The Unidad Militar de Emergencias (UME) is the youngest branch of the Spanish armed forces. It was created in 2006 for situations of serious risk and catastrophes. Dirk Jan de Ridder has a look at the Spanish Army’s helicopter battalion specialized in combating homeland emergencies.
The UME is to intervene within the national territory, in cooperation with state emergency services. The five emergency intervention battalions involved have about 4,000 men and women working for them. They come from the different branches of the armed forces: Air Force (7%), Army (90%) and Navy (2%). The aviation component of UME is equipped with Canadair CL-215 and CL-415 aircraft from the Spanish Air Force, as well as Spanish Army helicopters. All of UME’s airborne assets are used for fire-fighting while the helicopters have a couple of additional missions.
Within the Fuerzas Aeromóviles del Ejército de Tierra, or Spanish Army Aviation (FAMET), it is the Batallón de Helicópteros de Emergencia II (Emergency Helicopter Batttalion II – BHELEME II) that flies its helicopters under the operational command of the UME when being used for disaster relief. The types of missions performed include evacuations, fire-fighting, search and rescue as well as transportation of emergency personnel and material.
The unit’s light helicopters, four Eurocopter EC135s, are based at Colmenar Viejo near Madrid. Four brand new AS532AL Cougars form the medium helicopter unit of the battalion and are based at Bétera near Valencia. The latter serves as BHELEME II’s homebase, where it cooperates closely with the Emergencies Intervention Battalion III (BIEM III). Both chopper types are currently produced by Airbus Helicopters.
The four Eurocopter AS532AL Cougars at Bétera were all delivered fresh from the Eurocopter Spain production line between 2011 and March 2013. They are painted in a camouflage scheme with large parts of the fuselage painted over in bright orange, making it easy for other fire-fighting aircraft to spot them. Auxiliary fuel tanks increase the Cougar’s flight time to nearly five hours, enough to reach any location on the mainland without refuelling. The only part of Spain not within direct reach are the Canary Islands, so those are covered by the Canadairs in case of wildfires.
In theory the Cougars could be repainted quickly for war missions, but that is unlikely to happen. BHELEME II’s personnel has deployed to Afghanistan, but always as part of other battalions and using their helicopters. In reality, during the fire-fighting season they are as busy as any pilot deployed to abroad.
BHELEME II’s Eurocopter EC135s were ordered in 2007 and delivered a year later. For maintenance efficiency reasons they were not based at Bétera, but at Colmenar Viejo. There a further six EC135s are used by the Spanish Army’s helicopter pilot training center. Student helicopter pilots fly the Turboméca-powered EC135T1, T2 and T2+, while BHELEME II uses a single EC135T2+ and three EC135P2+ with Pratt & Whitney engines. Apart from the engines, the only real difference between the ‘Echo Charlies’ of both units are mission equipment and color scheme. The brightly yellow painted rescue helicopters really stand out from the dark grey EC135s used for tactical training.
The EC135 is used for a variety of missions ranging from command and control during emergencies to reconnaissance, medical evacuation and VIP transport. The EC135 is suitable for both IFR and VFR flights and it can even fly at night using night vision goggles, which is trained for every four months. The helicopter is flown by a pilot and co-pilot and takes a maximum of 5 or 6 passengers or 2 stretchers. It can be flown by a single pilot (both IFR and VFR), but that is against Spanish Army regulations.
For fire-fighting the Cougars use two types of bambi buckets. The BBT 6578 takes 2500 litres, the smaller 2000-litre BBT 4453 can even be taken onboard. Both of them have a PowerFill system allowing bottom-filling from sources of water as shallow as 18 inch (45 cm). When working with bambi buckets, the helicopter is equipped with adjustable mirrors, a megaphone and siren.
While the Spanish Air Force’s Canadair water bombers are able to drop a much bigger load, helicopters have advantages of their own. During the 2012 fire-fighting campaign Canadair planes dropped an average of 3 loads per flying hour, while Cougars managed to drop six loads per hour. This is mainly due to the fact that aircraft need a big lake to refill their water tanks whereas a Cougar can even take water from a small backyard swimming pool.
The most dangerous aspects of fire-fighting are obviously picking up and especially dropping water. When pilots release 2500 litres of water, the helicopter loses a lot of weight in an instant and the helicopter will climb away from the fire. If the bucket does not open well this can lead to tricky situations, even more so when flying in mountainous areas.
The fire-fighting season runs from mid-June to mid-September. When pilots are off-base, their response time is two hours. More commonly they remain on-base 7 days a week, being able to fly ‘as soon as possible’. Wildfires are initially the responsibility of local fire brigades and civilian fire-fighting helicopters. When they are not able to control the fire, UME’s helicopters are called into action. The role of the EC135’s crew is similar to that of an airborne forward air controller. The helicopter will fly over the scene, guiding other fire-fighting assets onto their targets and making sure they keep a safe distance from each other. A fully loaded EC135 can fly autonomously for about three hours.
Future plans call for the Cougars to be used during biological and chemical disasters as well. The battalion is in an early phase of testing NBC-suits in flight but as of yet no date has been set for when this role will be activated. The economic crisis, which started around the time when BHELEME II was created, has had a big impact on the battalion. The unit was originally slated to receive 15 Cougars, but not only have the number of helicopters delivered decreased dramatically, the pilots’ flying hours have been downscaled as well.
Being the youngest branch of the Spanish Army the Batallón de Helicópteros de Emergencia II, as well as the larger Unidad Militar de Emergencias, have only started to unlock their potential in situations of serious risk and catastrophes. There is hope that the EC135s and Cougars success will even grow bigger once the economy pulls out of its crisis.
© 2014 Dirk Jan de Ridder for AIRheads↑Fly