21ST-25TH JULY 2014 - HOT BLADE 14 - OVAR AIR BASE
I had the honor of returning back to Portugal in July of this year to once again work with 751 Squadron, for those not aware of them and their fantastic work they are the Portuguese air forces search and rescue squadron, responsible for largest SAR area in Europe – covering an area of roughly 2.3 million square miles. No mean feat I’m sure you’ll agree.
This time however we wouldn’t be working at Montijo air base, but some 203kms away near Porto at an air base called Ovar for the Hot Blade 14 exercise. Hot Blade, now in its third year at Ovar and part of the helicopter-exercise program (HEP) put together by the Luxembourg based European Defence Agency (EDA) which was established in 2004 with the aim to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the security and defence policy. The exercise integrates multinational elements on tasks including air assault, special operations aviation, combat service support, urban and emergency close air support, reconnaissance and security, combat search and rescue, personnel recovery and medical evacuation. In addition to developing joint interoperability, Hot Blade aims to provide aircraft crews with realistic training in hot, high and dusty environments, similar to the conditions they’re likely to encounter on battlefields such as Afghanistan.
For the two-week exercise 751 Squadron, the Portuguese air forces search and rescue (SAR) squadron opted to relocate the squadron from Montijo to Ovar, including four of their EH101 Merlin’s. Deciding to use two for tactical operations with the two other airframes used for SAR missions, a unique way to test the mobility of the whole Squadron. With the Squadrons SAR ‘duty’ crews also being based at Ovar they were able to discuss information about tactical operations by being present for the duration. Given that 751 Squadrons daily work is open water search and rescue the exercise is a chance for crews to refresh and implement new skills should the need for an overseas deployment to a theatre of operations arise.
Monday morning started with a frantic rush to reach 751 Squadrons temporary outside the main hangar at Ovar, having been held up slightly at the gate whilst signing in meant I only made it onboard the EH101 Merlin with a few minutes to spare. ‘Tex’ informed me the mission was going to be on the range, we would first be keeping watch over the range whilst a Royal Netherlands Air Force CH-47D and Belgian Air Force A-109BA worked the range to begin with. We would then descend down with the door open and UPF soldiers harnessed in by the door as they practiced with a mixture of semi-automatic weapons.
It seemed like a fairly long flight to the range, we descended down in to a hover as the barrels were rolled out from the rear cargo door of the Merlin - these barrels would be the targets for the gunners. Having climbed back up to the required altitude the RNLAF CH-47D came on station, at this point I had moved to the open side door, which gave a fantastic view over the mission area. As we were flying counter clockwise rotations to the CH-47D it meant that tracking the helicopter was somewhat tricky, I’d also mistakenly opted to leave my 300mm behind at the base not realizing we would be playing over watch. Luckily they came in close underneath a few times which gave some pleasing frame filling images, the same could not be said for the A109BA though. A considerably smaller airframe than the Chinook meant that 200mm even on a cropped body sensor just wasn’t enough.
With the CH-47D and A109BA clearing the area it was our turn to descend down and begin live firing with the UPF soldiers inside, again using the side door as I did. Even with ear defenders on the noise from firing was still fairly loud, its easy to see how shooting in an enclosed space can be disorientating. We were on station for approximately 20 minutes, allowing the UPF soldiers to rotate. Having completed the mission we headed back to Ovar, this provided a Belgian Air Force pilot the chance to take control of the 751 Squadron EH101 – one of the many advantages of a multi national exercise.
Having landed back at Ovar and taxied off the main runway it was time for a hot refuel, the process of refueling the aircraft without shutting down the power. With the crew switching with SAR pilots, winch operator and a rescue swimmer and the cab being readied all in the space of 10 minutes shows just how flexible this aircraft is.
After grabbing some lunch we returned to the container, these were given to each squadron and were used for planning sorties, met/weather, SAR duty amongst other things. With the Hot Blade missions launching at 1300-1400 and 2000-2100 each day there were often long periods of nothing much happening at the base between missions - apart from familiarisation & training flights. The latter being utilised by the RAF Puma HC2 force, 230 Squadron. Hot Blade ’14 provided a unique challenge to the Puma force of 230 Squadron from RAF Benson in the United Kingdom, which spent a year without aircraft while its Puma HC1 models underwent the £260m upgrade to HC2/Puma 2. The upgrades couldn’t have been timed better for the Puma with the 40% increase in power, vastly improved communications equipment (including beyond line of sight), quicker start up time and an upgrade to the defensive aids suite all beneficial for the hot, high and dusty training the exercise seeks out. Squadron Leader Trevor Simpson explained that Hot Blade was a fantastic test for the Puma HC2: “The object of Hot Blade for us is to test the Puma 2 in a new environment, hot, high and dusty training all whilst working with other European nations and planning multi COMAOs [combined air operations].”
With the sun beginning to dip below the horizon we made our way along the active taxiway to the runway, the plan was to try and capture some low light images - much, much easier said than done! By the time the night launch had started there was little light left, having to shoot at ISO1600, F2.8 and between 1/10-1/25th, handheld as well, I find that using a tripod severely limits my panning ability so I often opt to shoot handheld.
Unfortunately the second half of Hot Blade was plagued by bad weather, especially at night meaning only assets with IFR capabilities could launch. Which meant during the week it was mainly 201& 751 Squadron launching, the Belgian A109BAs managed to launch on the Monday evening and the RNLAF CH-47Ds managed to launch on the Thursday night as well.
Tuesday started in much the same way, a later afternoon sortie meant a little bit of waiting around in the morning - allowing me time to take notes and get a fantastic insight in the planning of the missions. The mission was compromised of both rotary and fixed wing assets, consisting of 9 aircraft. As ‘Tex’ explained each aircraft would play a vital role in the success of this mission “We will depart Ovar base as a package/formation and routed to Sao Jacinto to pick up the quick reaction force (QRF), our role in the mission is to pick up the casualties, the QRF will board BundesHeer AB212s and RAF Puma 2. From there we plan on routing to Seia aerodrome which is being used as a forward operating base (FOB), once there we will wait for the A-109s and F-16s to clear the landing area so the three BundesHeer AB212s and single RAF Puma 2 can infill the quick reaction force before we depart Seia to pick up the casualties."
This mission was a fantastic experience to see how a multi CAMAO works, including seeing the 751 squadron crew working closely with the UPF soldiers on board who would be rescuing the casualties once we had put down at the landing area.
The mission itself comprised of a long flight to and from the landing area, a chance to grab some sleep for the UPF soldiers onboard, it also have me the opportunity to shoot some moody portrait images. Something I very rarely shoot and tend to steer clear of, however being able to shoot images unposed seems to give a different feel to the photos.
With the landing area cleared it was time to lift from Seia aerodrome and precede in to the mountains, although only a training mission the exercises ethos shines through - 'train how we fight'. We fly in low hugging the surrounding terrain, the three engines working hard in the heat and dense altitude, the cab lurches in to the glide slope down to the landing area bleeding off speed, as we come in to the hover dust engulfs us effectively forcing the pilots to land blind as they loose all visual references for the hover. The UPF soldiers stream out with the flight nurse following closely behind, we arrive to a scene of four casualties, they are tended to quickly by the flight nurse before being loaded on to the stretcher and rushed back to the EH101 one by one.
The fluidity of the whole process is amazing, we are back onboard in what seems like no more than four minutes, speed is essential here ensuring the casualties are flown back as quickly as possibly so they can receive the life saving treatment they would need if this was real and not an exercise. With everyone onboard with lift off and descend back down the mountain, again hugging the terrain as to avoid possible enemy fire, once out of danger the formation gains altitude and begins the long flight back to Ovar air base.
I felt like I was back in to the swing of things by the end of Tuesday, I'd flown on four sorties adding up to about 9 hours as a guesstimate, as ever the crew on 751 were welcoming and so obliging when asking all kinds of questions - especially considering the long days and high stress missions the crews were flying. Again, Tuesday ended as Monday did, watching the night missions launch from the grass next to the active taxiway and the runway the rotary elements were using. Giving me chance again to try and nail some more handheld slow shutter speed images.
Wednesday and Thursday I opted not to fly, I knew for the magazine article I would need images of the other nations air assets that were on the exercise and after finding out that as I was a civilian I wouldn't be cleared to fly with any other nations I knew I would have to be firmly on terra firma for the next two days to grab some images around the base, during the launches and recoveries. The light was tricky at Ovar, to say the least - really hazy and milky over the two days. Due to the positioning of the taxiways it meant a lot of the time I was having to shoot slightly in to the sun, not exactly ideal but you have to work with what you've got. Whilst not quite as adrenaline pumping as flying it was still fantastic watching the afternoon mass launches, with F-16s, UH-1Ds, 212s, EH101s, A109BAs and a lone P-3C all departing on the Wednesday, allowing me to get all the other images I really needed - apart from some low light images I had thought of. There were a few shots I really wanted to nail from my trip, sadly my air to air sortie fell through due to unservicability which only left the night images. As a main part of the exercise is based around night missions I wanted to try and convey this in some of the images, my first image being an in cockpit shot of the EH101, looking in with all the MFDs on and the NVG friendly lights shining down. A difficult shot to get, not only because of the difference in light with the outside (basically being pitch black) but the tiny vibrations going through the cab meant I had jam the tripod in to the gap the crew use when crewing in to the cockpit and then try to soak up any vibrations with my arms.
The next image was taken shortly before the NVG cockpit image, as one of the EH101 Merlins had been left outside to the rear of the temporary outside housing the squadron were using I knew if the ground crew positioned the cab that was returning from the night mission I could get a dramatic shot of both helicopter, the lead with rotors still running and the NVG lights on in the cockpit, all thanks to both pilots for allowing me extra time to shoot the images before shutting down the aircraft. Gouveia positioned one of the spotlights up to illuminate part of the rotors as they were turning, all subtle differences but all add up to a fairly dramatic image - and one of the best photos I think I've ever taken.
Four long days had finally taken their toll on me, up at 0700 most days and not getting back to the hotel until at least 0100 some nights had made me long for a long lie in, which almost made me glad that Friday would only be an afternoon launch. The mission was a combat evasion sortie, seeing 751 in their EH101 pitted against 201 squadron 'Falcoes' in their F-16AM - a hardly fair game of cat and mouse. Speaking to 'tex' as we were walking to the aircraft, he informed me that the mission will be incredibly bumpy and violent with the manoeuvres being flown as they attempt to shake the F-16 and evade missiles, so I wisely grab a couple of sick bags from Gouevia before getting in. We depart Ovar and head in to the thick cloud, a surreal experience, even more so when you pop out of the cloud and you're greeted by blue skies. Surfing the clouds to our mission area they begin to thin out and the visibility improves. Utilising Seia aerodrome again we land and refuel before flying the last bit of the journey to the mission area, slightly nervous at the prospect of having to use the sick bag I wasn't really too sure what to expect. I've flown aerobatics before but nothing comes close to what I experienced during the three separate evasions, violent banking and descending/ascending in quick fashion all the while trying to shake the F-16 and evade the simulated weapons being fired, synthetic training at its finest. I spent the last evasion with my eyes closed trying not to use my sick bag, luckily for me one of the F-16s had a problem when refuelling meaning that our sortie was cut short and we had to return to base, meaning my sick bag had remained unused - which I was quite proud of!
Having landed back at Ovar, I jumped out the aircraft with a crewman so I could get some images of the aircraft going through the 'bird bath' basically a series of high pressure hoses/pipes in the ground that spray water up removing dust and salt from the exterior. And that was that, my last mission flown and what a way to end my Hot Blade experience. 751 squadron could not have been better hosts, nothing was too much and were incredibly flexible allowing me to get the best photos I could, I imagine it was a little bit of an inconvenience having me there running about trying to get the 'shot'. I must say a big thank you to Gouveia, Tex and Violante who I believe put a lot of work in to getting me out there for the week, in hindsight I should've gone out for the whole exercise. I can't begin to explain how awesome the whole week was, sitting on the ramp harnessed in as we flew down Ovar runway at 30 feet and going in to a sort of wingover was something not many get to experience and I feel truly honoured I'm lucky enough to have built up a good relationship with 751 squadron.
This is by no means a perfect run down of the exercise, if you would like all the technical info and complete and journalistic run down please see my article here: http://www.verticalmag.com/news/article/HotBlades