BY MICHAEL BRESLIN
November 18, 2009
AS Police try to establish reports of a downed plane in the Boho area on Thursday of last week, the British Army has denied that it was one of their drones.
However, an army spokesperson confirmed that the skies over north Fermanagh and west Tyrone are hosting 'rest of world' night time flight training for RAF and British Army Air Corps pilots.
A police spokesman referred enquiries about 'drones' in the sky at night to the British Army Press Office. He said that police were keen to speak to anyone who was flying in the Boho area on Thursday around the time of the 'loud bang' reports to contact them so they can be ruled out of their enquiries about a downed plane.
A British Army spokesman insisted that there was no training with unmanned drones: "Absolutely not. We don't train with drones. I don't know where they do most of their training, but I would suggest the Salisbury Plain.
Ironically, it was on Thursday night of last week that residents in an area embracing Enniskillen, Lisbellaw and Ballinamallard first heard the sound of an invisible aircraft. Then, on Friday and Saturday nights, residents in an area extending from Trillick through Irvinestown and across Lower Lough Erne were also treated to the same phenomenon. In all cases, witnesses described the sound as 'a continuous drone'.
The British Army spokesman told the 'Herald' that these were 'rest of world' operations by pilots of aircraft heading to war zones, including Afghanistan.
"As you know, with Northern Ireland being part of the UK, there is low level flying required to be done. A lot of that training, by the RAF and Army Air Corps, is done at night in order to replicate what they'll be doing overseas.
"You're talking about certain areas of, say, Afghanistan. You have desert and arid areas and, then you have areas which are lush and full of forests and green fields, so by flying around parts of Fermanagh and Tyrone you're making the exercise as relevant as possible."
The spokesman went on: "They can't do this during the day, but the guys have to get training. They can't do it in areas of light pollution and there's not much use doing it in built-up areas, such as towns and cities as this reduces the usefulness of flying by night.
"The pilots do try to change the areas they use for training so that nobody is getting grief. For instance, they use the Sperrins one week and the next week or the week after some other place. No, I don't know how long this will go on for."
Asked about one report that the training aircraft are equipped with heat-seeking equipment, the spokesman said this was 'unlikely'. "It's not something we talk about."
He was then asked to comment on one report that wind farms in the training areas are now fitted with beacons to avoid a collision.
"This would be a matter for the Civil Aviation Authority. It has got nothing to do with us. The CAA give directions for high structures and for emergency vehicles such as police, ambulance and fire tenders, or, say, the Harland and Wolff crane."
Ulster Unionist Councillor Alex Baird, who is a former civil representative with the Northern Ireland Office, said while he appreciates that the Ministry of Defence or the Royal Air Force are entitled to use the Fermanagh skies, he believes they should have been proactive in briefing public representatives about when this is going to happen.
Meanwhile, DUP Minister Arlene Foster explained: "Both Councillor Bert Johnston and myself received many calls over the weekend about the noise and length of time a night flying aircraft circled in parts of Fermanagh.
"I made contact with St Angelo Airport late on Sunday after residents in Lisbellaw expressed concern to me. The staff at St Angelo were very helpful and explained it was a military aircraft. This information was then shared around the community. I understand that many in the communities, both in Ballinamallard and Lisbellaw, were concerned at the length of time this aircraft was circling and of the noise generated from it," she continued.
"The NIO have explained there was a military training exercise in the area and that it is now finished. I was pleased both Bert and I were able to reassure the communities we represent, and my thanks go to the staff at St Angelo Airport for their assistance in getting the correct information via ourselves to the concerned residents who accepted the information we gave them."
Meanwhile, éirígí Fermanagh chairperson, Kevin Martin has expressed concern at the increasing level of British military activity in the county.
He commented: "In recent months, undercover British soldiers, who are most likely attached to the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, have also been active at PSNI checkpoints and in raids in the county.
"Yet again we are witnessing the consequence of Britain's continued involvement in Ireland. Despite the claims that the British army was going with the ending of Operation Banner in 2007, it is obvious that they are here to stay."
Mr Martin said that British military activity in Fermanagh, whether it be in training exercises or in operations against Irish citizens, was completely unacceptable: "éirígí will continue to actively oppose the British military presence in Fermanagh and across the Six Counties."