features Flying with the Atlantic Merlins

We go behind the scenes with the Portuguese Air Force's Esquadra 751, which has search-and-rescue responsibility for an enormous segment of the Atlantic Ocean.
Avatar for Davide Daverio By Davide Daverio | January 12, 2023

Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 47 seconds.

Over two million square miles, or five and a half million square kilometers — that is the size of the search-and-rescue area of responsibility (AOR) that Portugal covers from its coastline out into the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese Air Force’s Esquadra (Squadron) 751 “Pumas” operate the Leonardo EH-101 Merlin helicopter on alert over this enormous area.

751 Squadron transitioned to the Merlin from the SA-330 Puma in 2005. Davide Daverio Photo

The squadron’s motto is “para que outros vivam” (so others may live), and on a board outside the Pumas’ headquarters at its home base — Air Base 6 (BA6) Montijo, not far from Lisbon — are the words: “4,911 saved lives.”

The history of 751 Squadron dates back to 1978, when it was created primarily for the search-and-rescue (SAR) role and equipped with the Aérospatiale SA-330 Puma. After about 30 years of service, the fleet was gradually retired and the unit began receiving the new EH-101. The first helicopter was delivered in 2005 and the fleet was declared operational almost a year later.

Colonel José Diniz, current BA6 Commander, has fond memories of the time. “I was one of the first pilots to attend the transition course to the Merlin in England,” he said. “After the transition was ended, we started the operational activities of the 751 Squadron with the Merlin: [in] Montijo in February, Porto Santo [Madeira archipelago] one month later, and Lajes [Azores islands] in November.”

Diniz has amassed more than 4,300 flight hours during his career and highlighted how the change to the new helicopter helped the Air Force deliver a better SAR service.

The Merlin has increased 751 Squadron’s range to up to 400 nm, if they carry extra fuel. Davide Daverio Photo

“Of course, the Puma was of a previous generation… [so] when the Merlin arrived in Montijo, it was the first Air Force helicopter with a glass cockpit, an enhanced navigation system, sensors of any kind, [and] NVGs [night vision goggles],” he explained. “Thanks to the autopilot, we became able to perform a full spectrum of missions at sea during the night. Thanks to its size, we doubled both the payload [from 18 to 35 people] and the mission range [from 200 nautical miles/370 kilometers to almost 400 nm/740 km].”

Probably the most significant improvement was the autopilot. Portuguese Merlins are equipped with an automatic flight control system (AFCS), able to maintain speed and altitude and autonomously descend to a hovering point set by pilots. The AFCS allows them to hover at sea without any visual reference.

“The autopilot is very good and reliable,” said Cpt Rodolfo Curto, an experienced pilot with the squadron. “The only maneuver that it is not able to perform is the rescue from a boat, because the pilot must have a visual reference of the boat in order to have the control all the time.”

The AFCS helps the pilot to focus solely on the mission. Cpt António Gouveia, another expert pilot, said that “most of the time you don’t have to take care about the wind or the weight you are bringing.”

The airfcraft’s AFCS allows it to hover at sea without any visual reference. Davide Daverio Photo

Another major improvement is the mission range. The Merlin can fly up to almost 300 nm (555 km) with standard tanks and up to 400 nm (740 km) with an extra fuel tank carried inside the cargo bay. The result can be an up to eight-hour mission. The added range “is enough to cover our area of responsibility,” said Gouveia. “The longest mission we have flown was around 363 nm [670 km] from the land.”

Other enhancements include an NVG-compatible glass cockpit with six large multifunctional integrated display unit IDU-660s and two integrated standby instrument systems, a Star SAFIRE II Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera, and a 360-degree belly-mounted scan radar. It also has a 60,000 lumens Spectrolab SX-16 NightSun IFCO (in flight change over) searchlight, three Rolls-Royce/Turbomeca RTM322 engines delivering more than 2,100 horsepower each, a five-bladed main rotor, a hydraulic rear ramp, a 600-lb. (272-kg) lateral hoist, a cargo hook under the fuselage, and a navigation system that includes a VOR/ILS, a TACAN and a GPS/inertial platform.

Even with all that capability, “a lot of people in the Air Force think about a mid-life upgrade for the helicopter,” Diniz acknowledged.

The new Merlin Block 600 family delivered to the Italian and Norwegian air forces — the first for Special Forces operations and Combat SAR and the second for SAR — are a leap forward and an example to be followed. “They are both up-to-date versions containing all the stuff necessary for today’s and tomorrow’s missions. . . . I think that a combination of both [would] be great,” Gouveia said.

Mission Experience

751 Squadron’s primary mission is search-and-rescue service over the Atlantic, and the Merlin’s sensors are specific for the task. The autopilot, for example, works better over sea than over other surfaces. “Flying over land or over mountains is totally different from flying over water,” observed Curto. “Here we don’t have any reference point, we have to rely on instrumentation.”

On the islands of Terceira and Porto Santo, the unit has an Airbus C-295 assigned primarily for medical evacuation. But when there are limitations due to bad weather or during the night, the EH-101 replaces the fixed-wing aircraft to fulfil the mission. In such cases, 751 Squadron pilots usually set up the autopilot to follow a route over water to a reference point from which they can access land. If land is not visible from that point, they try a different approach. This kind of navigation is derived from the SA-330 era; the type did not have the avionics that the Merlin has, so pilots had to rely on their experience and visual reference points.

The accumulated experience of the squadron has translated into a high mission success rate, which has earned the crews enormous appreciation from the inhabitants of the islands.

One of the challenges in the Azores is fast winds and high waves, which make the mission more difficult than over the mainland. Winds often reach between 60 and 70 knots (110 and 130 km/h) and will affect helicopter performance and range, while waves can exceed 30 feet (10 meters). When pilots are planning a rescue mission, they must factor in all these variables.

The squadron has resumed training for the combat SAR role over the last couple of years. Davide Daverio Photo

“It is easy to understand how careful we need to be when planning and flying these missions,” said Gouveia. “You can imagine how hard it is to hover the helicopter over a ship with these waves.”

In the last couple of years, squadron crews have resumed training for combat SAR (CSAR) missions, a task from the SA-330 era. With the arrival of the Merlin, the squadron initially had to make a choice between focusing solely on SAR service or allocating some training to CSAR. Obviously, the mission to support the local population won out. Now, CSAR will be integrated into standard training and will include participation in exercises such as the national “Real Thaw” or the European Defence Agency (EDA) supported “Hot Blade” to be able to deploy in support of international missions. Some pilots have also attended the Helicopter Tactics Instructor Course in Hungary, supported by the EDA.

People Power

As important as the Merlins are, what makes the SAR and CSAR missions possible are the people behind the helicopters. The squadron has 12 crews: almost 30 pilots/co-pilots, 16 rescue swimmers, 12 hoist/system operators and 10 nurses. SAR response remains on standby from three bases, 24 hours a day, so shifts can be strenuous.

Over the Atlantic, the squadron faces some of the toughest conditions on earth, from towering waves to brutal winds. Davide Daverio Photo

“It is not an easy job, because a SAR helicopter is on duty 24/7,” said Sgt Luís Ferreira, an experienced hoist/system operator.

“I remind every candidate that is attending the rescue swimmer course that they need to be always at the top of their fitness and mental levels, because they don’t know what they are going to face during the next mission, and they must have their mind cleared from any problem and focused on the rescue,” stressed Sgt Paulo Santos, a qualified rescue swimmer and instructor.

The voluntary rescue swimmer course is open to sergeants. They access it after a series of physical tests. Candidates must deal with the stress of the job and the weight of difficult situations they will face. Instructors estimate the willingness of each candidate to help people before qualifying candidates as rescue swimmers.

The Merlin pilot’s journey is equally challenging. It starts when a co-pilot reaches the squadron. Each must fly at least 700 hours before having the possibility to become a flight captain. When they reach the milestone of 500 flight hours, they begin to fly in the right seat of the helicopter, where they have the ability to control winching over a vessel. Each lieutenant in the right seat is assessed by every flight captain that flies with him or her on competence and safety standards.

“The training does not simulate [all] the tension of a mission when you have to make decisions in a matter of seconds,” noted Curto. Much of that experience is obtained in the field, over several years depending on the number and nature of the sorties that are flown.

“There is a huge responsibility to be the squadron commander of the 751,” concluded Maj. Ayaz Lakhani, 751 Squadron Commander. “This is a complicated squadron because it is formed by a lot of people with different jobs and they need special attention…. It is not easy, because the problems that we were facing in the past are not the problems we are challenging today — they have changed in the years. But this is part of the job, and it is very rewarding when I can be of any help to the [people who] are working with me, so we can comply with our tasks ‘so others may live.’ ”

Davide Daverio is an Italian-based freelance photojournalist and writer covering rotary- and fixed-wing aviation. He has flown on various helicopter and aircraft types, mainly with European forces, and has covered some operational missions.

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