Captain Dara Fitzpatrick’s welcome during this newspaper’s exclusive excursion with the crew of the Coast Guard Helicopter based at Waterford Airport was as warm as it was genuine.
During a half-day spent in the company of both her crew and colleagues on Thursday last (a visit that will also win this column’s focus next week), it was impossible not to be impressed.
Dara and her crew – namely Lee Bennett (Co-Pilot), Neil McAdam (Winch Operator) and Keith Devaney (Winchman – and part time photoshoot model by the end of last week’s visit!), made for terrific company.
Not only highly skilled and completely in control of their respective briefs, one couldn’t avoid the conclusion that these were four terrific, funny and thoroughly decent human beings.
They’re the sort of people we need in lifesaving services, as are their colleagues, including Neville Murphy and Mike Sandover, who were just coming in to start their shifts as our time in Killowen drew to a close.
“I’ve been here in Waterford since the start of the service,” said Dara, a native Dubliner all too happy to describe herself as an adopted daughter of the Deise.
“If someone had told me when I was quite young that I’d be doing this for a living, I’d have thought they were nuts,” laughed Dara while the vapours rose from her post-flight cuppa.
“I first went up in a helicopter when I was about 18 and was immediately sold on it – I thought it was the business. And that, pretty much, was it.
Dara continued: “I got my own licence and I was working for a businessman for a year, year and a half when the Coast Guard advertised for co-pilots.
“That was at a time when Shannon was the only Coast Guard helicopter base was in the country so I applied for it and got it! I stayed there until 2002 and came over to Waterford and I love it here.”
With her commercial licence in the bag and having become technically minded due to the vagaries of helicopter flying course examinations, Dara moved into life with the Coast Guard service. And from there, the learning continued.
“I had another few layers to deal with after I was taken on by Search and Rescue,” she added.
“They had to teach me to fly a twin engine helicopter since I was used to flying single engined. They had to teach me how to fly by instruments – which is another separate, long course.
“And before I could go anywhere near Search and Rescue, I had to get used to flying the helicopter with two crew because I was used to flying in my little helicopter all by myself, so I went to Aberdeen for a year to fly onto oil rigs.
“So by the time I got taken on, it had taken a good year to get me ready to sit in the left-hand seat as a co-pilot.
“But then even when I started, for the first while you’re hanging out the back seat of it – you’re just so far behind it because when the jobs come in, everything is happening so quickly.”
The apprenticeship clearly served Dara well since she now commands one hell of a piece of equipment – the Sikorsky 61N, which can cover a search radius of 180 nautical miles before refuelling.
Throughout our chat, Dara was keen to stress the importance and critical nature of the service which the Coast Guard provides (free of charge) 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“The facility we have at our disposal here in Waterford is just brilliant,” she said.
“When we started here originally, we were up in the terminal and that was fine. But we were trying to get the helicopter into a hangar that was little bit too small so the airport built this entire facility for us.
“The hangar is brilliant – you can fit two and probably sneak a third 61 into it. We’ve got full maintenance facilities here as well – we can do engine and gearbox changes.
“Some of the aircraft from our other bases would come here for maintenance because the facility is so good. It’s great to work with the airport – they look after us so well.
“You’re only one phone call from anything – there’s no red tape, no hassle and we have a really good working relationship with Waterford Airport.”
Closer links with the Gardaí have also been established in recent months, Dara continued.
“We’ve had them coming in just to underline that what we have here is a real community asset. We’re here for everybody – we’re not just here for the fishermen. And while maritime is our primary role, we are here to serve the whole community.”
Next week: The challenges of the job, the importance of camaraderie and the regional perspective.