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DOWNED AIRCRAFT BECOMES SIGHTSEEING ATTRACTION AFTER LANDING DRAMA

Downed aircraft becomes sightseeing attraction after landing drama

“ Look up, its Aer Lingus” ran the slogan of an advertisement some years ago. Whatever about the chances of sighting an aircraft from the national airline’s fleet the skies over Kildare are always busy. The traffic criss-crossing the airspace over these parts includes passenger jets thundering towards Dublin airport, sport aircraft buzzing into Weston, and Irish Air Corps planes on training missions from Baldonnel. And it was one of the first Air Corps machines which caused a stir in east Kildare ninety years ago this month.
The summer of 1922 was a turbulent time in Ireland: after months of agonizing over whether to accept the Treaty settlement with the British the Irish nationalist movement split triggering a deadly Civil War. The anti-treaty militants occupied the Four Courts in Dublin before being evicted by the pro-treaty troops after a destructive siege in late June 1922. But this was not the end of the trouble. Some of the anti-treaty activists escaped and linked up with compatriots coming from the south who began to assemble in some number in the Slaney valley between Baltinglass and Blessington.

To combat this threat the leadership of the embryonic Irish Free State under Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy set about structuring an army which would be properly organised and equipped. They realised that aircraft were essential to the conduct of operations and succeeded in acquiring a handful of British made aeroplanes for a fledgling Irish air service. It was all done on a shoestring and by mid July there were just three airworthy machines at Baldonnel. It was one of these, a Bristol fighter, which was despatched on 16th July 1922 to carry out the first combat patrol of the Civil War.  The plane was spotted over Naas by an observant Kildare Observer correspondent whose reporting carries a flavour of the novelty of not alone seeing a plane but of seeing a plane in Irish colours: “ On Sunday afternoon about 4.30 a Bristol biplane, with the tricolour painted on both sides, passed over Naas in the direction of the south.” 

That was only the start of the drama because soon the plane was seen again: “A short time later it appeared to be returning, and then was seen to descend in the vicinity of Naas hospital.” The report went on to relate that the descending aircraft landed in a field the property of Mr. Stephen J. Brown at Ballycane (to the east of Naas). However the landing was not smooth: the plane’s undercarriage hit a rut and the machine “turned turtle” coming to rest upside down with its wheels in the air. Of the two-man crew the pilot Comdt. General McSweeney escaped unscathed but his observer Lieutenant Nolan was knocked unconscious. Some people who were in the Ballycane vicinity rushed to the upturned plane to render assistance. Later an armed guard from Naas military barracks secured the stricken craft. Townspeople must have watched in wonder as the following day the plane was towed through the town behind a Crossley tender back to Baldonnel.
The day after the accident the pilot, McSweeney, filed a report on the eventful flight which gives an aviator’s eye view of the early days of the Civil War. Of his mission from Baldonnel on 16th July he wrote: “ I flew over all the roads between Naas to Tullow at a height of  600 feet (very low) looking for road obstructions and movement of troops. I then proceeded to Tullow and remained over it for about 15 minutes. The town was full of men and they were only standing around and there appeared to be no activity of a military nature.”   While there was no sign of anti-Treaty forces on the move McSweeney could see from his aerial vantage point that Tullow was being encircled by road-blocks: “Each entrance to the town at 200 yards distance was blocked by a stone barrier half-way across the road with sufficient space to allow carts to pass.” However his observations had to be abandoned when he noticed a drop in pressure in his fuel lines: “I immediately turned back, using my hand pump to keep up the pressure.” He managed to keep the plane airborne until, approaching Naas, the engine cut out and flying at such a perilously low height he was obliged to steer for the nearest field. All seemed under control until the plane wheels hit a ditch and the machine somersaulted. Of his hapless fellow-crewman he recalled: “Lt. Nolan was pinned underneath, and after I had pulled him out he lost consciousness. At present he cannot move, but the doctor informs me that he will be alright in a day or two.” 
The last word might be left to the Kildare Observer correspondent whose report on the local reaction to the incident conveyed the novelty of aviation in the summer month of July 1922: “On Sunday, and prior to its removal on Monday, hundreds of people from the town visited the scene of the crash, this being the first occasion on which any of them had come in such close contact with the Irish Air Force.”

* Acknowledgments to aviation historians Michael O’Malley, Tony Kearns and Michael Whelan for help with this article. Series no: 288.

Liam Kenny's Looking Back series no. 288 recalls the crash-landing of an Irish air force plane in Naas in the summer of 1922.


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