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Search And Rescue

Just Hangin' Out

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Just Hangin' Out

The life of a photographer, it does have its perks, early mornings mainly, lots of them.

After a super early morning drive down to Luton airport to catch my flight to Copenhagen, 1H50 in the air, a quick McDonalds in Copenhagen airport, then the four hour train journey from Copenhagen to Ronneby in Sweden and finally a brisk 20 minute walk (complete with camera bag and North Face carry all!) down to the Brunnspark to find my B&B.
What a beautiful area, friendly people and the pizza from the local restaurant was excellent – after some strained translations at least!

The reflection of Gustaf's visor showing the Swedish countryside and Magnus. 

Prior to my journey I had been in contact with the pilots who would be on duty for the duration of my visit, Gustaf and Magnus and had briefly outlined the kind of images that I was after to accompany the article on the Swedish Maritime Administration (Sjofartsverket) for Vertical911.

My welcome to their ‘home’ (whilst on duty) could not have been warmer along with copious amounts of coffee, which is always welcomed!
The morning sortie was a regular search and rescue training (SART) sortie, the plan was to fly out to the Baltic ocean and work with one of the large shipping vessels out there. As before any flight, I had a thorough safety briefing from rescue swimmer Michael Swärdh and winch operator/engineer Tomas as well as an immersion suit and flying helmet.

Before we crewed in I had already discussed a few shots that I thought would work really well, mainly focussing on winching, some exterior shots using a boat as a platform and then a posed shot of both Michael and Tomas with Gustaf and Magnus hovering the AW139 in the background, something I had tried to do way back in 2013 on my first SAR flight but it didn’t really work.

So crewed in, plugged in to the comms system and camera bag secured, Gustaf and Magnus performed a hover check before lifting off and departing Kallinge, I always love that initial feeling you get when the wheels leave the floor – it’s something that is entirely different to the kick in the back you get when taking off in a jet.

Gustaf and Michael before crewing into the AW139.

After a slow track out to the Baltic ocean the crew get to work finding a suitable vessel that they can work with as well as gaining the permission of the captain, the decision is made that the “Star of Abu Dhabi” a bulk carrier vessel, looks to be the most suitable option.

Now kicks in that fluidity of motion as each member of the crew goes through the required checklist before Tomas can winch down Michael to the vessel, at this point the crew are communicating in Swedish but Magnus is keeping me updated. With the safety checks completed, aircraft trimmed and speed matched to the vessel, Michael sits in the open door as Tomas secures his harness to the winch and unclips his ‘gunners’ belt that secures Michael into the aircraft when the doors are open. Tomas hoists Michael out of the door and then begins to lower him down to the vessel below. I’m strapped into the seat next to the open door peering over and watching Michael slowly descend towards the vessel, using hand gestures to signal back to Tomas as he controls his descent.

It’s my turn next, I hadn’t been winched since 2013 and this probably sounds quite strange as I enjoy flying so much but I really hate heights, so I was a little apprehensive. Actually though, I forgot how much I loved it, being suspended there under the AW139 and holding the guide rope as I’m slowly lowered down is incredibly relaxing, too much so as my ‘landing’ was more of a gracious fall. As Michael had brought down my camera bag I secure that making sure the downwash from the helicopter doesn’t pick it up and throw in into the ocean. The vessel provided the right height for ground-to-air images, so I got to work shoot a few different images, whilst asking the crew to reposition after taking some posed images of Michael with the helicopter in the background I noticed a rainbow in the spray, created from the downwash of the helicopter and position of the sun – a quick request to hold for 30 secs and the shots were in the bag.

Tomas brings the cable back up to the AW139. 

Members of crew from the vessel seemingly appeared out of thin air to shake our hands and say hello, we were taken up to the bridge of the ship to a sea (punny) of iPhones and iPads recording the guys in the helicopter as they repositioned to the rear of the ship so I could use the elevation of the bridge to shoot some images looking down on them. When shooting images like this I begin shooting at 1/160th sec whilst keeping the ISO as low as possible, usually between 100-200 to try and keep the F number stopped down to something like F/10-F/13. Then I begin to get a little more creative trying to capture as much rotor blur as possible and movement in the background, easier said than done though sometimes.

We had been on the ship for a little over 15 minutes before the winch was lowered back down and Michael secured my harness to the clip, up and away but this time with my D7100 and Samyang fisheye, all secured so if I started spinning from the downwash I could try to recover/steady myself. I wanted to get an image of Tomas reaching out to grab me with the exterior of the AW139, using the fisheye and it’s wide PoV to get as much into the scene as possible.

Secured, doors closed and camera bag strapped down we made our way back to base after a relatively successful sortie, one that provided valuable training to all of the crew whilst allowing them to position the helicopter safely for photos throughout.

Michael gets to work finding a suitable vessel to work with on the first day.

Debrief completed, coffee brewing and lunch cooking (I said how great they were at hosting me right?) we sat down around the table to discuss another phot brief for the second sortie, they had been requested to work with a Swedish navy submarine and its crew so they could practice various methods of getting a ‘casualty’ out successfully and safely. As this was a sortie that would see us in the air for the entirety and with no opportunity to get any ground-to-air images I focussed on images of the winching and a posed shot of both Tomas and Michael with the AW139 in the background once we had returned to Kallinge, with the plan of flying out to an old lighthouse the following day, using the height of it to shoot some aerial images.

Fed and watered it was time to get back into my immersion suit and walk for the sortie with the submarine, having never seen on before having the opportunity to photograph one from the air on a SAR exercise was an exciting prospect. It makes for a peculiar sight from the air as well, this low profile black shadow slowly stalking in the water or at least it would be if it wasn’t for the ten or so people in bright immersion suits on top of the aircraft.

The sortie gave me the opportunity to shoot some un-posed portraits Tomas and some wide angle fish eye images of Tomas winching down Michael to the submarine below, but for the most part it was great to sit back and watch for once and see for myself just how slick everything is when it goes to plan. We were out there working with the submarine for around 90 minutes before we had to head back to Kallinge, the weather had become overcast since we had lifted so I wasn’t sure how well the posed shots of Michael and Tomas would work. Fortunately it diffused the light and made for a more natural looking image, Gustaf and Magnus positioned the helicopter so it was flanking Michael and Tomas and I made sure to get as low as possible to emphasise their height and ‘power’.

Tomas brings Michael back up to the aircraft just before we RTB.

Day 1 done, nearly, what’s the best way to end a day after a lot of flying? Yup you guessed it, a BBQ with some amazing burgers!

With the majority of images that I had planned already bagged on day 1 it just left some ground-to-air images that I wanted to capture, mainly of the whole crew at ‘work’ and some really in your face images as the AW139, especially in the red and white scheme looks so fantastic. Magnus and Gustaf had recommended a lighthouse, around 100ft in height, which would provide a great platform and would give me an uninterrupted 360º view – the perfect location I know!

Back into my favourite immersion suit/sweat suit/goonbag/grow bag etc after a full phot brief for the guys, we were following a list of pre-arranged shots that would hopefully mean making the most of the time we were out there and of course making sure everything was safe as is always key when it comes to aviation. Michael would be coming down to the lighthouse, as I would have to be winched down, meaning that I could talk to the crew if it was needed.

The flight out to the lighthouse was no more than 20 minutes, but it seemed that the weather was fully co-operating, for once. As per the previous day we went through the final checks and Tomas secured me and Michael to the winch and hoisted us out of the door for the short journey down to the platform, this time my landing was a little more sturdy and I managed to stay on my feet. Michael un-clipped us from the hoist and un-packed my equipment and got ready to start shooting. Running down the checklist we had various shots planned in, head on shot level and then slightly below, a 360º rotation to show of the Trakkacorp search light and rear profile view of the aircraft, a slow fly past around the lighthouse with Tomas in the door and then finally an image of the whole team, Gustaf and Magnus at the controls with Tomas in the door and Michael suspended below on the winch. Job done, brilliantly flown by the guys and the light there could not have been any better. One of those rare occasions when everything goes to plan and a fantastic crew flying the brief to perfection.

A rear three quarters view of the AW139, a sleek looking aircraft even with the winch fitted.


And that was it, my first time visiting Sweden, a truly beautiful country full of incredibly friendly people. Gustaf, Magnus, Tomas and Michael could not have been a better team to work with, they made me feel part of the crew and nothing was too much for them. I only hope that I can visit again if I’m in the country. 

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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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