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Hot Blade 2014

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.

751 Squadron AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin conducting a brownout landing during ground contact training.

751 Squadron AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin conducting a brownout landing during ground contact training.

751 Squadron also flew SAR training missions during the exercise, to keep the crews on duty current. 

751 Squadron also flew SAR training missions during the exercise, to keep the crews on duty current. 

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.

The Monday morning started with a range mission, with UPF soldiers onboard for live firing.

The Monday morning started with a range mission, with UPF soldiers onboard for live firing.

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.

RNLAF CH-47D over the ocean during a mission on the range.

RNLAF CH-47D over the ocean during a mission on the range.

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.

751 Squadron EH101 Merlin hot refuel after a mission on the range. 

751 Squadron EH101 Merlin hot refuel after a mission on the range. 

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].” 

Two 230 Squadron RAF Puma HC2s and a RNLAF CH-47D Chinook recovering back at Ovar. 

Two 230 Squadron RAF Puma HC2s and a RNLAF CH-47D Chinook recovering back at Ovar. 

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. 

PoAF 201 Squadron 'Falcoes' F-16AM blazes down the runway at Ovar in full burner. Shot at 1/10th handheld.

PoAF 201 Squadron 'Falcoes' F-16AM blazes down the runway at Ovar in full burner. Shot at 1/10th handheld.

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. 

UPF soldier gripping a spare magazine between his hands, just before we land at the landing area.

UPF soldier gripping a spare magazine between his hands, just before we land at the landing area.

751 Squadron AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin landing high up in the mountains as dust rises up, something known as a brownout. 

751 Squadron AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin landing high up in the mountains as dust rises up, something known as a brownout. 

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. 

A UPF soldier recalls everyone as the last casualty is loaded in to the helicopter. 

A UPF soldier recalls everyone as the last casualty is loaded in to the helicopter. 

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. 

Deep in conversation after boarding the 751 Squadron EH101 Merlin. 

Deep in conversation after boarding the 751 Squadron EH101 Merlin. 

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.  

RNLAF CH-47D with rotors still running after having returned from a night mission. 

RNLAF CH-47D with rotors still running after having returned from a night mission. 

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. 

751 Squadron AgustaWestland EH101 cockpit with the NVG friendly lights on. 

751 Squadron AgustaWestland EH101 cockpit with the NVG friendly lights on. 

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. 

Two 751 Squadron EH101 Merlins sit on the tarmac outside of the main hangar at Ovar, the lead cab having just returned from a night mission. 

Two 751 Squadron EH101 Merlins sit on the tarmac outside of the main hangar at Ovar, the lead cab having just returned from a night mission. 

Video grab showing the extreme angle of bank being used to evade the F-16AM.

Video grab showing the extreme angle of bank being used to evade the F-16AM.

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! 

751 Squadron EH101 Merlin in the bird bath after an evasion sortie against a 201 Squadron F-16AM.

751 Squadron EH101 Merlin in the bird bath after an evasion sortie against a 201 Squadron F-16AM.

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

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Portugal Day 2 - Lift Off

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Day 2 started with a little trepidation after Mondays flights had been scrubbed. The plan for the day was to join Gouveia on a sort of currency flight, which meant circuits of the airfield (Montijo) simulated engine failures (auto rotations) and also some ground contact training on part of the unused runway at the base and hopefully for a second flight later in the day which would be an evening/night SAR training sortie off the coast. Gouveia left for the briefing whilst I checked over all my photographic gear before leaving for the sortie. I would be shooting with a Nikon D300s, Nikkor 10.5mm fisheye, Nikkor 24-70mm F2.8 & a Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8, I also had my 300mm F4 but as I would be working in close proximity to the helicopter during ground contact drills I didn’t foresee this getting much use.  

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Camera gear checked over and briefing finished we walked out to the cab we would be flying in, the AgustaWestland AW101/EH-101 Merlin, an airframe which allows the squadron to fly long range over the water SAR missions from Montijo their main base and also Porto Santo and the Azores where the Squadron has detachments.


Walk around of the cab completed this meant Gouveia could begin the start-up procedure whilst the instructor and winch operator made their way from the Squadrons hangar to the helicopter. 

Tha vast array of buttons & switches, MFD’s (Muli function displays) FLIR & controls and the flight controls (cyclic, collective and tail rotor pedals) of the AW101/EH-101 are all visible as Gouveia begins the pre flight checklist.

Tha vast array of buttons & switches, MFD’s (Muli function displays) FLIR & controls and the flight controls (cyclic, collective and tail rotor pedals) of the AW101/EH-101 are all visible as Gouveia begins the pre flight checklist.

Pre flight checklist complete and power running to all three engines we taxied out to the ‘heli pad’ for take-off, a surprisingly smooth experience compared to my flight earlier in the year with 771 Squadron in their Sea King Mk5. Its well worth mentioning the size different in the back of the cabs, the AW101/EH-101 has a lot more room for the flight nurses, winch operators and rescue swimmers to work than the Sea King Mk5, in the latter you would struggle to stand up so would be moving shuffling around on knees primarily where as in the AW101-EH-101 there was more than enough room with 5 POB to move around the cab standing up.  From a photography point of view this was also very helpful, it gave me more freedom to move around without hindering the other crew members in the back, especially the following day when all of us would be strapped in by harnesses with the doors open. 

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Ascending to 1000ft to begin our circuits of Montijo I got to have a view of the surrounding area including Lisboa and the river, a beautiful city and seeing it from above only added to that thought. For the shots of the bridge and city I used the 70-200mm 2.8 to give enough reach whilst shooting through one of the bubble windows. 
 

Whilst performing circuits of the base I was able to go up to the cockpit to shoot some images with the Nikkor 10.5mm fisheye lens, sadly I hadn’t managed to get my hands on a flashgun before I had left the UK, which in turn shooting cockpit images a little different. This is due to the difference in light levels inside the cockpit which is darker than the outside essentially, to overcome this I was bracketing my exposure with the plan to try and layer mask the exposure for outside in Photoshop, sadly due to constant movement this wasn’t really a good option. Thankfully I found a happy medium between not blowing the highlights too much and not underexposing in the shadows as well, some digital manipulation in Photoshop helped as well. 

Montijo air base also known as Base Aérea Nº 6 is just visible at the top right hand of the image.

Montijo air base also known as Base Aérea Nº 6 is just visible at the top right hand of the image.

After completing circuits it was time for ground contact training, we landed on in the area, which the Squadron and the Navy unit at Montijo use, an unused section of runway, which gives enough separation from the main active runways. 
Exiting the helicopter from the rear cargo door and ducking down to stay out of the rotor wash I scurried over to the edge of the old runway and got the camera out in preparation for them to lift off again. 

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Switching the 70-200 for the 24-70 on the camera body, made sure everything was secure so that my equipment wouldn’t be seen tumbling off in the distance as they lifted back off. 
Nothing could quite prepare me for just how fierce the rotorwash/downdraft is from the AW101-EH-101, Gouveia had warned me that it would be pretty bad but I thought after working in close proximity to Chinooks and Sea Kings before that it would just be fairly similar. Well it wasn’t, it also made getting sharp images fairly difficult whilst they were in close proximity to me, I managed to fire of a few sharp frames before taking a knee and waiting for them to slowly edge back down the runway so I could change lenses again, back to the 70-200mm. 

Esquadra 751 AgustaWestland EH-101 Merlin in the hover during ground contact drills at Montijo.

Esquadra 751 AgustaWestland EH-101 Merlin in the hover during ground contact drills at Montijo.

Ground contact drills completed and finally some shots in the bag we headed back over to the Squadrons heli pad to be dropped off once again so the crew could head back quickly to complete some auto rotations, as primarily this was a currency sortie for Gouveia who had been away for a month or so. 

Heat haze from the EH-101 engines blur the vista of Lisboa. 

Heat haze from the EH-101 engines blur the vista of Lisboa. 

Returning back to the Squadrons building we grabbed some food and prepared for the next sortie, an evening SART (search and rescue training) sortie, unfortunately due to the previous days no flying it meant that more winch operators & rescue swimmers needed to be aboard to keep current with their training which ultimately meant I could fly on this sortie sadly. However I would be able to get a shot I wanted from the very start, a night shot of the helicopter lit up with a wet apron. 

I walked out with Rodolfo & Gouveia to see of the sortie and grab some ground shots as they prepared for take-off, seeing off the sortie essentially. I had the 24-70mm lens for this and was aiming to get a nice amount of rotor blur during the engine run-ups and pre flight checks. 

Pre flight checks complete they prepare to taxi out as the sun begins to set.

Pre flight checks complete they prepare to taxi out as the sun begins to set.

After seeing off the sortie we returned to the warmth of the Squadrons building, as it was December the temperatures were still fairly chilly! Gouveia would call up when they were 10 minutes out, giving me enough warning to ready my gear and walk out to photograph their return.

Water is sprayed over the EH-101 as the rotors are run up to remove excess water. You can see the winchman at the rear of the helicopter.

Water is sprayed over the EH-101 as the rotors are run up to remove excess water. You can see the winchman at the rear of the helicopter.

Waiting near the heli pad I could spot the flashing strobe lights of the AW101/EH-101 in the distance, nearing the pad in the distance the big searchlight came on illuminating the the tarmac and making it impossible to shoot as they approached and landed head on. Slightly worried I wouldn’t be getting my night shot that I had wanted I repositioned myself in the hope that the searchlight would be turned off and they would keep the rotors running when they stopped. They made their way towards the wash area where the helicopters are thoroughly washed down after every sortie to remove seawater and dirt, the member of ground crew immediately started to hose down the helicopter, the crew quickly ran up the rotors to remove the excess water for no more than 30 seconds but thankfully that’s all I needed and I nailed the two shots I wanted. I couldn’t have got better if I’d tried, sometimes its not all about planning but luck and this was one of those moments. 

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That was it for my 2nd day, a long day but I had got my first flight with the Squadron under my belt and had managed to capture some really good images.

 

Pictures & words by Lloyd Horgan.

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