& The FORUM!


 

REIMS (CESSNA) FR.172H AND FR.172K ROCKET (1972 - ) by P.J. Cummins


Following the outbreak of civil strife in Northern Ireland in 1970, the internal security of the Republic of Ireland was also under threat from subversive activities and violence by dissident forces. During this period the Irish Defence Forces, with the Gardai, became engaged on numerous counter-insurgency operations, but the Irish Air Corps was not equipped with a suitable aircraft type to provide air support during these operations.

To fulfil this requirement the Department of Defence ordered eight FR.172H Rockets from the French company, Reims Aviation S.A., which were to be “equipped for military service”, and to be delivered in 1972. According to contemporary newspaper reports the eight aircraft, “costing about £20,000 each”, were to be “used for observation and reconnaissance missions”. Each aircraft “which were to be fitted with the latest navigational aids and radio equipment”, could also “be equipped with Matra air-to-surface rockets”.

Four FR.172H Rockets (c/ns 0343-0346) were delivered by Air Corps’ pilots to Casement Aerodrome on October 4, 1972 and the remaining four (c/ns 0347-0350) were delivered nine days later. The eight Rockets (as nos. 203-206 and 207-210) initially entered service with the Advanced Flying Training School, which had undertaken responsibility for the introduction of this aircraft type into service with the Air Corps.

The Rockets had a strengthened hardpoint under each wing for the attachment of a Matra (SNEB) pod, which could launch twelve 37mm unguided air-to-ground rocket projectiles. Due to a fire at the factory of S.A. Engins Matra in 1972 the pods and rocket projectiles were not delivered until six months after the Rockets had entered service with the Air Corps. These aircraft were also fitted with radio and navigation equipment for civil and military operations, which included VOR/ILS and ADF receivers for navigation, with VHF twin radio sets to communicate with other aircraft and air traffic control. Over the years the radio and navigation equipment has been upgraded or replaced with more sophisticated equipment, which has resulted in extra aerials and antennae being fitted to these aircraft for communicating with units of the Defence Forces on the ground. Three Rockets (nos. 205, 208 and 243) also had special radio equipment installed for communicating with the Garda national communications network.

The eight Rockets were deployed to Air Corps Station, Gormanston, in 1973, four in January and four in October, entering service with the Basic Flying Training School. A new training syllabus was also introduced for pilots to fly army co-operation missions, which included “type rating standard” on the Rocket, followed by instrument, night and formation flying training. The Rockets replaced the de Havilland Chipmunk T.20s, which were deployed to Casement Aerodrome to enter service with the Advanced Flying Training School.

Operating from Air Corps Station, Gormanston, the Rockets were engaged on reconnaissance missions and “border patrols” along the boundary with Northern Ireland from 1973 onwards. These aircraft also provided air support for the Gardai during the transportation of prisoners or explosives throughout the State and during the delivery of cash consignments to the commercial banks. Other missions and duties have also been undertaken by the Rockets over the years, including aerial photography, A.T.C. training (military and civil), air ambulance flights, in-shore maritime surveillance patrols, parachute training, S.A.R., target towing, formation flying displays at airshows and transporting Government Ministers, officials or other prominent people. Assistance to Government departments and agencies has also been provided by the Rockets, which included aerial surveys carrying out bird, seal and deer counts for the Forestry and Wildlife Services. In 1975 and 1977 the Rockets were used for air-to-ground firing exercises over the Air Firing Range, Gormanston, which were later discontinued and the rocket pods “withdrawn from use”. The Rockets have accumulated an average of 2,000 flying hours annually carrying out these missions and duties for the security services and other Government departments.

The Rocket was used by the Air Corps for target towing operations over the Air Firing Range, Gormanston, during ground-to-air firing exercises by army and naval anti-aircraft units of the Defence Forces, which commenced in 1977. A drogue type target attached to 1,500 metres of steel cable was extended behind the aircraft, operated by a tow winch with a control unit, installed in the rear of the Rocket’s cabin. A electronically operated Missed Distance Indicator, attached to the cable, indicated how close a round has passed by the target drogue, which was then transmitted to a receiver on the ground or on a naval ship. Four Rockets (nos. 203, 205, 206 and 208) are known to have been used for target towing operations.

The Rockets were used by the Defence Forces for parachute training courses, initially from an airstrip at the Curragh Military Camp, which had been re-activated for this purpose. The parachute training courses were temporarily suspended by the Air Corps following an accident in the United Kingdom, when a parachutist became entangled in the wheel of a Cessna 172. Two Rockets (nos. 206 and 209) were modified for parachute jumping by removing the right front seat, the right hand control column and the two rear seats. A special front seat, facing towards the rear, and two lightweight rear seats were fitted to accommodate three parachutists and the pilot in the cabin. The starboard door was also removed and a small platform, mounted on the starboard strut, covered the wheel during parachuting operations. Operating the modified Rockets, parachute training courses for the Defence Forces commenced again at Air Corps Station, Gormanston in September 1979, and over two hundred Defence Forces personnel had completed parachute training courses from these aircraft by 1987. Operating the Rockets, parachute training courses by the Defence Forces continued from Clonbullogue airfield, Co. Offaly from 2001 onwards.

IN 1979, during the visit of Pope Paul II to Ireland, three Rockets were used for photographic coverage and security surveillance missions. One of the Rockets, on attachment to the Gardai, monitored road traffic and checked the airfield perimeters and runway approaches to Dublin and Shannon airports prior to the arrival and departure of the Papal aircraft. Air-to-ground photography, civil and military, was carried out from the other two Rockets. These two aircraft were also used to provide television coverage of the vast crowds that had assembled at the various venues during the visit, which was transmitted by Radio Telefis Eireann to other countries worldwide.

In June 1980, following a re-organisation of the structure of the Air Corps, the Rockets were allocated to No. 2 Support Wing, which was re-designated the Army Co-Operation Squadron in 1986, operating from Air Corps Station, Gormanston. Following a structural re-organisation of the Air Corps in 2001, the Rockets were operated by No. 104 Squadron, No. 1 Operations Wing. In the same year the Rockets were deployed to Casement Aerodrome when Air Corps Station, Gormanston, was closed down. Operating from the Air Corps Station, the Rockets had flown a total of 14,000 missions supporting security operations by the Gardai and Defence Forces over the previous twenty eight years.

On April 7, 1981 an FR.172K Rocket (c/n 0671) was delivered to the Casement Aerodrome and (as no. 243) entered service with the Air Corps. This aircraft, which was acquired as a replacement for the first Rocket (no. 204) to be “written-off”, was fitted with wheel spats, tinted glass and was equipped with “full instrumentation for blind flying”, according to contemporary aviation magazine reports. A more streamlined, pointed propeller spinner was also fitted to this aircraft, which was later fitted to the other Rockets in service with the Air Corps. Underwing hardpoints for the Matra rocket pods were apparently fitted to this aircraft after entering service with the Air Corps.

Four Rockets were “written-off” in crashes or accidents between 1978 and 2004. The first of these aircraft (no. 204) crashed into the Shannon Estuary during a wildlife survey on September 20, 1978, but both occupants survived without serious injury. On March 1, 1990, following engine failure, a Rocket (no. 207) force-landed in the sea off Air Corps Station, Gormanston. The crew was uninjured but the aircraft had to be “written-off” due to salt-water corrosion, following immersion in the sea. Following storage in the Apprentice School, this aircraft was delivered to Waterford Regional Airport in August 1998 for fire drill training and evacuation procedures, in exchange for the fuselage of a de Havilland D.H.104 Dove 6 (c/n 04485, ex G-ASNG) which had been used at the airport for this type of training. A third Rocket (no. 209) was “written-off” following damage to a wing, propeller and undercarriage in a landing accident on November 10, 1993 at Air Corps Station, Finner. In November 1989 this aircraft had been damaged in a forced landing near Air Corps Station, Gormanston, but was repaired and returned to service. The fourth Rocket (no. 243) was “written-off” in a crash at Clonbullogue, Co. Offaly, killing the pilot, on May 6, 2004.

In October 1977 the fuselage of a Cessna 172P (ex G-ARLU, c/n 48502) was delivered to Casement Aerodrome from the United Kingdom. This aircraft, which had been “damaged beyond repair” in a gale in the previous month, was acquired by the Air Corps for use as an instructional airframe by the Apprentice School, but was not allotted an Air Corps serial number.

The Rockets were the first aircraft in service with the Air Corps to have an overall matt khaki-green finish. The tri-coloured Celtic Boss is displayed on both sides of the fuselage centre section and on the upper and lower surfaces of both wings. Each aircraft’s serial number, in white, is displayed on both sides of the fuselage behind the Celtic boss and on the undersides of the port wing. One of the Rockets (no. 203) had the cartoon character “Mickey Mouse” displayed on the port side of the tailfin for a short period. In 1997, to celebrate the Rocket’s twenty-five years of service with the Air Corps, this aircraft had the upper section of the tailfin painted blue with the lower section painted in green, white and orange stripes. The number “25” was displayed on the blue section, “Cessna FR 172H” on the green stripe, “Reims Rocket” on the orange section, all in white, and “1972-1997”, in black, was displayed on the white stripe.

REIMS-CESSNA FR.172H ROCKET.

203
(c/n 0343) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 4.10.72. To A.F.T.S. To B.F.T.S., 1973. To No. 2 Support Wing, 1980. To Army Co-Operation Sqdn, 1986. To 104 Sqdn, No. 1 Operations Wing, 2001.

204
(c/n 0344) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 4.10.72. To A.F.T.S. To B.F.T.S., 1973. “Written-off” in crash in Shannon Estuary, 20.9.78.

205
(c/n 0345) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 4.10.72. To A.F.T.S. To B.F.T.S., 1973. To No. 2 Support Wing, 1980. To Army Co-Operation Sqdn, 1986. To 104 Sqdn, No. 1 Operations Wing, 2001.

206
(c/n 0346) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 4.10.72. To A.F.T.S. To B.F.T.S., 1973. To No. 2 Support Wing, 1980. To Army Co-Operation Sqdn, 1986. To 104 Sqdn, No. 1 Operations Wing, 2001.

207
(c/n 0347) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 4.10.72. To A.F.T.S. To B.F.T.S., 1973. To No. 2 Support Wing, 1980. To Army Co-Operation Sqdn, 1986. “Written-off” after force-landing in sea off Gormanston. Stored in Apprentice School. To Waterford Regional Airport for fire drill and evacuation training, August 1998.

208
(c/n 0348) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 4.10.72. To A.F.T.S. To B.F.T.S., 1973. To No. 2 Support Wing, 1980. To Army Co-Operation Sqdn, 1986. To 104 Sqdn, No. 1 Operations Wing, 2001.

209
(c/n 0349) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 4.10.72. To A.F.T.S. To B.F.T.S., 1973. To No. 2 Support Wing, 1980. To Army Co-Operation Squadron, 1986. “Written-off” in landing accident, Air Corps Station, Finner, Co. Donegal, 10.11.93.

210
(c/n 0343) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 4.10.72. To A.F.T.S. To B.F.T.S., 1973. To No. 2 Support Wing, 1980. To Army Co-Operation Sqdn, 1986. To 104 Sqdn, No. 1 Operations Wing, 2001.

REIMS-CESSNA FR.172K ROCKET

243
(c/n 0671) Deld to Casement Aerodrome, 7.4.81. To No. 2 Support Wing, 1980. To Army Co-Operation Sqdn, 1986. To 104 Sqdn, No. 1 Operations Wing, 2001. “Written-off” in a crash at Clonbullogue, Co. Offaly, 6.5. 2004.