We have had the opportunity to pay a visit to Montijo Air Base and meet the 751 Squadron “Pumas” (Cougars) of Força Aérea Portuguesa (Portuguese Air Force PRTAF), here our reportage.
751 Squadron “Pumas” (Cougars) was born on April 28, 1978 and it is a helicopter squadron of the Portuguese Air Force. Squadron 751 ‘Pumas’ was named after the helicopter it received when the squadron was commissioned, the Aérospatiale SA-330 PUMA that was in service until 2005, when it was replaced by Agusta-Westland EH-101 “Merlin”. The first EH101 Merlin was delivered in December 2004.The selection of the EH101 for the Portuguese Air Force came at the end of a thorough and extensive evaluation and as a result of flight evaluation of the EH101 against the Sikorsky S-92 and the Eurocopter Cougar Mk2+.
751 Squadron has 12 EH-101 and all are being used for their primary mission, Search and Rescue. Some of the EH-101 are equipped for a secondary role. EH-101 fleet is composed by: 6x EH101 for Search and Rescue (SAR), 4x EH101 for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), 2x EH101 for fishery patrol (SIFICAP)
The SAR crew in the Portuguese EH-101 Merlin comprises:
- Pilot in command: The aircraft commander, executes and plans all flight related actions
- Co-pilot: Assists the pilot during the mission, can replace the pilot when needed
- System/Wincher operator: Executes winching operations, search and rescue observer, Responsible for the coordination of all the aspects regarding the cabin
- Rescue Swimmer: Recovers the victim from water or land using the helicopter’s winch
- Flight Nurse: provides the needed health care to victims
Their motto is “Para que outros vivam”, ‘So others may live’. Nothing better than their motto can represents their main mission, that is SAR search and rescue missions and MEDEVAC medical evacuation operating 24/7 with 1 crew always ready in Montijo (Lisbon), 1 crew in Porto Santo (Madeira) and 2 crews in Lajes (Azores) also with the support of aircraft for MEDEVAC missions.
They are also trained to perform also this kind of missions:
- Recognition and support
- Maritime surveillance
- General and tactical transport
- Mobility and assault
- Combat extraction under Combat Search and Rescue environment
With more than 5 million square kilometres, the Portuguese Search and Rescue Region (SRR) is the largest SAR Region of the entire European continent. SAR operation are coordinated by:
- 2 Rescue Coordination Centers (RCC) in Lisbon and Lajes
- 2 Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCC) in Lisbon and Ponta Delgada (Azores archipelago)
- 1 Maritime Rescue Sub Center (MRSC) in Funchal (Madeira archipelago)
To cover such a large area, a helicopter like the Merlin is of paramount importance. Just think that the Merlin can perform rescue missions at a distance of 400 nautical miles from the take-off, double that of the Puma, and has 8 hours and 30 minutes of max flying time.
But, how a rescue mission is coordinated? As the Captain Rodolfo C. told us during our visit to Montijo Air Base, once the coordination centre receives the call and the intervention area is identified, the response time is 30 minutes during the day or 45 minutes at night. In case of double intervention, it takes about 1 hour to reconfigure the aircraft. Captain Rodolfo C. reports that the farthest mission conducted by 751 Squadron was at a distance of 370 nm from take-off point, with 20 minutes ON STATION, it means that they hovered 20 minutes over the target.
Among the equipment, the EH-101 has additional long-range tanks, emergency floats, 2 lifeboats with a capacity of 20 people, a main and a secondary winch, FLIR, GALILEO radar capable of identifying and monitoring 32 simultaneous surface targets, NVG vision system for night flights. The CSAR version is equipped with Defensive Aids Suite (DAS), which is an integrated electronic self defence system. It is capable of hover-in-flight refuelling (HIRF) and air-to-air refuelling (AAR).
About the maintenance: the first level and part of the second level of maintenance is made by the Cougar’s maintenance group onsite. The remaining part of the second level and all the third level of maintenance is made by OGMA, a Portuguese aerospace company providing maintenance services and manufacture of aerostructures. The maintenance team performs 3-day inspection every 50 flight hours of the EH-101, then a 5-day inspection every 150 flight hours ad a heavy maintenance lasting 2 months every 6 months of service.
SAR pilots of the Portuguese Air Force train in two main areas based on the type of training required, namely DAY PROFILE & NIGHT PROFILE. There is an additional extra profile, LOCAL TRAINING FLIGHT, which consists of instrumental approach, management and emergencies. Each pilot flies approximately 150 hours per year, the squadron logs about 2000 flight hours per year
The pilots that arrives at the 751 Squadron begin qualifying as co-pilot on the EH 101 Merlin which is spread over 30 flight hours covering take-off, landing and basic management of the Merlin. For the SAR qualification another 30 hours of training are required, while for the INTERMEDIATE and TACTICAL qualification it takes 1000 hours of flight. Each pilot flies a rough average of between 150 and 180 hours per year. Crews travel to RAF Benson base annually to use the Merlin simulator and train for emergency management. They also train annually for HUET HELICOPTER UNDERWATER ESCAPE TRAINING
Since 1978, 751 Squadron has carried out over 64.000 flight hours and has saved more than 4300 lives. It was an amazing experience meet these guys in their home base. We would like to thank the Portuguese Air Force and all the personnel of 751 Squadron. A special Thank to Rodolfo, Joao, Jorge, David.
Images by: Andrea Bellandi