Esquadra 751, the pride of the Portuguese Air Force – “Para que outros vivam – So others may live”
Esquadra 751, the pride of the Portuguese Air Force - "Para que outros vivam – So others may live".
We went to Portugal to witness the operations of one of the most important Search and Rescue Units in the world.
Base Aérea nº6 is headquartered in the municipality of Montijo, next to the Tagus River and close to the city of Lisbon. Dedicated to the duties of air logistics, dignitaries, maritime surveillance, and search and rescue, it is one of the main bases of the Portuguese Air Force and is home to Squadrons 501, 502, 504, and 751, air units flying C-130H, C-295M, Falcon 50 and EH-101. Another resident of Montijo is the Portuguese navy with the Lynx Mk95, which is usually fulfilling its mission aboard the Navy’s frigates. Since its creation in the 1950s, Montijo Air Base has focused its mission on the use of air and naval assets, as a spearhead for maritime operations and fundamental to support military bases and civil defenses in the remote archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira.
The history of the Esquadra 751
To better understand the history of the Esquadra 751, we spoke to Colonel Diniz who has been in the Portuguese Air Force for about 33 years and has been the Commander at Montijo Air Base for about two years, but he is assigned to Montijo Air Base (with other tasks in his career) for about 13 years. The origin of the squadron takes you back to the wars in Africa that Portugal had between 1961 and 1974. At the end of the ‘60s, there was a need for a large support helicopter for troop transport and large assault and infantry. That is why the Portuguese Air Force decided to buy twelve Puma helicopters. The Portuguese Air Force, or Força Aérea Portuguesa (FAP) used these in the war from 1969 until 1974. And when the war ended there was a political revolution in Portugal, and they became a full fletched democracy again. They removed all their military units and assets from Africa back to the mainland. And in 1978 there was a whole reconfiguration of the Air Force. And that is also why most of their current squadrons work with the three-digit number.
The Puma helicopters came to the Esquadra 751 and 752 (Esq751/752) and their mission was Search and Rescue. That was their primary mission at the squadrons. Besides the SAR missions, they were also used for tactical troop transport. Although the first helicopters, the Sikorsky H-19s were the Search and Rescue helicopters from the start, and those are the two first lines of operation in Portugal, Tactical and SAR.
When it came to the replacement of the Puma helicopters, Col. Diniz continues with his story that they starting to develop the process choice of candidates. Diniz recalls it was an exceptionally long process because it had several setbacks. The contracts were signed and then backed off, the replacement program started at the end of 1999, and in 2003 the first final contract was signed for the EH101 and eventually, the first one was delivered in February 2005. These were exciting times for the squadron when they received their first Merlin helicopter with a new example following every few months until the twelve orders were complete.
Besides this, 2005 was the transition year the squadron was still operating the Puma’s operationally, on the detachments of SAR alert posture, and at the same time, some pilots on the squadron were converting to the new helicopter, learning to fly the new helicopter and developing new procedures and checklist for the new Merlins. So, when you’re looking at February 2006, that’s when the alert aircraft at Montijo was first taken over by the Merlin, and that’s when the decommissioning of the Puma’s started. Duties were taken over from the Pumas at Lajes in November 2006 and that’s when the squadron stopped operating the Puma. A couple of years later there were some major maintenance issues with the Merlins because the squadron had incredibly low availability of helicopters, so the squadron had to go fetch the Puma’s back and operated these temporarily for 1-2 years. So again, Search and rescue was covered again by Pumas while the squadron used the rest of the Merlins back on the mainland, this lasted year-year and a half top. And then finally the Puma’s were decommissioned by 2008, and the Merlins took over all operations again.
“So, we needed a more powerful machine, with bigger raw performance, and that was the main reason for us to get the Merlin helicopter.”
Colonel Dinez continues that there were two big reasons to replace the Puma helicopters with the EH101 Merlin helicopters. The first reason is that the Pumas were helicopters from the ‘60s. They were originally built in 1969-1970, and the most recent ones from 1970. They had been largely modified over the course of years, in 1978 and 1979 external fuel tanks were added, and in 1991 and 1993 the Puma’s were equipped with more powerful engines, but they still had the original transmissions. That proved the biggest downfall of the Puma’s, they were immensely powerful, but due to the original transmissions and rotor blades, this power could not be fully utilized. So, the helicopters were quite old, the navigation systems, the cockpit, everything was getting quite old, and expensive to support also. And being a Puma, it has limited performance of course. Most of the other countries, while Portugal was still using the Puma, had a more modern version with the transmissions. So, they could carry more fuel, more payload, and have a larger range, while the Portuguese were still limited by the transmission. So, the need was for a more powerful machine, with bigger raw performance, and that was the main reason to get the Merlin helicopter. The Portuguese Air Force tried to obtain a helicopter that could cover as much as possible of the SAR region that the country has assigned to it, which is 5,5 million square kms of the Atlantic, so they try to cover that as much as possible and feasible with a helicopter. The Merlin only goes tops on a SAR mission theoretically only 400 miles out and back, typically 360 miles. If they wanted to cover the whole area, a helicopter was needed a helicopter that could be 1000 miles, 1200 out and back, and there was nothing available. But the Merlin was the best that the Portuguese could find, even now with the versions to cover as much as much as we could on the mainland, Porto Santo and Lajes. There was competition of course, and some of the other competitors were the Super Puma, Sikorski S92 and at one point the Black Hawks also joined the competition. But all these airframes were largely inferior to the raw performance of the Merlin, nothing could reach the range of the Merlin. At the time for instance, Sikorsky was competing with a helicopter that wasn’t still flying, they only had a drawing of it, so that is why the tender came back three times and was relaunched three times, and only by the 3rd time was the final contract was signed.
The Different variants
The helicopters were acquired in three variants. There are six helicopters that run the standard configuration the Mk514, they are mostly used for SAR missions, and two helicopters with other equipment for fishery control and surveillance the Mk515. The last four helicopters, the Mk516, are those of the so-called Tactical. The Mk514 is as said the basic type, capable of performing the SAR role as well as troop transport. It can be fitted with a large internal fuel tank in the cabin, increasing the range by about 400NM. But to keep it comfortable for the pilots, we don’t go further than 360NM. With only the helicopter’s tanks, the maximum range is about 240NM.
The MK516 Tactical variant is equipped with a self-protection suite including Warning Receiver (RWR), Counter Measures Dispensing System (CMDS), Missile Warning System (MWS), and Air-to-Air Refuel (AAR)Originally there was a plan to arm these with self-defense weapons, a couple of machine guns placed in the door openings, but the purchase of the weapons was never finished, and also because the tactical mission as projected never took off at the time. About the AAR capability, even though the helicopters are fully capable with fuel lines and electronics, this still hasn’t been used so far, the project of buying the Merlin helicopters was supposed to be in parallel with the Portuguese Navy and a new logistic ship, with a large helicopter deck and hangar that could fit the Merlin, and they could be operated directly from the ship. This is also the reason for the second external difference of the Mk516, the folding tail. But as with many projects at the time this purchase never came through. Another factor is that the Portuguese Air Force currently doesn’t operate an aircraft capable of performing the aerial refueling role. And so, the Squadron never used the role or got its crew trained and qualified, and for now the external probes remain in their crates.
When questioned if he is satisfied with the Merlin helicopter in service. He continues that the Merlin is a fantastic machine performance-wise, and in its basics, it is a very good helicopter, and the raw power of the Merlin helicopter is appraised by its crews. The Merlin helicopter is well-engineered in the sense that the helicopter is very robust in dealing with malfunctions. If you have a malfunction, lots of things can fail before a helicopter goes down. However, mechanically and on a more practical level the commander’s impression is that the Merlin is not a very reliable machine, because of its equipment we have a very high rate of malfunctions in several different equipment. Until now The Squadron has never lost a helicopter due to technical failure, but it does require a high level of and lots of maintenance hours to keep it running smoothly. Several of its equipment are sharing reliability problems, which is why the global availability of the fleet is not as high as the squadron wishes for. And that is something that is also noted by the other Merlin operators. The Canadians have lots of trouble with the availability, as are the Danish. The British and the Italians not so much as they are very close to the manufacturing and engineering side, so they are able to quickly come up with solutions to problems. The external customer, the Portuguese, Canadians, and the Danish who were the first customers had a lot of problem with that. The unit has a history of a very difficult logistics supply chain with the manufacturer, Leonardo Helicopters. But before it was Leonardo there was the same problem. Those problems were there from the start, there is an exceedingly long repair time for repairable components, as well as a very long wait time for new components. The logistics part of Leonardo is not up to standard, not as good as the Portuguese Air Force would like to be. And this has limited operation and fleet availability. Esq751 is flying the helicopter for over 15 years now, so it’s not a problem with a new fleet, it really lacks in logistics.
The Merlin has a maintenance schedule that calls for different times of interventions. Every 50 flight hours, 100 flight hours, 150 flight hours, 300 flight hours, and then the types of interventions of 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, and 4 years. The maintenance packages vary by size. Small for instance, a 50 flight hours package is 1.5 days of work, 150 flight hours inspection is smaller than a 100 flight hours inspection, so it varies. But the downtime for each one can go from 1-2 days to 1 or 2 months. The larger inspection can take a lot of time, and the major problem is not the squadron’s technicians or the contracted technicians, or the work. It is the supply of parts. Unfortunately, there is a need to rob parts from another helicopter to keep the other in flyable condition. Therefore, there is a hangar filled with half-complete helicopters, much to the commander’s frustration.
He continues about the cooperation with Leonardo Helicopters. Every year there are meetings. There is communication almost every day, every time when they come up with a technical fault. There is a good connection and good coordination. But one thing is getting answers, the other thing is getting parts. So, they have quick answers, but slow-moving parts. It is a small base Leonardo has with clients of large helicopters, and Leonardo and every manufacturer know this if you do large investments in buying expensive helicopters. By the time the contract buying a multimillion helicopter is signed, an operator will not switch to another quickly and then is basically stuck with it. So, the client is not running anywhere. The manufacturer knows that if they can’t supply parts in six weeks, they will supply them in twelve weeks. The client will be there waiting for their parts. On the other hand, Leonardo Helicopters and every other helicopter company in the world, of course, have to rely on small helicopters, helicopters for civilian use. And that’s where the real money comes from, and that’s the supply chain they have to maintain. The big helicopters are just a small part of their business, so it is not worth it for them to invest in them. There are operators’ meetings every year, and it is quite a shame to hear everybody complain. The squadron is very assertive in their complaints to Leonardo Helicopters, both as individual clients, as well as a group of clients with other operators.
Yes, once again, coordination is easy, because it is just words and communication, which is the easy part. The difficult part is getting things done. When the Portuguese Air Force bought the Merlin helicopter initially, they were not planning to have any kind of maintenance contract. So, they trained their own technicians to do the whole level/range of maintenance that the helicopter needed. The Portuguese Air Force operated on that for the first two years approximately. And it was by that time they spotted that there was a need for a logistics supply contact, to get the parts going. Instead of buying the parts one by one, and the engine one by one. But at that time, it was the Westland, they refused, and if the Portuguese Air Force wanted the logistics contract, they had to buy the full-service contract. And the Portuguese Air Force had no other than to accept it. And to provide the services, the maintainer services, Agusta Westland, subcontracted OGMA, a national aeronautical company, to provide the labor. So that is the reason there are OGMA employees working here in the hangar. So, although the contract was signed with Leonardo, they subcontracted it to OGMA, so we have OGMA workers and Leonardo providing the Supply chain. There is also another contract for engine maintenance, but the parts regarding the defense suite and electronics the defensive suite of the Portuguese Air Force takes care of it themselves. So basically, there are two larger service contracts, one for the airframe and one for the engines. So that is a long relationship, so the technicians of OGMA are more or less the same that was her at the beginning of the process, so they have been here for a long time, and they are very experienced on the Merlin.
The colonel continues that there are always things that can be improved but he has a great confidence in his crews that he has at the Esq751. They train a lot during the year, and they are very rigorous in their training, and they have been doing that for so many years. That he believes they really have refined their training methods and training routines, to a point where the crews are ready to manage anything that comes their way. So as a former instructor pilot on that squadron, he flew with a lot of these guys. He knows that they’re really well trained, very disciplined, and professional aviators, not only the pilots but the whole of the crew and the whole of the maintainers. And their personal skills he has enormous confidence. His major concerns will always relate to the reliability of the helicopter, as he previously mentioned. He knows that the helicopter is sufficiently well designed to survive most failures that could happen. And there were some emergencies, a few of them quite serious. But every time the crew was able to bring back down the helicopter safely, except for a smaller mishap. But usually, the helicopter will come down safely, and the guys will manage it just fine. I wish we just had more helicopters available every day, so we could train with them and be more proficient. Now this is about SAR. As for the tactical mission, it is a completely different story. Esquadra 751 tried to take off the tactical missions in 2010-2011. That is when they started using Night Vision Goggles (NVG), with that timer there was a small drop in capabilities, but nowadays they are building up again. And this time around they have gone further down the tactical road than they have ever been.
In 2021 the Esquadra 751 went to HTIC (Helicopter Tactics Instructors Course) in Hungary, which is an EDA (European Defense Agency) program. The Squadron was having satisfactory results on the Hot Blade exercises which were started in 2012. Colonel Diniz was one of the officers who signed it off while running an operations division in the FAP Headquarters. In fact, the guys are building up a good backbone, a pleasant experience on these kinds of missions. But truth to be told, real operation experiences the squadron has, remains in SAR. So far Esquadra 751 has never been deployed into a tactical scenario, so all they do tactically is exercises, training, and courses, this is very different from being in the age of live operations. For SAR, MEDEVAC, and flying in harsh weather all of that, they have it under their belts.
“I think perhaps the best way forward for us is just forward to evolve tactical troop transport tactical ops, perhaps not such specific and demanding operation as CSAR.”
About the future expectations on the CSAR missions, the following. Esq751 would like to build up on capabilities, but perhaps there have been some misconceptions over the years. The concept of CSAR had a difficult start within the NATO doctrine, and in the past few years, the amount of real-time CSAR missions is incredibly low. It is a very residual, specific mission, and when Esq751 got the Merlins, they were aiming for CSAR for that leach of operation, but it is a very demanding operation. So, overall the best way forward for the Squadron is just forward to evolve tactical troop transport tactical ops, perhaps not such specific and demanding operation as CSAR. For CSAR you just have to get grip on a lot of things which is just not feasible. To spend the tactical missions, Esq751 has to develop skills and requiring more dedicated equipment and eventually one day do real life operations. It is a question of priorities, they have limited resources, financial manpower. So, the FAP need to prioritize correctly to their needs and ambitions. Air defense is a major mission for us Portugal, SAR is a major mission for Esq751. There are the major missions of the FAP, Air defense, SAR and Transport, those are the three pillars. And then you look at Portugal, which is a maritime nation, there is a triangle of two archipelago and the mainland, so they need to have a close look at their oceanic areas. That is why maritime patrols is also an important mission for them. When looking at Portugal, you will see a southern country in Europe, which is plagued with a lot of small fires in the hot and dry summer. Although not specifically a military mission, it is assigned to the FAP. So, they must start building on forest fire combat. And if you look at that there are five important missions already for such a small country and such a small air force, and they cannot try to be the best in all these components. So, it is a tough job managing all these priorities and getting the resources to do them as best as they can.
Currently, there is one crew team at each location, rotation is every fifteen days, so every fortnight Esquadra 751 will rotate the detached crews. There is one crew and one helicopter in Porto Santo, and two helicopters with one crew currently in Lajes at the Azores. Ideally, if the squadron has more crews available, there would be two crews and two helicopters available in Lajes, but because of the shortage of crews, it was decided to have it like this. So, there is always one crew on alert. In Montijo, in Porto Santo, and in Lajes. The crew exists of six people. There are two pilots, a system operator, a rescue swimmer, a flight nurse, and a mechanic to pre and post-mission inspections and maintenance.
The detachments also use an added mechanic for small repairs, and in the case of major malfunctions, the Squadron will fly a technician team to the islands. It is quite frequent practice for helicopters to break down on the islands. In that case, they get the people and parts required, then all loaded on a fixed-wing aircraft and fly them to the location, and when all work is done, everybody returns to Montijo.
The three crews with the respective helicopter of Squadron 751 are on alert for 24 hours continuously and have reaction times of 30 minutes during the day and usually 45 minutes at night. If an aircraft declares an in-flight emergency, the alert can be reduced to 15, 10, or 5 minutes. The Lisbon Rescue Coordination Center, linked to the Air Force Command, is the body responsible for activating a SAR mission from Montijo. The RCC contacts the Air Base Operations section and reports the situation, which could range from a coastal cliff rescue to a complex long-range Search and Rescue mission. A start time of thirty minutes is needed for
The call comes from the RCC (Rescue Coordination Center) which will activate the procedure and coordination. When the Esquadra 751 receives the call, the first thing needed is the elementary information about the mission, where is it, what is it, and things that can affect your mission.
When they have all this information, they will start planning their mission and look to the weather and what the mission consists of and you look at the operational area, is it a vessel, someone in the water, or at a cliff. After seeing the weather and what the mission is and what the goal is you start to what you need to follow the mission, the amount of fuel needed, if you need more equipment, or the medical team regarding the subjects. And after you follow that you finish your plan, go to the dressing room, take your equipment, and depart. There are standard times like 30 minutes, which is the time usually needed after receiving the call up to take-off. But this time can be lengthened when there is a vessel for example, with 100 people on board. Then some big adjustments must be made, and you must prepare to also carry some other arrangements. That is out of the standards. Imagine there is a vessel 300 nautical miles offshore, you have to put a lot of fuel in the helicopter which takes some time, so then we have one hour departure time. So the standard for 120 nautical miles is 30 minutes because there isn’t the need to refuel so the standard is 30 min work time and 45 min on the weekends. But most of the time, the crew leaves in about 20 minutes. That part of mission handling requires training. Everyone knows his job and what they expect of him/her, and a standard mission is not quite different.
Every time a distress call is declared at a distance greater than 120 miles from the base, a C-295M plane of Squadron 502 is activated simultaneously. radio for a situational update. This information and exact coordinates are sent to the helicopter, as well as direction, wind speed at various altitude levels, and weather conditions in the rescue area, aiding in the EH-101’s mission planning, reducing fuel consumption, and increasing aircraft efficiency while decreasing the time to arrival and stay in the operations area. If necessary, the plane can also launch lifeboats to help the castaways while awaiting the arrival of rescue. There are places that are so far away,
Mission wises the Merlin helicopter has a maximal range of 400 nautical miles, then you have 15 minutes on station to perform your mission, fly back 400 nautical miles, and land with the reserve fuel. These numbers are with zero wind and are theoretical. So, if you have different winds, it will be less. But to extend the mission there is the possibility to add an internal fuel tank to the helicopter. They also have the procedure to shut off engine number 3 during cruising speed to save about 10 to 12% fuel. They turn it back on to perform the rescue and then turn it off again to return home after the hover operation.
This internal fuel tank is basically a huge tube in a big box and it can take about 1120kg of fuel. With this extra internal fuel tank, there is an extra range of about 260 nautical miles. These long-range fuel tanks are used regularly, and every time Esq751 needs to fly a Merlin to Porto Santo or to the Azores (Lajes) these tanks are used.
Asking about the fixed-wing aircraft for the SAR missions he continues. After a certain distance from our home base or shoreline, we always request SAR support from fixed-wing aircraft. This is the C295M from the 502 Squadron, and it is very handy in many ways. First, we have increased endurance, the C295M has more endurance and more speed than the Merlin, so they will reach the target sooner. The C295Ms will find the target, they will lock the target for us (the vessel or the person that must be recovered). They have also a very important job to relay communications for us because when we travel this distance, we lose communication with the ATC because we fly low because we haven’t that many capabilities in communications, and basically, we send them in front of us, they will find the vessel which sometimes is an issue. We need to find them first; we need to put them on the right track for us to operate so that in those missions everything is easier because they prepare everything and when we arrive, we can pick up the guy and leave. But yes, we use SAR support with fixed-wing aircraft.
In the future, the Portuguese Air Force KC-390s will be used in search missions, reducing the time of arrival to the operations area by half and, consequently, the location of the castaways. When employed, the fixed-wing aircraft is the last to leave the site, and in the event of an accident with the rescue aircraft, it is up to the aircraft to plot the position and keep flying in a circle until another rescue helicopter arrives. To save fuel and be able to carry out missions safely, in the case of the EH-101, up to 370 nautical miles from the refueling point, with 30 minutes “on station”, i.e., flying in the operations area, the crew switches off engine number 3 during the cruise flight, flying twin-engine and only restart the third when they arrive to carry out the rescue, turning it off again on the way back, saving precious fuel.
To be a pilot on the Merlin
FHA has also spoken with Major Daniel Silva, a 36-year-old Pilot who joined the Portuguese Air Force in 2003 and started to fly the Merlin in 2010. At the moment of the interview, he had about 2000 flight hours on the Merlin. So, when started at the Portuguese Air Force Academy, at that time it was a four years’ time study at the academy. Now it is three years plus one year on the T-6 Texan II. After four years you go to the basic flying training for 1-1,5 years, although Major Silva was lucky to do it in the United States to do the basic flying training for the fixed wing on the T-6A Texan II plus T-38. After basic flying training, you go back to Portugal to fly with the AW119 Koala, at the time it was the Alouette III, to make the conversion from fixed wing to helicopters. In the Portuguese Air Force, you start always with a fixed wing and then conversion to helicopters, as it is like many other air forces. Getting to the squadron has to do with three main things. The first point is your own choice. Second is what the air force needs at that time and finally are your skills and capabilities. From there you will go the fighter jets, transport aircraft or helicopters, and instruction. Later in the Esq552 at Beja Air Base, you will streamline again your paths, you will stay at the Esq552, or you will go to the Esq75 at Montijo AB.
To come to the 751 Squadron, you must accumulate a minimum of about 100 flight hours on a helicopter. About the training on the Merlin helicopters, this is done in-house with Esquadra 751.
They do all the academic stuff of the aircraft. So, you have a lot of questions about aircraft systems, aircraft manual procedures, and everything that they do, and when you finished that part you will have several evaluation tests during that phase and when you’re finished you start with the basic flying to qualify for the aircraft. First, you must qualify on the aircraft and later on the mission. First, you must fly the helicopter from A to B, but you are not qualified to fly SAR or tactical operations.
The continued training is divided into two diverse types of training. The first is daytime SAR and the second one is nighttime. Train for a daytime SAR mission consists of how we recover someone from a vessel, from the cliffs, and from the water. We have different setups, and different profiles to conduct the training in each of these three elements, three skills.
During nighttime training, the crews train the same approach, vessels, and someone that is under the water with different elements like NVGs.
The training of these scenarios is divided by the following, daytime is approximately 45 days and nighttime 80. This will keep the crews up to current. So, it’s like what was the last time you trained, this is put this into a window, if you performed this two or three times inside this timeline you are proficient. If you don’t do this, you are not current and you have to perform the training. And in the training, there are various levels of ability.
To get all the pilots on the same level of skills there are instructors and supervisors that instruct and supervise them. And from time to time there are standardization flights that you fly with other captains. They will do all the same things; we are all complying with the same procedures and the desired level. Obviously, Pilots are still humans, some perform now, and some perform later. And when someone is gaining the experience of making the run from co-pilot to captain, they are acknowledging their experience and their handling and skills will increase.
For SAR there is a core crew. There is the captain, co-pilot, system operator (winch operator), rescue swimmer, and Flight nurse. Those five people are the core of the rescue operation. But sometimes the crew can add extra people like a medical team when the medical situation needs. And an important thing at the squadron is that there is a rotation with crews. When you get to the Esq751 you need to learn that scale to be able to work as a crew and to perform the mission as a team, and that that takes time. It is not easy from the beginning, but you must develop, and it is nice when you start to learn and collaborate with the team. All of them have their own jobs perse and tasks and the crews can bring all the tasks together following the mission.
About the challenges for a pilot on a nighttime rescue mission, Major Silva continues that nighttime rescue is not easy at all. The need is to build on safety off-the-night mission capability if the Merlin is fully compatible. It was something from the legacy but from prior to the Puma. That is something that was a significant improvement to being able to fly with NVGs during a nighttime rescue mission. But that means that crews must train. NVGs are expensive equipment plus you need a lot of training to feel comfortable with them and fly safely, which sounds easier than it really is. Especially at night, it is hard to perform, to comply with the missions inside a safety bubble. Flying at night comes with a lot of rules, you
are flying low, you fly in harsh weather conditions most of the time, and a vessel under you that is moving around. It needs a lot of training, focus, and a lot of trust crews can manage SAR management. So, the need is always to work as a team to be able to perform these missions. Besides this, depending on the size of the vessel, some of them are visible, then you get your references, and you can perform. There were a lot of missions that it wasn’t the case, and the vessel was difficult to find because it was so tiny. In that case, it takes time, and this can feel like a year to bring Merlin to the right position. In those times the Pilot flying needs to trust the winch operator and rescue swimmer (he’s on the cable and has to trust the winch operator). So, trust is a keyword in SAR operations, and it needs to become a part of you as Esquadra 751 pilot. The connection with these three elements is that specific time when a crew is above a vessel the communication of the waves, the rescue swimmer asks for information of the winch operator. The winch operator will coordinate because they are the eyes above the vessel (our target). The connection between these three people at a specific moment is crucial.
Duty is usually about fourteen hours, and this is not the flying time. They will start the clock and start counting them when they received the call. Crews must do all the preparations and after landing they have some jobs to do. All this work has been done within fourteen hours. After you land, you must recover those fourteen hours again after you rest for twelve hours. In certain phases or in exceptional circumstances it can be reduced to eight hours.
” You remember more the ones you’ve lost than the ones you have saved.”
Asking about his most remarkable experience during his work as a pilot on the Merlin he goes further. When he was a young pilot here in the squadron, things really put him in perspective. He was a new young co-pilot on duty here in the squadron and was just qualified for SAR operations. When asked to take the crew duty for only 2 or 3 hours he complied. And when the mission came, it was a terrible day, wind gusting to 50kts and heavy showers. It was a lonely sailor who was 110nm offshore and the vessel was sinking rapidly and he was in the water near a rescue dinghy. So, when he took off in this really bad weather and when they arrived at the station it was an old guy(he was 78 years old) and he wasn’t able to pull up the entire boarding from the sea to the dinghy, so he was less all his body was under the wat. When we lower the rescue swimmer, he was looking into the FLIR and looked into the water and when the rescue swimmer grabbed the guy, the guy just stopped, it was he said like “I’m done”, and the poor guy died right there. When the rescue swimmer was hoisted back into the Helicopter, he told us that the guy said sorry to the rescue swimmer and died in the water. The body was recovered and while flying this person to Porto there were a lot of problems with one of the electrical generators, which could have been caused by a large amount of water. He recalls that day as a nightmare because it wasn’t his duty and then it took a lot of time to fly north and to recover the body from the helicopter because of the legal work. He didn’t finish the whole day and eventually slept in the North only to arrive back at the squadron the day after. He said: “Something that I’m telling you in this work is: You remember more the ones you’ve lost than the ones you have saved”.
Major Silva recalls having done hundreds of saving missions and there were some nice ones with crazy weather but that’s the one that put him in perspective from the beginning that really impacted him from that point.
Master Sergeant Teixeira gives us an insight into being a rescue swimmer. He’s rescue swimmer at Esq751 since 2010. There are two major steps that you will have to take when you want to become a rescue swimmer. First, there is a physical test to enter the course for the rescue swimmer, and when entered, this is another phase. There is most specifically training in the water, and on land you must run to keep your physical health at high levels but most in water. This can be in a nice warm swimming pool or an icy river. You have to pass about ten hours in the river to exercise what will be the real work for a rescue swimmer.
Teixeira started his career in January 2010 and became a rescue swimmer in June 2010. So, it takes about six months before you are a graduated rescue swimmer with separate phases. There are about six weeks of physical capacity with two weeks of fitness tests, and when this phase is passed you go to the theoretical phase in the classroom and then the phase of the helicopter.
When finishing the course as a rescue swimmer, you have the capability to do operational SAR missions. Like when you finish on the 1st of June, it can be that on the 2nd you can make an operational mission.
About how often he must train for a SAR mission he continues. Like the Pilots, the rescue has two types of qualifications, Day and night, which give the capability to do a 24-hour duty. The time between these qualifications is 45 days. In these 45 days, they must do a simulation of a rescue from a ship, from the cliffs, and from the water. The simulation is an exercise. After this qualification, they can spend another 45 days without this training, but normally the maximum of 45 days is never reached. Training can be performed every week or every month, but to be qualified for SAR missions you have these qualifications for 45 days with one SAR exercise between these 45 days. Night qualifications are like the ones for the pilots, 80 days, and during this qualification, there is an exercise on a ship during the night rescue from the water during the night.
The danger is always present for rescue swimmers and therefore, their own safety is the most important thing during a SAR mission. It takes vastly the second part when you have another person that you don’t know, and this person needs health care or is in danger. It is their mission to help and save this person in danger. So, part of the time they don’t look about their safety and get the job done. But a few hours after the mission they start thinking: “it is very dangerous what we are doing”, and when they have more time on their hands they can act and think in a safer way, but it is their mission to rescue the victim that they have to pick up from the vessel, water of cliffs.
Their mission is limited, to be a recuse swimmer is one thing and it is one mission. The rescue swimmer is rescue swimmer, which is a guy that goes out to the helicopter picked up the victim and brings them back to the helicopter. So, speaking to this, it is very basic, but if you think not in the Merlin but in the Koala, a small helicopter with only one
engine, you will have a different point of view on helicopters, and they can make you improve little things in our mission.
All the rescue swimmers on the squadron have a section and work on the ground at various positions Master Sergeant Teixeira is responsible for the rescue gear, rescue equipment, and flight equipment in the squadron. Other guys are responsible for the operations, other guys are responsible for uniformization, that is the core spot. Other guys do the secretary work when they are on the ground. When they don’t fly there is still a lot of work to be done. Not respectfully associated with a rescue swimmer mission but in this position, we can produce a lot of work.
There is no maximum age for a rescue swimmer, the only thing with the age is that you have asked yourself is if you are capable to do this work, but in the FAP there is no limitation. There are only mental and physical limitations. The Chief Master Sergeant of Esq751 is 60 years old and is still a rescue swimmer. So, every person, every rescue swimmer has these limitations and they have to think about if they still can do their job. If they think, I can’t do this anymore it is over, unfortunately.
The System operator
As a system operator, you basically have two jobs. On the ground, these persons are mechanics on the Merlin helicopter, and when they are flying, they are system operators. The tasks of the system operator are to manage the cabin during the flight, provide support to medical teams, and operate the winch or the fast rope for example. Besides this, they are managing the ramp for the troops during a tactical mission, and they must solve problems when there is a malfunction during the flight. Before the flight, they start with a checklist, after that they perform a 360° walkaround inspection of the helicopter to check if everything is ok. During the flight when the Helicopter enters the operation zone, the co-pilot communicates with the system operator if everything is ok in the cabin and then he can open the side door. And after that, they go ahead with the tasks of the mission that they have. It depends if the object is on a vessel, in the water, or at the cliffs.
The Flight Nurse
The task of a nurse is to provide medical care, life support, and trauma life support to the victims on board. The procedure for a nurse depends on the SAR mission and normally during a SAR mission it is the rescue swimmer that goes to the boat, into the sea, or onto the cliffs and rescues the victim and brings the person into the helicopter. When on board the Flight nurse starts to evaluate the victim, these are standard procedures. If the victim is in bad shape and the rescue swimmer requires help, then the nurse has to go down to stabilize the victim and as soon he is stable, they will bring the victim back to the helicopter and continue the life support of the victim.
The nurse always acts with medical protocols. For all specific situations, they have a protocol that the nurse must follow. And the nurse also has telephone support so they can tell where the nurse must go, and to which hospital they must go if there is something very difficult. The nurse on the helicopter is always supported by the people on the ground (Commander Air Centre). As nurse, they can’t do surgery onboard the helicopter. They can intubate the patient if needed, but the most important task for the nurse is to stabilize the patient and perform the first evaluation of the clinical/medical status.
We would like to thank Colonel dos Santos of the HQ and Colonel Diniz, Captain Curto, Captain Silva, and all other Esquadra 751 personnel who helped us make this visit and article possible.