The Casa 235 thrums as the pilots throttle up its powerful twin engines as it readies to take off from Baldonnel military airbase for another mission.
The maritime surveillance aircraft, one of the pair that comprise the Air Corps’ 101 Squadron, is about to begin a defence and security patrol in support of the Naval Service.
The two branches of the Defence Forces have responsibility for policing the vast 132,000 square nautical miles of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Irish Independent has been given exclusive access to accompany the patrol. The aircraft’s five-member crew will conduct a six-hour surveillance operation in an area designated ‘zone 8’, a stretch of ocean over 150 miles off the south-west coast.
The patrol area has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds and the busiest shipping lanes between Europe and the Americas, not to mention some of the stormiest sea conditions on the planet.
In international law enforcement circles, it is known as drug dealers’ ‘Route 66’ or the ‘cocaine highway’ between South America and the EU.
“Together with the navy, we are the State’s only law enforcement agency in our territorial waters, the equivalent of the garda patrol — only our beat is about nine times the size of the island of Ireland,” Captain Stephen Connolly says as radar operators take up position at a bank of monitors and screens.
A typical patrol can cover 1,000 nautical miles.
“Our role is surveillance and collating intelligence on movements on the surface; we are the eye in the sky for our colleagues patrolling on the surface below,” says Capt Connolly. “Like the garda, we are watching for illegal activity, including drug trafficking.”
The Air Corps are tight-lipped about the exact nature of their security operations. It is known that they regularly take part in the covert tracking of suspect ships traversing Irish waters and beyond on behalf of other EU law enforcement agencies. These include the Lisbon-based Maritime Analysis Operations Centre (Narcotics) — known as Maoc (N) — which is headed by Michael O’Sullivan, the former garda assistant commissioner.
Maoc is responsible for co-ordinating the collective police, naval, air force and customs resources of the seven nations — including Ireland — to combat cocaine trafficking along Europe’s western coastline.
In 2018, the aircraft we are flying on — call sign C235 — took part in a Maoc-led operation with an Irish warship in which they secretly tracked a catamaran carrying two tonnes of cocaine from South America to a UK-based crime syndicate.
The Defence Forces monitored the vessel, pinpointing its course and speed, which led it into the hands of the UK’s National Crime Agency and the Royal Navy off the Cornish coast.
O’Sullivan describes the role of the Air Corps and Naval Service as vital to Europe’s anti-drug trafficking activities. “The two services play a vital role in our operations which for the most part does not get public notice because of the sensitivity of the investigations,” he tells the Irish Independent. “They are the unsung heroes of Europe’s fight against narcotics trafficking, which is borne out by the huge regard that the Defence Forces are held by other EU law enforcement agencies.”
Security is a priority for all operations and the crew ask not to be identified, apart from spokesman Capt Connolly.
The lead pilot explains why. “We are involved in sensitive operations so we operate on a need-to-know basis,” he says. “There is absolute secrecy around the tasking.”
The two aircraft of 101 Squadron may have notched up 26 years of service, accumulating 20,000 flying hours each, but they are in pristine condition. They are due to be replaced in 2022 with two larger airships.
“The fact that these two aircraft are in such top-class condition is a credit to the technicians we have in the Air Corps,” says Capt Connolly. “The Atlantic Ocean is an extremely hostile and rough environment to operate in, which necessitates a much higher level of maintenance than similar aircraft operating in less hostile areas of the world.
“If the aircraft drops below 5,000ft while on patrol, which it regularly does, it must undergo a full compressor wash to ensure the engines are kept fully operational and safe from sea salt corrosion. It takes a lot more people than the actual crew of five to keep these machines working so well.”
The Casa is an impressive craft. It is a multi- sensor platform equipped with detection and tracking systems, operated by two experienced radar operators.
Its long-range surface-search radar can pick up a trawler 200 miles away in the stormy Atlantic. In fact, as C235 makes its way over Mullingar, its radars are already picking up vessels more than 100 miles off shore.
The sensors can find a human survivor in the water at up to 40 miles away and can also detect whales and dolphins breaking the surface at 30 miles’ distance, depending on the mood of the mercurial ocean.
“We have the technology onboard which enables us to see everything, including the smallest craft on the ocean surface, regardless of whether or not someone is transmitting on their AIS,” says Capt Connolly.
He is referring to their automatic identification system, which is similar to a flight transponder, sending out details of a craft’s location.
As the patrol continues, the radar operators identify and tag scores of fishing trawlers and cargo ships, logging their positions and movements in a similar way to how gardaí use automatic number plate recognition cameras to monitor vehicles.
Inevitably, any vessel that pops up on the radars not transmitting its AIS immediately attracts the sensor operators’ attention, and they will alert the pilots to plot a course to its location.
The powerful thermal-imaging cameras provide crystal-clear close-up views of the vessel from several miles away, before C235 swoops down from the clouds for a low pass and to remind the suspect that they are not alone.
As they do, a specially trained photographer, the fifth member of the crew, takes pictures of the ‘suspect’ ship. The images are preserved as evidence for future investigations.
If the air crew believe it requires closer examination, the ship’s location is passed to Naval HQ, which in turn dispatches a warship to intercept and board the vessel.
Over the course of our patrol, the manoeuvre is repeated for four unidentified contacts.
The maritime aviators also provide a vital search-and-rescue capability. The Casa carries a variety of high-powered flares capable of lighting up the ocean for miles, and emergency rafts can be dropped from the plane’s rear loading ramp.
Conducting defence and security patrols and providing top cover for search-and-rescue missions are the bread and butter of 101 Squadron, but it also carries out a wide range of other roles, especially since the outbreak of Covid-19.
“This year has been exceptionally busy for the squadron as in the earlier part of the pandemic the Casas were used to deliver Covid tests for analysis to Munich, and we had several air ambulance missions to transport patients to hospitals in the UK and Europe,” says Capt Connolly.
A few days before this patrol, the same aircraft repatriated a child they had previously flown to Poland for a life-saving operation. “It is always a great morale booster for everyone here when we see a mission like that through to a happy conclusion,” says Capt Connolly.
The squadron was also deployed to resupply Irish troops based with the UN in Kosovo and Lebanon. In August, one of the aircraft delivered humanitarian aid to the people of Beirut following the devastating explosion that left 300,000 people homeless.
The aircraft’s wheels screech back the tarmac of Baldonnel in the dying light of the early winter evening. The six hours literally flew by. As it is gently towed into its hangar, the crew begin a debrief and downloading the intelligence gathered during the patrol.
Even though it is the start of the weekend, there won’t be much respite for the aviators — they’re on call for the next unplanned mission.