as many as five IRA Active Service Units (ASU) armed with heavy machine guns. These attacks have also included the attempted murder of downed aircrew — with some of these incidents filmed by TV film crews ‘bussed’ in for the occasion.
Sinn Fein’s newspaper, An Phoblacht, recently reported that 12 British helicopters had been hit by gunfire since 1977 — three of them shot down in South Armagh. As a consequence of these attacks, British helicopters are now being armed with 7.62mm cabin door guns and aircrew are carrying automatic weapons. There is also a mutual support policy with armed Puma and Lynx carrying armed troops flying ‘top cover’ and escort for one another, as well as providing top cover for ground patrols.
The success of the mutual support tactics and the ARF was admirably demonstrated during an attack on an RAF Puma and two AAC Lynx as they approached Crossmaglen SF base on September 23, 1993. Five IRA ASUs from the South Armagh Brigade fired on the helicopters with 12,7mm heavy machine guns, 7.62mm GPMGs (General-Purpose Machine-Guns), and AK-47s, as they approached the base. All three helicopters managed to manoeuvre away from the gunfire and within the Yellow Card rules of engagement all three opened up on their attackers forcing the IRA units to flee for the border. The fire-fight between the IRA units and the helicopters was one of the fiercest to have taken place in the Province. The IRA unit abandoned its vehicles and some of its weapons were recovered. There were no injuries to the aircrews and they had no need to call up other armed helicopters, flying top cover close by. As a direct result of this incident, the AAC has designed and installed a new cabin door gun mount, plus a new gun sighting system which will guarantee a first shot hit and help to reduce the risk of any collateral damage.
Flying helicopters in NI can be particularly demanding. During the winter, the weather is often inclement with low cloud, rain, hill fog, and icing — many areas have their own micro climates. In low cloud with the risk of icing, or hill fog, helicopters need to plan their routes carefully to avoid high ground. In these conditions there is the constant risk of a wire strike, especially during night vision goggle (NVG) operations. Pilots use the basic old-fashioned navigation methods of a map and the ‘Mk 1 eyeball’ to get around the Province, relying on their Doppler TANS or GPS as a back-up. 1:50,000 maps are the preference for route flying, with t :20,000 maps used for work close to the border — troops are often required to be inserted or extracted from the corners of individual fields using eight-figure reference grids.
There are two squadrons based at RAF Aldergrove; 72 Squadron equipped with the Wessex HC.2 and 230 Squadron with the Puma HC.1. On September 24, 72 Squadron marks its 25th year in the Province and the 30th year of Wessex operations in the RAF. This also makes it the longest-serving ‘active duty’ helicopter squadron in the RAF. The squadron also provides a SAR helicopter and SAR-trained crew on one-hour permanent stand-by for the Northern Ireland region and its coastal waters.
Recent newcomers to the Province, 230 (Tiger) Squadron moved to RAF Aldergrove from RAF Gutersloh on May 1, 1992, to join the Wessex squadron in the support role throughout the Province. There are also two RAF Chinooks, which provide heavy lift tasking, and these are crewed by personnel from either 7 or 18 Squadrons. All these helicopters are forward deployed around the region and can operate day or night in support of the SF.
5 Regiment Army Air Corps
Based at Aldergrove, 5 Regiment is the largest regiment in the AAC — flying more aircraft with fewer men than any of its counterparts. Prior to 1969, the AAC presence consisted of one air troop of six Sioux helicopters. From 1969 onwards, however, support steadily increased and by 1979, there were two full squadrons (one of which was provided by BAOR), a fixed wing flight, plus various Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) support elements. At that point, the NI Regiment AAC was formed to provide a formal command structure and administrative infrastructure to support flying operations.
In 1986 the provision of the roulement squadron ceased and was replaced by a resident squadron. In 1991 the regiment, which had been split between Ballykelly and Aldergrove, centralised at Aldergrove.
On October 1, 1993, the regiment was re-titled 5 Regiment, AAC. Today it comprises two squadrons, a fixed-wing flight, and 5 Regiment AAC Workshop REME.
655 Squadron AAC: This squadron flies Lynx AH.7, which are forward deployed throughout the Province, including Bessbrook and South Armagh. The Lynx are used mainly in the high-risk areas, moving men and materials on operational and administrative tasks 24 hours a day. Aircrews are fully NVG trained.
A recent addition to the Lynx aircrew is the air trooper — he mans the 7.62mm GPMG cabin door gun. All the air troopers are volunteers and they undertake a two-week course to become an integral part of the Lynx crew. They also complete a team medics course and learn how to operate their GPMGs wearing NVGs.
The Lynx is an ideal helicopter to provide top cover, close escort, and mutual support for other helicopters operating in high-threat areas. They fly top cover for patrols, conduct Eagle VCPs, or provide the lift for the ARF troops. The more powerful Lynx AH.7 is highly agile, fast, and can carry armed troops. Equipped with cabin door gunners they are a formidable foe.
665 Squadron AAC: This squadron is the largest in the AAC and is equipped with Gazelles. It operates throughout the Province in the reconnaissance and observation role and the Gazelles are ideal as a command and control platform. For the surveillance role, the Gazelle can be equipped with ‘Night Sun’ and a Finch TI infra-red turret.
1 Flight AAC: This flight is equipped with the fixed wing Islander aircraft and operates in the photo-reconnaissance and general surveillance role throughout the Province. Its aircraft are also used for VIP transport.
The latest addition to the AAC fleet is the new American-made Helitele system known as Chancellor, which is fitted to the port side of a Lynx. The system was originally developed by NASA for its astronauts, but it can now be purchased on the open market. As reported in the Daily Mail (February 15, 1994), the new stabilised camera can read a matchbox label from 2,000ft (610m).
The search for a Helitele system with improved picture definition began after the murder of two British soldiers by Republicans during an IRA funeral on March 19, 1988. More than 40 suspects were arrested, but video film shot over the scene by an army helicopter was too fuzzy to identify the two murderers — no charges have yet been made. Chancellor should change all that, providing superb digitally-enhanced imagery which can be immediately data-linked to ground stations anywhere in the Province.
5 Regiment AAC flies some 25,000 hours per year — the equivalent of putting three aircraft into the air, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The Royal Navy
On October 1, 1993, the Royal Navy returned to Northern Ireland, after an absence of over 12 years, to provide a helicopter detachment. The Royal Navy first established a permanent presence in the Province operating four Wessex HU.5s on October 10, 1977, based at Bessbrook and Aldergrove. The commando Wessex operated as part of the Support Helicopter Detachment Northern Ireland (SHDNI) and remained in the Province for five years until the Falklands War in April 1982.
Today, the RN Helicopter Detachment, Northern Ireland comprises three commando Sea King HC.4s along with 40 personnel which include the detachment commander, six pilots, three aircrew and 30 maintainers. The RN NI detachment is tasked to provide one aircraft, 24 hours a day, throughout the year.
707 Naval Air Squadron was tasked with setting up Sea King operations in the Province, arriving at RAF Aldergrove on October 1, 1993. The squadron established its Standard Operations Procedures (SOPs) and introduced the Sea King to the army troops in the Province — undertaking its first operational taskings on October 18. A Sea King is forward deployed in support of 8 Infantry Brigade whose TAOR is in the north and west of the Province, and includes the Fermanagh border area.
The Sea King’s capability has already been fully exploited by me brigade. Commando Sea King crews are also fully NVG trained. 707 Naval Air Squadron was replaced by 846 Naval Air Squadron in April 1994.
Over the past 25 years, helicopters have become increasingly important in providing the SF with the mobility and flexibility it needs to fight terrorism and maintain law from the streets of Belfast to the mountains of South Armagh.