1958 crash site of a rare Royal Navy helicopter identified in Lough Foyle
The 1958 crash site of a rare Royal Navy helicopter has been identified as part of the Northern Ireland 3D Coastal Survey of the entire NI coastline, commissioned by The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Marine & Fisheries Division.
The Topographic LiDAR & Orthophotography survey, completed in early 2022, provides high resolution aerial photographs, near-infrared imagery, and 3D laser scans of the ground surface. As well as providing detailed information on what our coastline currently looks like, it is also being used to identify man-made structures and landscape features which are at risk from erosion and sea level rise.
Marine archaeologists are utilising this data to identify and assess archaeological and historical sites that lie around Northern Ireland’s coastline. These can include historic wrecks, medieval fish-traps, monastic settlements, castles and fortifications, quays, slipways, and Industrial-era seaweed cultivation sites.
While many of the sites examined are recorded on the Historic Environment Record of Northern Ireland (HERoNI), the research has so far identified over 150 new heritage sites, with 100 of these below the high tide mark and the remainder above.
The discovery of a Royal Navy Dragonfly helicopter was an unexpected find during this work. Remnants of aircraft structure were initially spotted in the aerial photos of Lough Foyle and a further physical inspection of the site revealed the wreck of a very early form of helicopter, lying on its starboard (right) side on the gravelly bank.
Though heavily corroded, the frame of the helicopter and its three rotor blades were mostly intact, with remnants of the ‘Royal Navy’ stencilling still discernible down the tail boom.
Further research involving officials from the National Museum of the Royal Navy (Plymouth), the Fleet Air Arm Museum (Yeovilton) and the Ulster Aviation Society, identified the aircraft as a 1955 Westland Dragonfly naval air-sea search and rescue helicopter, based at the Royal Naval Air Station Eglinton, now the City of Derry Airport.
The helicopter had come down on 25 November 1958, during a recovery exercise.
On the morning of that Tuesday, 64 years ago this month, Lieutenant Eric Taylor of 719 Naval Air Squadron left Eglinton Air base on a training sortie to fire rockets at the nearby firing range in Lough Foyle.
Taylor was pulling out of a high-speed dive towards the range when his aircraft hit the slipstream of another Gannet and the outer section of each wing broke away.
He climbed to height and was preparing to bale out when he found he could still control the seriously damaged aircraft and subsequently landed safely at Eglinton.
However later that day, during an operation to recover both Gannet wing tips, a winch cable on the Dragonfly helicopter was cut without warning and the helicopter pitched over, ditching onto its starboard side in the shallow water.
The exact position of the wreck is not being released as the crash site is located on dangerous soft sediment and a significant number of potentially live WW2 and post war ordnance surround the site.
Further information on the find will be available on a new coastal Information website, The Northern Ireland Coastal Observatory, which will be launched by DAERA in the near future.