A military airworthiness inspection team has been studying a helicopter carrying Arts, Sport and Tourism Minister Martin Cullen when the door beside him fell off at 500 feet. Cullen was fortunate to avoid serious injury, perhaps even death, in the incident over Killarney National Park on Monday.

The Air Corps chopper was bringing the minister and one of his officials back to Dublin from an Irish Hotels Federation conference in Co. Kerry when it was forced to make an emergency landing on a helicopter pad at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club.

One of the first people to greet Cullen when the damaged helicopter touched down was Fine Gael Senator Paul Coghlan, president of the golf club. Coghlan said the minister had got a fright but was taken to the clubhouse where he was given a cup of tea.

The aircraft had been aloft for less than three minutes when the main door on the left hand side where the minister was strapped in came loose and fell to the ground. None of the two passengers or three crewmen was injured. Cullen later paid tribute to the crew.

He said, “I wish to extend my sincere thanks to the Air Corps AW 139 crew members, Captain Lee Brennan, Lieutenant Oisin McGrath and Airman Patrick Mahon for their professionalism and calmness.

The crew were exceptionally efficient and acted superbly. Full credit should be given to them for their outstanding skill.” Another helicopter was diverted from Cork to bring the minister back to Dublin that evening.

The aircraft, which was delivered only eight months ago, will remain grounded until technicians from the Air Corps HQ at Baldonnel, near Dublin, have completed their examination. A small area of Killarney National Park was still being scoured in a search for the door 24 hours after it fell off.

The helicopter had brought Cullen from Waterford to Killarney. While it can fly with its doors open under certain speeds, this is normally only in military and winching roles.

Minster for Defense Willie O’Dea and the Chief of Staff of the Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Dermot Earley, were fully updated on the situation and will receive a report on the incident in due course.