USAF support key to Portuguese Air Force search and rescue ops

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Angelique N. Smythe
  • 65th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The Azores, islands located in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, are a strategic operating location for the U.S. and Portuguese Air Forces. Portuguese Air Base 4, commonly known as Lajes Field, is home to the U.S. Air Force's second largest fuel store, employed by the 65th Air Base Wing. Thanks to strong, bilateral relations, and the base's massive fuel store and roughly-halfway location between America and Europe, Lajes plays a vital, supporting role to trans-Atlantic aircraft operations.

But for commercial shipping or fishing vessels traversing the Atlantic, the base's role as a hub for Portuguese Air Force search and rescue missions is an equally important function; especially when it comes to saving lives.

From Terceira, one of nine Azorean islands, Portuguese search and rescue Airmen are called to assist in a variety of dangerous situations, including rescuing crew from disabled vessels. Health problems - such as heart attacks or pregnant women going into labor at sea - are severely compounded at sea due to the unavailability of emergent or specialized health care.

Therefore, the Azores Air Detachment and the Portuguese Air Force's 502nd and 751st Squadrons operate in the archipelago, where they're uniquely positioned to respond to these underway Atlantic emergencies. The Portuguese Air Force search and rescue arsenal consists of two EH-101 Merlin helicopters and one Casa C-295M, which remain on 24-hour alert at the base. SAR crews in the Merlin typically consist of a pilot, co-pilot, systems operator, rescue swimmer and nurse. Other Portuguese search and rescue assets include the P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules.

Since the beginning of 2012, Portuguese aircraft operating from Lajes Field have combined for 232 search and rescue missions, coming to the aid of 252 people.

When executing search and rescue missions, these aircraft count on American fuel pumped by the 65th Logistics Readiness Squadron Fuels Management Flight.

"Within the past year alone, the Fuels Management Flight supported Portuguese SAR missions with a grand total of 220,400 gallons of fuel, servicing the C-295 and EH-101 aircraft," said Staff Sgt. Lucas Thompson, 65th LRS Fuels Service Center NCOIC. The 65th LRS receives as many as four calls a day to assist the Portuguese SAR team.

When the SAR unit contacts the 65th LRS' control center, a fuels operator arrives on scene within minutes to provide up to 1,000 gallons of fuel. Speed is key, said Master Sgt. Frank Berrones, 65th LRS Fuels Management Flight superintendent.

Although the Air Force once used a 30-minute standard for which operators must respond to aircraft fueling requests, no true standard exists, said Berrones.

"When we have requests for fuel, there is no real standard on when we have to get... to the aircraft," he said.

When lives are at stake, as is often the case with search and rescue mission, the standard is, 'as fast as you can,' Berrones said.

"Here at Lajes, we get there in as little as three minutes. For rescue missions, we drop everything we're doing to get out to that helicopter, so our average response time from the moment we get the call is three to seven minutes," the master sergeant said.

The LRS' fuels service center is the nerve center for all Lajes Field refueling operations. Fuels service center controllers respond to the Portuguese calls, kicking off a frenzy of U.S. support to the Portuguese missions.

"Every time they call us, we go out as fast as we can, and we've never had any delays," said Portuguese civilian Francisco Dinis, 65th LRS Fuels controller. "Every time they have a rescue mission, we make sure we're on time and do the best we can. There are lives to be saved, and we're always ready for that."

Like many units at Lajes Field, the 65th LRS relies heavily upon Portuguese civilians employees teamed with American Airmen, all working together to ensure mission accomplishment. On Lajes' flightline, all fuel servicing is performed by Portuguese employees, said Berrones.

Upon taking the call to support a search and rescue mission, Dinis records the amount of fuel required and sends a refueling truck to meet the aircraft. Dinis provides the refueling truck's operator with a clipboard, radio and checklist, also known as their 'Bible.' The operator's checklist must be followed step-by-step to ensure the rush to assist does not compromise safety.

"We never skip safety first," said Clara Avila, Portuguese civilian supervisor for the 65th LRS Fuels Management Flight. "Safety procedures include walking around the vehicle to check for any leaks, damage or obstruction, as well as wearing personal protective equipment around the aircraft. The operators are so used to this that... (safety is automatic.)"

Following the operator to the flightline is an expeditor armed with a tool kit, a spill kit and technical orders. If needed, the expeditor assists to the operator, though the expeditor is not typically involved in the actual aircraft fueling.

Fueling calls vary from training to actual responses to a crisis situation, said Dinis. Considering the Azores are an expansive archipelago, each search and rescue mission requires a tailored response.

"The amount of fuel we give them depends on the distance of the islands that they will go to," said Avila. For example, Santa Maria is far away, so it takes a lot more gas than an aircraft going to Sao Jorge, which is closer. Some islands, like Sao Jorge, don't have a hospital."

"Sometimes the calls come in at two, three, four o'clock in the morning," Avila added, noting that emergencies have a knack for inconvenient timing.

Portuguese SAR operations also deter criminal and piracy activities on the ocean, Berrones said, loosely comparing mission to that of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Several 65th ABW elements support Portuguese search and rescue efforts. In the event a large fuel spill should occur, the base's spill response team, including the fire department and environmental team, is ready.

Each operator's response to an aircraft in need of fuel is supported by many LRS role players.

The preventative maintenance element inspects and ensures R-11 and R-12 refueling vehicle readiness. A laboratory analyzes fuel, making sure it is appropriate for distribution, directly enabling the fuel distribution element - which consists of more than 30 personnel - who refuel the aircraft with JP-8.

The fuels process comes full circle, when refueling trucks are serviced by the hydrants element to restock their tanks with up to 6,000 gallons of fuel.

"Then they park (the refueling vehicles), and we're done," said Berrones.

Thankfully for all navigating the mid-Atlantic near the Azores, this partnership between the U.S. and Portuguese Air Forces ensures that Portuguese search and rescue crews and aircraft are always at the ready.

Headquarters Azores Air Zone Public Affairs contributed to this story.  To view video footage of PoAF search and rescue missions, go to:  From there, under "Salvamentos" click on the thumnbail "missao de evacuacao a sudoeste da Ilha das Flores".