Low-flying RAF pilots could use Northern Ireland as training ground
Published 04/09/2009 | 16:01
Northern Ireland could become a training ground for low-flying RAF fighter planes.
While there are no immediate plans for exercises involving the high-speed jets in the region, a senior Air Force officer said it was an "aspiration" for the future.
Northern Ireland is already classified as one of the 20 zones in the UK which the RAF can use for training pilots in preparation for combat operations. But, due to heavy helicopter traffic in the skies during the Troubles, it has never been used for that purpose.
Squadron Leader Jim Maginnis, who is based at RAF Aldergrove in County Antrim, said it was now possible that exercises could be run in Northern Ireland. However, he made clear that such a move was not imminent and would require Government approval and community support.
"Because we have had no fast jets here in the past, it would be a very slow build-up in them coming here," he said.
"But the aspiration is for that to eventually happen."
The squadron leader said that, if training flights were brought to the region, there would be a 10-mile no-fly zone around the border.
Ironically, his comments come as the RAF prepares to leave Aldergrove - its last remaining permanent base in Northern Ireland.
The Air Force is handing over control of the site, which is adjacent to Belfast International Airport, to the Joint Helicopter Command - an overarching unit for all military helicopters.
While the base is being retained in Military of Defence hands, the handover marks an end to a full-time RAF presence in Northern Ireland after more than 91 years in the region.
During that time the base played a key role in protecting Allied Atlantic convoys from German U-boats during the Second World War and, during the Troubles, provided support for the security forces closer to home.
Wing Commander Al Morrow said the official handover - which comes after the Battle of Britain commemoration on September 20 - would be a sad day.
"Ultimately it's not just about the Troubles," he said. "The RAF and its presence here in Northern Ireland goes a long way before that and indeed pre-dates partition of the island of Ireland itself."
The last RAF Squadron to leave Aldergrove will be the 230 Puma Helicopter SQD in November.
Wing Cmdr Morrow added: "The RAF's got a very long and proud history (in Northern Ireland) and ultimately, with the lowering of the flag and the raising of the new one on the 20 September, there will be a degree of sadness associated with that."