Three decades after its retirement from frontline service, Steven Taylor details the much-loved de Havilland Beaver’s career with the Army Air Corps
The flight over the notorious ‘bandit country’ of South Armagh on November 13, 1979 was turning out to be just another routine reconnaissance for the crew of an Army Air Corps Beaver AL.1. It was one of countless such sorties crews of the type performed during the long war against terrorism in Northern Ireland.
But at around 1pm, while flying over the town of Crossmaglen, close to the border with the Irish Republic, the crew spotted several men carrying rifles, blocking a road with a van. To the aircraft’s observer, it looked like an illegal vehicle check point often set up by the Provisional IRA in Ulster’s borderlands, as a demonstration of their control of the area.
As the pilot lowered the Beaver’s altitude to photograph the suspects, more gunmen armed with M16 assault rifles and an M60 machine gun, hidden in positions nearby, opened fire. Six rounds struck the aircraft, one hitting the propeller and shattering the windscreen, while another came up through the floor and severed the observer’s radio microphone cable. Despite the damage, the pilot managed to maintain control of his machine and made a safe landing back at RAF Aldergrove in County Antrim, more than 40 miles (64km) away.
The dangerous encounter with the IRA gunmen had once again demonstrated the toughness for which the Beaver was famed, a quality for which numerous Army Air Corps (AAC) crewmen had reason to be thankful during the type’s long and distinguished army career.
Choosing the Beaver
When the AAC was established in September 1957, its main aircraft were ageing Auster (Air Observation Post) AOP.6 and AOP.9 sub-types, inherited from the RAF. Earlier iterations of these dependable aircraft first served in World War Two, where they were mainly used for artillery spotting.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Austers of the newly formed AAC were kept busy throughout several counter-insurgency campaigns in such trouble spots as Malaya, Northern Ireland (during the IRA’s ‘Border Campaign’ of 1956-62) and Cyprus, carrying out a host of duties including visual reconnaissance, light transport, target-marking for air strikes (in Malaya) and leaflet dropping…
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