A decision to send Irish Air Corps pilots to Alabama to train with the US military has been linked by a Defence Forces representative group to shortages of personnel, aircraft and training capacity in the State.
The move was not related to Covid-19 issues, the Government has said, and follows members of the Air Corps last year being sent to Australia for training for up to two years.
The two junior Air Corps pilots commenced a helicopter conversion course last month at the US military’s Fort Rucker base in Alabama. A further six student pilots have been earmarked to undertake fixed-wing pilot training at another base in Alabama next month.
The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco)said the pilots were being sent abroad due to a lack of training capacity in Ireland.
Comdt Conor King, Raco’s general secretary, said there was a shortage of aircraft, instructors and mechanics which were all vital for training pilots.
“This will continue for a few years until the Air Corps gets back to something approaching capacity,” he said of sending pilots abroad, adding it was “symptomatic of a failure to value talent and retain it”. He said it was much more expensive to train pilots abroad.
Comdt King welcomed the fact a small number of Air Corps pilots were re-enlisting, having left to join Ryanair and Aer Lingus, but said the numbers were not enough to offset personnel shortages in the longer term.
There are 724 personnel in the Air Corps at present, well below the figure of 886 which is regarded as the minimum strength it should have. Overall, there were 8,412 personnel in the Defence Forces – between the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps – which has a recommended minimum strength of 9,500.
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney confirmed in reply to a Dáil question that the decision to send pilots to the US was not related to Covid-19, as military training in Ireland has resumed after being interrupted by the pandemic .
“The purpose of this initiative is to improve capacity for training pilots in the Air Corps with the aim of returning pilot strength to full establishment,” he said in response to a question from Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore.