KC-10 Emergency Landing at Shannon - Still a lot of Questions to be Answered

On June 3rd it was reported that a military aerial refuelling aircraft had made an emergency landing at Shannon Airport. It was a US Air Force McDonnell Douglas KC-10, and initial reports said it suffered a problem with one of its engines over the Atlantic.

Five fire brigade units were sent from Shannon Town and two more from Ennis in support of the airport's Fire and Rescue Service. The National Ambulance Service and Gardaí also sent resources to the airport.

According to local reports, an inspection of the aircraft afterwards discovered that a panel was missing from the jet's left engine.

Two days later the Air Force Times  gave some more information. It reported that the aircraft which is assigned to the 305th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, had finished conducting a fighter refueling mission over the Atlantic Ocean and was returning to its home station when the pilot declared an in-flight emergency for a fire indication light in the cockpit. The aircraft was diverted to Shannon “where it landed safely” and “without incident” they said.

This report immediately raised our concerns. Did the refueller fly through Irish airspace while on military operations. And did it do so with - or without - permission to do so? Was it refuelling fighter planes in Irish airspace or Irish controller airspace?

Clare Daly TD submitted a parliamentary question to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if the refuelling of the aircraft took place inside or outside Irish airspace; the location the aircraft travelled from with its fuel load; and if it passed through Irish airspace prior to the emergency diversion to Shannon.

The Minister’s answer was as follows:

A US military aircraft made an emergency landing at Shannon Airport on Sunday 3 June 2018. Prior notification was received from the US Embassy and the Embassy confirmed with my Department that the aircraft carried no arms, ammunition or explosives and was not involved in any intelligence gathering, military operations or exercises at the time of the flight. The aircraft in question’s destination was the United States, having originated in the UK. It was not scheduled to enter Irish airspace at any time and only entered to make this emergency landing.”

Clare also asked the Minister for Transport; Tourism and Sport if the Irish Aviation Authority had investigated the incident or will be doing so. Here is part of his reply:

The particular incident to which the Deputy refers occurred over international waters on 3 June 2018 at 13.04 hrs UTC.  The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC 10 tanker, was on a flight from the UK to the USA. While over international waters, the flight crew advised Shannon that they had shut down one of their three engines and, as they were unable to maintain the assigned flight level for the Atlantic crossing, they requested a diversion to Shannon. The aircraft landed at Shannon at 14.03 hrs UTC without further incident”.

The Minister said that the Inspector-On-Call of the Air Accident Investigation unit (AAIU), which is the independent state body responsible for the investigation of aviation occurrences, in was kept apprised of the situation by Shannon Air Traffic Control throughout the aircraft’s flight and landing. He also said

As the event occurred over international waters the responsibility for assessing if an investigation by a Safety Investigation Authority (SIA) is warranted, and for conducting such an investigation, rests with the State of the Operator.”

So we have reports from a media outlet, the Air Force Times, that claims to provide “quality, unbiased reporting on the important issues for the military community” that the KC-10 had been conducting a fighter refuelling mission. The refuelling may have been in Irish controlled airspace, which includes international waters. We recall a big to-do being made about 2 Russian bombers entering Irish controlled airspace in Jan 2015, followed by two other Russian planes in Feb of the same year. At the time, the Irish Government said the use of Irish-controlled airspace by two Russian bombers was unacceptable. Would they say the same about the US military planes?

We have asked for clarification from both Ministers as to exactly where the plane was when the emergency was discovered. Was it in Irish controlled airspace, and if it was, is this normal practice? Do the Ministers think it is acceptable practice? Do they think it is acceptable to have the Irish Aviation Authority providing air traffic management and other operational services to US military planes like this one?

Also one of the Ministerial responses said that prior notification was received from the US Embassy about the aircraft. When exactly was this prior notification received by the Department of Foreign Affairs?

There are many questions still to be answered.

And despite what the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade says, the aircraft was certainly involved in military operations. US military refuellers don’t do holiday charters or postage deliveries; they do military operations and nothing else.

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