A planned airlift from Bantry General Hospital had to be abandoned, two weeks ago, after a helicopter pilot decided it was not possible to execute a safe landing.
He was forced to set his aircraft down in Rowa Pharmaceutical’s private airfield, about two miles away, before taking the patient on board.
The patient, a 17-year-old boy with spinal injuries, had to be transferred from the hospital by ambulance before he could board the helicopter.
The 118-bed acute general hospital serves a population of more than 60,000 people in the west Cork and south Kerry areas, including several islands.
It also treats dozens of sailors and trawler men every year, who are airlifted to the hospital after sustaining injuries at sea.
A spokesman for the Health Service Executive said hospital management was not aware of concerns about the safety of their landing pad.
He said the airlift which sparked the safety concerns had been prearranged the previous night.
An area around the landing site was cleared that morning for the aircraft to land, he said.
But, two hours before the aircraft was due to land, the hospital was made aware that the landing would take place at the Rowa Pharmaceuticals’ airstrip, he said.
Air Corps sources confirmed last night, however, that there is “an issue” with the hospital’s landing site.
It is understood that an expansion of the hospital’s car park has made it practically impossible for helicopters to land there safely.
Despite the difficulties, the airlift from the private airfield was a success, and the boy was transferred to Dublin within an hour.
However, Skibbereen town councillor Brendan Leahy, who is also a paramedic and who was involved in the transfer of the patient, said the situation was far from ideal.
“With so many islands off the coast here, and with the importance of the fishing industry in this region, it is vital to have helicopter landing spaces in west Cork,” he said.
And, he added, the long-term use of the private airfield for airlifts — whether for emergency cases or for organ transplant cases — could not be guaranteed.
He called for dedicated air ambulance landing spaces to be identified in the forthcoming review of the County Development Plan.
“Some people might say ‘sure how many times would you need a landing pad’,” he said.
“But when something happens and you need it, and it isn’t there, what do you do then?”
Rowa Pharmaceuticals’ privately owned airstrip has a 500-metre runway on the shores of Bantry Bay.
It is fully licensed by the Irish Aviation Authority.
It played a key role following the 1979 Whiddy Oil Terminal disaster and was used as a landing zone for rescue helicopters. It was also used as a base for light aircraft conducting aerial surveys of Bantry Bay and for aircraft involved in spraying operations on the oil slick for months after.
Cork University Hospital (CUH), meanwhile, still does not have a dedicated helicopter landing pad.
Routine airlifts are transferred by road to Cork Airport, and a nearby secondary school, Coláiste and Spioraid Naoimh, also allows emergency airlifts from its playing pitches.