Saving lives in Spain

The people of Spain have a rich heritage of dependence upon the ocean and its bounty — along with a commitment to assist those who brave its depths, and find themselves at its mercy. Vertical 911 recently visited the helicopter crews of the Salvamento Marítimo in Valencia, on Spain’s southeastern coast, to learn more about how they help those in peril on the sea.

The dual winch system is clearly visible as the winch operator grabs the cable before attaching it to the rescue swimmer inside the aircraft. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

The story of Spain’s maritime search-and-rescue (SAR) organization starts in Hamburg, Northern Germany, in 1979, at the SAR ’79 convention of the International Maritime Organization.

It was the first time that an international plan had been developed to coordinate the rescue of persons in distress at sea. It divided the world’s oceans into contiguous but non-overlapping SAR regions, and it vitalized Spain’s efforts to consolidate its approach to maritime emergency response.

With a coastline of over 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles), Spain’s SAR region covers 1,500,000 square kilometers (approximately 580,000 square miles); three times the size of its national territory. It is divided into four main areas: Atlantic, Strait of Gibraltar, Mediterranean and Canary Islands.

By 1989, Spain had established its National Maritime Rescue and Pollution Control Plan, bringing together civilian and Navy vessels, along with the aerial assets of the Spanish Army that already made up Spain’s airborne search and rescue service.

Spain’s maritime search-and-rescue region is approximately three times the size of its national territory. A large aviation fleet is essential to providing adequate coverage for the region. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

In 1992, the Ports & Merchant Navy Act established the Sociedad de Salvamento y Seguridad Marítima (SASEMAR); literally translating as the Maritime Safety and Rescue Society, usually abbreviated as the Salvamento Marítimo. It commenced operations on Jan. 1, 1993 with unequivocal aims: save human life at sea and protect the marine environment.

Administered and directed from its headquarters in Madrid, its efforts are coordinated by 19 Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCCs). These direct and coordinate SASEMAR’s surface fleet, as well as its aviation assets, which include a fixed-wing fleet of four CASA CN-235-300 maritime patrol aircraft. SASEMAR’s mixed-type rotary-wing fleet comprises nine medium-lift Leonardo AW139 helicopters, plus a Sikorsky S-61N and an Airbus Helicopters EC225 fulfilling heavy-lift and long-range duties.

New follows old

Helicopters have been integrated into SASEMAR’s core since its inception. Rather than rely on Spanish Air Force Allouettes and EC225s as in the past, it was recognized that a fleet of dedicated SAR aircraft was necessary. This would ensure their suitability for the maritime SAR role, and their availability in the event of other emergencies. In 1993, SASEMAR took delivery of its first S-61N helicopters.

Crewmembers prepare to drag the AW139 out from the hangar for an afternoon training sortie with a civilian vessel off the coast of Valencia. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

The fleet was dubbed “Helimer” — a contraction of Helicopter Merchant Navy. The aircraft are provided and maintained by Inaer, a Babcock company which was only the second in Europe to establish a search-and-rescue fleet of this kind, when it began its operation with SASEMAR (see p.38, Vertical 911, HAI 2016). Five bases were established: in Galicia, the Canary Islands, Andalucía, Cantabria and Valencia.

Despite the S-61N’s distinguished track record, it did not take long for SASEMAR to pursue more modern aircraft. In 2006, the organization sought a new medium helicopter, and the AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) AW139 beat competition from the Sikorsky S-76 and Eurocopter (now Airbus) AS365 N3 for the contract. SASEMAR wasn’t entirely ready to retire its workhorse, and still maintains a single S-61N in its fleet. However, now with a predominantly medium helicopter fleet, the organization was able to increase its basing locations to 11, with a concomitant increase in availability and reduction in response time.

The winch operator, Guillermo Penuelas, was previously a rescue swimmer and now instructs both winch operators and rescue swimmers. Next year will see him celebrating 25 years in the service. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

It is no surprise that the AW139, having been developed some 40 years after the aircraft it replaced, achieves greater speed, range and thrust-to-weight ratio. In fact, it can perform to Cat A/Performance Class 1 criteria at maximum takeoff weight up to 40 C at sea level, which greatly increases the safety margin when hovering over inhospitable terrain or approaching confined landing areas.

In common with its contemporaries it features a glass cockpit (in this case the Honeywell Primus Epic) coupled to a full authority digital engine control (FADEC) and Mark XXII enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS). The integrated mission system features SAR-specific functionality including pre-programmed search patterns and automated let-down profiles, making use of the four-axis digital automated flight control system (DAFCS) and Primus 701A weather radar, which incorporates a beacon detection system.

Additionally, a crewman winch control allows the winch operator a degree of fine hover control — particularly useful during challenging boat transfers where the pilot has reduced visibility. For flights in icing conditions, the aircraft is equipped with a full icing protection system (FIPS).

White and red stripes is a livery that has become somewhat iconic amongst AW139 SAR operators in Europe. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

The AW139’s SAR-specific role-fit for SASEMAR features a Spectrolab Nightsun SX-5 Starburst, a FLIR Systems electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) camera and two hoists.

Values and spirit

SASEMAR aircrews consist of two pilots (the SAR commander and co-pilot), a winch operator, and a rescue swimmer, who is trained to operate away from the aircraft hoist in the sea. Their equipment is a mix of flying clothing and diving equipment, comprising a trilaminate dry suit, life jacket, helmet, goggles, snorkel, fins and lights/flares for aids to location. They also have an Axnes Polycon UHF wireless intercom and a VHF Icom radio.

Training is extremely important for the crews, and this extends to the physical and mental preparation for their task. There are around 20 currency items that need to be completed by each person every month. Most of these are conducted at night. Collaborative and cooperative training is conducted with SASEMAR rescue boats, merchant vessels or ships belonging to the Red Cross and other agencies.

SASEMAR crews all share the same values and spirit of helping those in need. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

SASEMAR is a civilian service, but many of its members have a military background. Regardless, there is a strong sense of duty to assist others. “We all share the same values and spirit of helping those in need,” said SASEMAR pilot and SAR Commander Captain Javi Lozano, who is based at Valencia.

Crews are rostered for a week of day duties followed by a week of night duties, always at 15 minutes’ readiness. When the call comes from an MRCC, the on-duty SAR commander conducts the necessary planning while the crew ready the aircraft and equipment for the mission.

Their most regular tasks are at sea, involving illness or injury on cruise ships or merchant vessels. That said, lack of sea awareness is a perennial and ubiquitous problem that leads to a dramatic increase in the number of incidents over the summer months, as tourists flock to the region. Figures from 2016 showed more people assisted from June to September than in the rest of the year in total.

Winch operator Guillermo Penuelas and rescue swimmer Ruben Santamaria stand in front of the AW139 at their base in Valencia. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

Many of these will be unwary beachgoers swept out to sea by rip currents. While a common occurrence, they are often rescued by boat and only sometimes require assistance from the Helimer crews. More suited to the helicopters’ capabilities are those who manage to get themselves stuck on cliff faces. These are often a challenge for helicopter crews as not only must they maneuver their aircraft close to the rocks, but the downwash from their aircraft exposes the survivors to high wind speeds. Often already fatigued, there is a real risk of them becoming dislodged.

Extreme routine


While inland rescues are less common, Lozano remembers one in particular, when his crew were called to rescue two people from a car. Heavy rains had washed it from the road, and it had been dragged to the mouth of the river and lodged there. The elderly couple were trapped inside as the water threatened to engulf their vehicle.

“It was risky and exciting, dangerous for the rescuer,” Lozano recalled, suggesting the possibility that it is precisely these kinds of unique challenges that motivate and drive him and his colleagues.

The hardest tasks, he said, involve stricken boats in rough seas. Without the means to maneuver, they are unable to position themselves for favorable winching conditions and can even pose a threat to the rescue swimmer. “This requires dexterity,” he said, “not only of the rescue swimmer but also of the rest of the helicopter crew.”

Rescue swimmer Ruben Santamaria is winched back up to the AW139 from a shipping vessel. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

While sinking boats are relatively rare, they offer possibly the ultimate expression of both elements of the SAR mission. Without their vessel, lone sailors are little more than a head bobbing in the vast empty expanse of inhospitable ocean. With people in the water, time is always critical — both to find them and effect the rescue, and also their onward transport to critical care.

Lozano recalled one mission that involved just such a situation, his crew being tasked to find and recover a lone sailor whose boat had sunk.

“After many hours of searching I could see a small light,” he said. That small light was the dim glow from the sailor’s flashlight as its batteries gave their last. “He was grabbing the bow [of his boat] and that was the only thing left floating. It was amazing to be able to see and locate a man that was in such an extreme situation.”

Differing perspectives

That particular rescue and others like it are thankfully not an everyday occurrence, standing out not only in the memories of the SASEMAR crews but naturally also those delivered from their fate, for whom their rescuers are heroes.

On this, Lozano is plain-spoken and pragmatic. “Heroes only exist in comics,” he said. “We are just a team that strives every day to make things better and better. The risks in this work are inevitable, but with much training and passion many critical situations or accidents are avoided.”

One of the two base mechanics works on the dual hoist system fitted to the AW139. Lloyd Horgan, Vortex Aeromedia Photo

His modesty and professionalism is typical of SAR operators worldwide, but it should not diminish the dedication and effort that they pour into their work. The incessant training to maintain their proficiency and the constant call for their expertise results in a skewed perception of the everyday. Because, while the application of their skill might appear routine for them, it is a life-changing moment for those who need to call upon it.

Many survivors donate objects connected to their rescue, with messages of profound gratitude. “We just keep some lifejackets and life-rings,” Lozano said with modesty. “But no more.”

From their floodlit viewpoint high above the scene of the rescue, these objects are nothing more than functional items of their trade. But from the perspective of a sole survivor in the water, they are symbols of salvation, at the hands of another mortal soul.

Jon Duke: