In this context, I’d like to lay out an argument about why aviation warrants a role in such a programme and how it can be made tangible for current and future generations.
The development of aviation and the Irish Republic have been intertwined for a number of generations. It began in 1919 when the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic landed in Clifden and extends to the present day where Ireland is home to global leaders in airline business models and commercial aircraft financing.
In between, we have been witness to a wide range of technical and commercial developments that have helped advance flight as a mainstream element of transport infrastructure worldwide. Ireland, and Irish aviation experts, have been at the heart of many innovations and breakthroughs around this history.
The Irish Air Corps’ primary station in Baldonnel seems like the obvious location to progress this concept of a Baldonnel Irish Aviation Centre (BIAC). It is the airfield from which the first non-stop Atlantic flight on the demanding East-West leg began in 1928. That flight was co-led by Captain James Fitzmaurice of the Air Corps. Another reason to focus on Baldonnel is that it hosts a valuable collection of Irish aviation artefacts that can form the heart of a museum within the centre.
A third factor is Baldonnel’s proximity to the high population centre on the east coast. By being within the broader orbit of the Greater Dublin area, the BIAC could attract not just Irish people but also visitors by being part of various tourist trails in the Leinster area.
If the concept of using Baldonnel is accepted by the Air Corps and relevant government departments, what would it contain and how would it be funded?
The working piece should include aircraft that formed part of our aviation history and continue to fly. The Aer Lingus Iolar is an obvious example, but other operating historic aircraft should be considered for inclusion too. These working aircraft could represent Ireland’s aviation heritage at various displays and shows.
Inside the facility, space should be found for a museum and educational resource that can attract students and tourists in equal measure. Having displays to present the myriad of historic items that exist within the Air Corps and from other State and privately-owned collections would allow the full breadth of knowledge connected to pioneering flights to be made public.
Paying for all this is, of course, a key component of any successful project. It would require imagination, collaboration between State and private institutions and a lot of goodwill to get such a plan off the ground. The ingredients of such a package, however, do exist.
A broader sweep of the Irish diaspora will also be needed. The US Air Force and the aviation wing of the US Navy are full of retired and serving Irish Americans. Using our diplomatic skills to involve them in supporting the BIAC would be valuable. Connecting the project to other aviation-related historic centres and museums will be needed too.
The Smithsonian in Washington, Boeing’s Seattle centre, and the London Science Museum are all examples of institutions that contain aviation items connected with Ireland. The Smithsonian hosts the Lockheed Vega used by Amelia Earhart when she became the first woman to fly non-stop from the US and landed in Derry in 1932. The London Science Museum holds the Vickers Vimy that alighted in Clifden and Boeing has detailed files on the role of its B314 Flying Boats starting transatlantic flights connecting Ireland and America in the 1930s.